Andy Najar;   Eric Avila ; Ashtone Morgan

MLS playoff preview: New York Red Bulls at D.C. United

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As if this meeting of old rivals, swell and storied, needed yet another talking point – and a contentious one, at that …

The third-seeded Red Bulls were set to host second-seeded D.C. United tonight at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.

But Hurricane Sandy compromised the Red Bulls’ ability to properly host the home-and-home series opener, so league and club officials swapped dates. That did not sit well with some D.C. United fans, who felt their club had earned the little competitive edges that come with hosting that second leg.

As we said … as if this one needed more to gab about.

Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET, RFK Stadium, NBC Sports Network

(Official league preview is here)

On D.C. United

  • United president Kevin Payne on the switch: “These are extraordinary circumstances that we all face. Our club worked very hard to try to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs and we are very proud that we achieved that but there are times when circumstances override competitive concerns and this is clearly one of those times.”
  • For all the consternation created with the logistical swap, these things rarely require that 30-minute extra time (or into penalty kicks.) Among 36 home-and-away series since 2003, only seven needed more than 180 minutes to declare a survivor.
  • D.C. United’s midfield lately has included two screeners (Perry Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa), with Branko Boskovic creating from wide areas and Chris Pontius or promising rookie Nick DeLeon working the flank opposite Boskovic.
  • Pontius will be on the field. Book it. If he’s not toiling usefully along the outside of midfield, he’ll be paired usefully with a striker at the top of United’s 4-4-2 (probably alongside Lionard Pajoy, who has been marginally productive in 12 games for United since the summer trade from Philadelphia.)
  • Best right back in the playoffs, from an attacking standpoint: D.C. United’s Andy Najar (pictured), a natural midfielder who made the switch to the back line late in the season and does add some additional offensive punch.
  • Speaking of more offensive punch: is a Dwayne De Rosario sighting near?

(MORE: De Rosario upgraded to questionable. Hmmmm.)

  • Young goalkeeper Bill Hamid has been study in good and bad, helping his team with big saves but scaring the bejeebers out of DCU fans with wobbles in bad places.
  • Simply put, United has New York’s number at RFK Stadium. Always has. United is 24-8-5 at their historic home against the club from New York (including playoffs and U.S. Open Cup). The Red Bulls have been a little better lately at RFK, going 2-1-1 since 2009, although this version of DCU is better than most of those.

On the New York Red Bulls:

  • I am on record as saying this is the most talented MLS team ever assembled on paper. But that’s the thing: the Red Bulls somehow seem to be less than the sum of their pricey and talented parts. Even star striker Thierry Henry says so.
  • The missing ingredient in simplest terms: urgency.
  • Henry (15 goals) and Kenny Cooper (18 goals) form the league’s second most productive scoring tandem. (San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski and Alan Gordon combine for 40.)
  • As so many of the players were without power at their homes – not to mention that the arena remains running only on generator power – the club left a day early, on Thursday, for Washington, D.C.
  • The injury to Tim Cahill must be concerning. He may not have shown up much in the score sheet since that out-of-nowhere late summer arrival into Red Bull Arena (1 goal, 3 assists in 12 games). But the Australian international’s work rate, his defensive ability on set pieces, his overall two-way ability and the attention Cahill demands from defenses has a sure value. Backe says Dax McCarty will move inside from the wide position he has played lately if Cahill is not available.

(MORE: Cahill’s calf injury is trouble for New York)

  • Also, without Cahill, look for Thierry Henry to revert back into the old habits of dropping too far into the midfield to help with possession in the central third. That does two things: it draws him further away from striker Kenny Cooper, who isn’t the best at holding up play as it is. And it reduces the Red Bulls ability to press high. The Red Bulls are considerably more effective when do apply pressure further up the field.
  • Red Bulls manager Hans Backe on United: “Without De Ro, they are more of a battling team, a really, really hard-working team.”
  • Speaking of Backe, his place seems highly unstable. A first-round elimination might just finish the job as new management looks for a way to reshape the club in its own image – whatever that is.
  • Rafa Marquez has settled in as a center back late this season (rather than in his previous midfield role.) Heath Pearce is  on the left, which is his natural position.

Bottom line:

Both teams are better with the ball than without it. That’s a kind way of saying there are defensive deficiencies’ on both sides. Don’t be shocked if this one finishes 2-2 or even 3-2.

Which way? Well, the season series landed about as even as it could at 1-1-1. So, file most predictions under “just guessing.”

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)
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.

Guradiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” as a club

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21:  Josep Guardiola manager of Manchester City reacts as Leonardo Jardim head coach of AS Monaco looks on during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Manchester City FC and AS Monaco at Etihad Stadium on February 21, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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In the past, when faced with adversity in the UEFA Champions League, Manchester City could do little more than wilt and crumble as their European dreams when up in smoke year after year, typically in embarrassing and/or heartbreaking fashion.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

On Tuesday, when faced with 2-1 and 3-2 deficits late into the second half of their round-of-16 first leg against Monaco, deja vu was quickly setting in for anyone who’s followed Man City’s rise from middling afterthought to mega-rich conglomerate with aspirations of world domination. Then, something strange (based on years of recent history) happened: Sergio Aguero fired City back to level at 2-2 in the 58th minute. Sure, more shocking defending saw the deficit restored three minutes later, but again, Aguero dissented.

For this reason, and perhaps this reason alone considering the putrid defensively display over the course of 90 minutes, first-year City manager Pep Guardiola should be heartened by Tuesday’s events at the Etihad Stadium. In his mind, it was a massive step forward in the club’s psyche — quotes from the BBC:

“I am so happy for the result, we are still alive. These kind of things help this club to achieve another step. We attacked in small spaces. That’s why they wanted me to come here. Everybody has to be congratulated.

“We are going to fly to Monaco to score as many goals as possible. If we don’t score in Monaco we will be eliminated.”