Drilling down on: at D.C. United 1, New York Red Bulls 1

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Two own goals and a side trip into Crazy Town for one young D.C. United man made for a rather strange evening at RFK Stadium as the home team and the New York Red Bulls began their two-game series with a 1-1 draw.

It’s clearly “advantage New York” at this point – assuming all the lights are back on in Harrison, N.J., and the Red Bulls can host Wednesday’s second leg as planned. The teams are schedule to decide their Eastern Conference semifinal series at Red Bull Arena four nights from now.

Man of the Match: The match produced a lot of “good,” and just a little bit of “pretty good.” The men who helped create D.C. United’s goal, left back Chris Korb and striker Lionard Pajoy, both offered something in effort and trouble-making for the opposition, for instance. But it was Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles who contributed perhaps one or two more significant moments, saving five times for the visitors.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

Kids do the darndest things, don’t they? Three of the least experienced starters helped decide this one, in some cases by not keeping their young wits about them.

We can start with Andy Najar’s mad moment – and what a silly boy he was! Referee Jair Marrufo was reaching into his top pocket to caution the 19-year-old Honduran, who has been magnificent as a right back since making the switch out of midfield late in the year. He had just tripped up Joel Lindpere in what appeared to be a tactical foul – the very kind that deserves a caution.

So, do you take your yellow card and move on? Or do you … What? Throw the ball at the referee?

What could Najar have been thinking, leaving his team to play about 20 minutes a man down? (Oh, additional games are ahead for that one.)

He wasn’t the only youngster struggling.   Heck, he wasn’t even the only right back.

New York’s Conor Lade had a rough night, with an early yellow card while trying to deal with Chris Pontius (which is no easy job, of course). Later, the young right back’s hand ball gave DCU a penalty kick, and he nearly gave away a goal with a ridiculous pass into the middle of the field.

And then there was Bill Hamid, D.C. United’s 21-year-old starter in goal – a man who can stop local supporters’ hearts with his big saves or break hearts with his blunders.

A headed ball near Hamid’s goal line off a corner kick should have been a routine play. But Hamid appeared to attempt to catch the ball with one hand and … disaster.

He lost his balance and fell into goal with the ball, and that was that in a 1-1 draw.

No one in MLS does drama like the Red Bulls.

The night started with Kenny Cooper’s benching. So, his team-leading 18 goals were on the bench, and it sounded like Cooper’s inability to be a better target man was part of the reasoning – never mind that he’s never been a good target man. And never mind that replacement Sebastien Le Toux is anything but a target man.

But that little personnel subplot moved quickly to the back burner at halftime with Rafa Marquez’s halftime removal. (Sigh. Yes, we are talking about Rafa Marquez. Again.)

The old “precautionary, due to calf strain” was cited officially as the reason. But NBC’s Kyle Martino had spotted Marquez and manager Hans Backe arguing as they left the field at the break. So, excuse us for believing that was probably more responsible than a nebulous calf issue for Marquez’s latest bit of potentially distracting business.

Truly – what can be the point of continuing to put up with that guy?

Did it affect things Saturday? Well, Heath Pearce had to slide over from left back. Roy Miller, rusty from inactivity, replaced Pearce at left back and was responsible for the own goal, as his body shape was twisted slightly out of place on Korb’s well-placed cross.

So, yes. Kind of.

Goalkeepers are ruling the playoffs. Nick Rimando was outstanding for Real Salt Lake. Michael Gspurning was everything he needed to be for Seattle. Tally Hall got the job done for Houston.

And then there was Robles in the New York net – in just his fifth start this year, no less, making him the least likely hero of the glove. Not bad at all for a man who had pretty much tumbled out of professional soccer just a few months ago.

But there he was Saturday, stretching athletically to turn away Korb’s early blast. (Mark that save as best of Robles’ night.)  He guessed correctly to push aside Pontius’ first-half penalty kick, and he valiantly took one in the gut later as he thwarted Pontius from point blank range.

Packaged for take-away

  • Kenny Cooper, scorer of 18 goals this year, did replace the generally ineffective Sebastien Le Toux after 81 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, Thierry Henry? It wouldn’t be fair to call him a “passenger” in this one, but it wouldn’t be too far from the truth.
  • Perhaps Henry, wise in the game as he is, was saving something for Wednesday?
  • Dax McCarty had a brilliant season as New York’s holding midfielder. But it easy to see why Backe like Teemu Tainio in there (with McCarty again dispatched to the right.) Tainio doesn’t offer nearly as much in getting New York into the offense, but his tackling was the best on the field Saturday. He certainly does make that area an uncomfortable place for opposition attackers.
  • Outside of Najar (before the devil took over his body), Korb, Pontius and Pajoy … the rest of D.C. United’s men? Meh.

Kevin de Bruyne questionable for injury-laden Belgium

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Belgium, already without superstar Eden Hazard for the upcoming World Cup qualifier against Greece, will now be without playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, who picked up an injury in training on Friday and will miss both the match against Greece and the subsequent friendly against Russia three days later…maybe.

The Belgian National Team official Twitter account sent out a quote from manager Roberto Martinez that confirmed De Bruyne would miss the pair of matches, but the tweet was quickly deleted.

Instead, this one was pushed out in its place, correcting his availability and also updating the type of injury:

Should De Bruyne miss out, it means Belgium would likely rely heavily on Dries Mertens and Kevin Mirallas for the playmaking duties, with midfielder Radja Nainggolan potentially taking on a more attacking role as well.

Belgium and Martinez also confirmed that right-back Thomas Meunier will miss out after failing to recover from an ankle injury, while Marouane Fellaini‘s status is unknown after he was held out of Thursday’s training session.

The injury also leaves De Bruyne’s status for Manchester City up in the air, with a pair of massive games in London in quick succession after the injury break. City visits Arsenal next Sunday, followed by a hop over to Stanford Bridge on Wednesday.

Landon Donovan retires again, this time for good

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After coming out of retirement last fall to join the LA Galaxy for one more shot at an MLS Cup, Landon Donovan has once again called time on his career, saying he’s certain he will not play again.

With a number of other ventures on his plate, the USMNT all-time leading scorer is looking forward to spending his time elsewhere.

“Yeah, I’m done,” Donovan said. “I’m done. No more playing for me. I have not [gone public with it yet]. But that is definitely the case.”

Donovan scored one goal in nine games for the LA Galaxy in his comeback bid, with the club ravaged by injuries and still gunning for the Cup. However, after the season was over with a loss to Colorado in the Conference Semifinals, the Galaxy confirmed it was nothing more than a short-term stopgap.

“With Landon, when he came back, it was always going to be a short-term thing,”team president Chris Klein said to the L.A. Times in December. “He’s enjoying what he’s doing and we see we’re comfortable in the direction that we’re headed.”

In January, reports claimed Real Salt Lake had offered Donovan a Designated Player contract, but it appears he’s turned it down, and will now have time to concentrate on his other ventures. Off the field, Donovan is an analyst on Fox’s soccer coverage, is on the advisory committee for the Los Angeles 2024 Olympics bid, and has joined the ownership group attempting to bring an expansion MLS team to San Diego.

Former Spurs midfielder Paulinho scores thunderbolt for Brazil

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Brazil topped Uruguay 4-1 to move on the verge of World Cup qualification, but there was much more to the first half of this match than meets the eye.

Uruguay went ahead 1-0 on a 9th-minute penalty won and scored by Edinson Cavani, and for a moment it seemed like the home side might find its way to pull within a point of Brazil at the top of the CONMEBOL standings. That would not last very long.

[ MORE: Full roundup of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying action ]

Just 10 minutes later, a bad giveaway near the midfield stripe saw Neymar casually feed Paulinho a good 50 yards from goal. The former Spurs man took matters into his own hands, charging forward and unleashing a vicious strike that continued to rise until it ripped the chords in the top-right corner.

 

Not only was the goal a sight to behold, it was an important moment in the match. Brazil was back level at 1-1, and Paulinho would be on his way to an eventual hat-trick with a pair in the second half. Neymar scored once as well to complete the 4-1 final scoreline, and the three points for Brazil saw them remain perfect in the World Cup qualifying round as they march seven clear of Uruguay at the top of the standings.

For Paulinho, the hat-trick brings him to four goals in the World Cup qualifying round, adding to his score in the 3-0 win over Argentina. They also mark an important moment for the Chinese Super League, where Paulinho now plays, having moved from Spurs in July of 2015. Some national team coaches have left players on the outside of the squad for moving to leagues such as the Chinese League or Major League Soccer, but Paulinho has clearly been an asset to Brazil despite his club situation. In fact, in China, Paulinho has scored four goals in his four league matches for Guangzhou Evergrande this season plus another in the Asian Champions League, leaving him in top goalscoring form coming into this international break, something which has clearly translated directly to international play.

The 28-year-old had lost his place in the national team squad in 2014, going over two years without a single international appearance, but has been a mainstay in the Brazilian side during this World Cup qualification cycle.

Dele Alli banned three European games for straight red card

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Spurs may be out of the Europa League this season, but should they end up qualifying for the Champions League next season, they will start the campaign short-handed.

Tottenham will be without midfielder Dele Alli for the first half of the group stage after his horrifying tackle on Brecht Dejaegere of KAA Gent in their 2-2 draw which saw Spurs out of the competition on aggregate in the Round of 32.

Alli went to ground on the 39th-minute challenge, and made contact on high up on Dejaegere’s leg with both his studs, finishing with a scissior-whip motion. It was a blatant red card, and now UEFA’s disciplinary committee has handed down the three-match ban. Straight-red cards for violent conduct only carry a minimum penalty of one match in UEFA tournament play, but the disciplinary committee clearly thought a longer punishment was necessary, with the ability to sentence anyone up to five matches.

The straight red was the first of Alli’s professional career. Alli apologized to Dejaejere after the match, according to the Gent midfielder. He’s since scored in four straight matches, and when asked on Sunday if that moment was still in his mind, he said, “I’m never going to say sorry for wanting to win or trying as hard as I can but things happen and you have to learn from them.”

Spurs currently sit in second place in the Premier League table with 59 points and look to be in a strong position for Champions League qualification, with a seven-point cushion on fifth-placed Manchester United.