New York Red Bulls v DC United - Eastern Conference Semifinals

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.

China plans for 50,000 soccer academies by 2025

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23:  China's President Xi Jinping addresses an audience of dignitaries including the British Prime Minister David Cameron (not seen) at Manchester airport on October 23, 2015 in Manchester, England. The President of the People's Republic of China, Mr Xi Jinping and his wife, Madame Peng Liyuan, are paying a State Visit to the United Kingdom as guests of The Queen.  They will stay at Buckingham Palace and undertake engagements in London and Manchester. The last state visit paid by a Chinese President to the UK was Hu Jintao in 2005.  (Photo by Oli Scarff - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
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BEIJING (AP) China plans to have 50,000 football academies by 2025 as part of an ambitious blueprint to grow into a soccer superpower.

The announcement, made by China’s football association Vice President Wang Dengfeng, more than doubles the earlier target of 20,000 academies by 2020.

Wang was quoted by state media on Wednesday as saying that each school would be able to train 1,000 young players on average, fulfilling the goal laid out in a plan announced last April of having 50 million competent players.

“This is a solid way to select football talent for our future reserves. Improving Chinese football is no longer just a dream,” Wang was quoted as saying on the website of the ruling Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily.

China’s men have only qualified for one World Cup and President Xi Jinping has made boosting China’s football fortunes a national priority. Plans call for again qualifying for the sport’s marquee event, hosting it and winning the title by 2050.

To that end, China last year signed Brazil’s World Cup-winning manager Marcello Lippi to take over the national men’s team. The government has also ordered the creation of 70,000 football fields to fill gaps in its youth program.

Teams in China’s professional leagues, meanwhile, have recruited international stars such as Alex Teixeira and Jackson Martinez on highly paid contracts, raising concerns that they are neglecting home-grown talent.

In response, China’s football association last month said it plans a series of measures in response to “irrational” spending by clubs. It also reduced the number of foreigners who can play per club at any given time from four to three and required that each team’s starting list must include at least two Chinese players under age 23.

UEL: Saint-Etienne hope Beric comes to the rescue vs. Man United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United and Kevin Monnet-Paquet of Saint-Etienne in action during the UEFA Europa  League Round of 32 first leg match between Manchester United and AS Saint-Etienne at Old Trafford on February 16, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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PARIS (AP) While Zlatan Ibrahimovic was scoring a hat trick in Manchester United’s win over Saint-Etienne in the Europa League last week, Robert Beric’s 11-minute substitute appearance at Old Trafford was barely noticed.

Still reeling from a hamstring injury, Beric’s cameo had little impact as Ibrahimovic ended Saint-Etienne’s 10-game unbeaten run in Europe by 3-0.

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Beric’s condition has improved since the heavy loss, and he featured in a French league game in Montpellier last weekend. The 1976 European Cup runner-up is hoping that’s enough for Beric to help it overturn their deficit against United on Wednesday in the last-32 return leg.

Beric, a versatile center-forward capable of playing with his back to goal and creating, joined Saint-Etienne last season. He’d scored 27 goals in 34 matches in his final season with Rapid Vienna, but was unable to replicate the feat in the French league because his progression was abruptly stopped by a serious right knee injury.

He is expected to start at Geoffroy Guichard Stadium after his teammates managed to force United goalkeeper Sergio Romero into only a single save from 14 shots last week.

“Beric is so skillful and astute in front of goal that we all want to give him a starting nod,” former Saint-Etienne striker Herve Revelli, now a club ambassador, told L’Equipe.

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]

United was carved open at times, but the French club was made to pay for its blatant lack of efficiency. Revelli insisted Beric can make a difference.

“He is likely to put our chances into the back of the net,” Revelli said.

With an estimated budget of close to 70 million euros, Saint-Etienne simply can’t afford the services of a world-class striker. When he joined the 10-time French champion for a reported six million euros, Beric became the third most expensive player signed by the club.

A humble player and a man of few words, Beric is somewhat the opposite of the self-infatuated Ibrahimovic.

Unlike Ibrahimovic, who once said he will be “God of Manchester,” Beric rarely speaks about himself and his rare comments on social networks are limited to praise of his teammates and Saint-Etienne fans.

Beric, who scored the last of his three league goals this season back in September, is not yet fully fit and should not be able to last the whole match. But Revelli is counting on his instinct for goals.

[ MORE: Guardiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” ]

“With him in a finisher role, I firmly believe in our chances,” said Revelli, Saint-Etienne’s all-time best scorer.

Saint-Etienne needs to find a way to stop Ibrahimovic, but history does not favor the home side.

During his time in France with Paris Saint-Gernain, Ibrahimovic was the scourge of Saint-Etienne, scoring 14 goals in 13 games in all competitions. He now has 17, including three hat tricks.

“It’s difficult to neutralize him. There is a possibility that we will set up an anti-Ibra plan,” Saint-Etienne coach Chirstophe Galtier said. “I don’t know what’s inside Zlatan, but for sure he likes to play against us. It’s not easy to score a hat trick in a European Cup game.”

Champions League Wednesday: Leicester’s last stand; Porto-Juve

SEVILLE, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 21:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City looks on during a press conference ahead of the UEFA Champions League round-of-16 first leg against Sevilla FC at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on February 21, 2017 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Previewing Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League round-of-16 action…

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Leicester City vs. Sevilla

There’s no two ways about it: Leicester’s season — and perhaps their status as a Premier League club — is quickly spiraling out of control. The Foxes, just nine months after winning the PL title, sit 17th in the league table, one point clear of relegation, with 13 games still to play. Chances are, they won’t be back in the Champions League anytime soon, making Wednesday’s round-of-16 first-leg clash away to Sevilla all the more a monumental moment in the club’s history.

Where has hasn’t it gone wrong for Claudio Ranieri‘s side this season? If you’re of the mind that one player — N'Golo Kante in Leicester’s case — doesn’t make a team himself, then we’ll have to go one step further in diagnosing the stunning regression seen at the King Power Stadium this season: Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who combined to score 41 goals in the PL last season, have managed all of eight together in 2016-17. It’s the loss of Kante, though, that has left the defense forever exposed (43 goals conceded in 25 PL games, after conceding 36 in 38 all of last season), and the goal-getters forever feeding on scraps (24 goals scored, compared to 68 last season).

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]


Porto vs. Juventusfrom the AP

Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci will be left in the stands for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Porto as punishment for his outburst aimed at coach Massimiliano Allegri.

Allegri announced the move on Tuesday at the pre-match news conference, saying he had agreed it with club officials as “a fair decision, out of respect for the squad, the fans and the club.”

Bonucci became embroiled in a heated argument over substitutions with Allegri after a 4-1 win over Palermo on Friday.

Allegri also will punish himself for his angry reaction to Bonucci, announcing a donation to charity.

U.S. U-20s awaken in 2nd half vs. Haiti, keep WCQ hopes alive

USMNT U-20 team (Photo credit: U.S. Soccer)
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With many thanks to the hat trick scored by Brooks Lennon (Real Salt Lake, on loan from Liverpool), the U.S. U-20 national team’s hopes of qualifying for the 2017 U-20 World Cup remain intact.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

After dropping all three points in their opening group-stage game against Panama on Saturday, Tab Ramos’ young Yanks faced elimination from CONCACAF’s U-20 Championship in Costa Rica with a defeat to Haiti on Tuesday. After 15 minutes, the Americans found themselves a goal down, the prospect of winning zero points from their first two games a terrifying possibility.

Then, Lennon struck from the penalty spot. A draw wouldn’t be enough, realistically, though, as they’d still trail Haiti by three points ahead of the final group game, against Saint Kitts and Nevis, with the top two sides from each team advancing to the classification stage.

The score remained 1-1 until halftime, after which point the Yanks roared to life with three goals in a seven-minute span. Luca de la Torre (Fulham) scored the first of the bunch, an empty-net finish after a failed punch by the goalkeeper. Lennon quickly followed suit with two more to make it 4-1.

With three points from two games and a goal differential that now sits at +2, the Yanks are second in Group B, just ahead of Haiti on goal differential (+1). Panama sit atop the group with six points and a +5 goal differential. A U.S. victory over Saint Kitts and Nevis, to go with a Haitian upset of Panama, would see the Americans finish top of the group go into Group E in the classification stage, which would see them accompanied by a pair of second-place sides. The first-place side in each classification group qualifies for May’s tournament in South Korea.