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.”

Grateful and geared up: Nyarko, DC United take aim at MLS Cup

September 24 2016: Orlando City FC defender Kevin Alston (12) defends against D.C. United forward Patrick Nyarko (12) during a MLS match at RFK Stadium in Washington D.C.  DC United defeated Orlando City SC. 4-1. (Photo by Tony Quinn/IconSportswire)
Photo by Tony Quinn/IconSportswire
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On Thursday, Patrick Nyarko will hit the RFK Stadium pitch with DC United for just his second playoff game of this decade, and he’s going to make sure no member of the Black-and-Red takes the opportunity for granted.

“I walked into the locker room after we clinched a spot and the guys were like, ‘Whatever’. DC had been in the playoffs the last few years,” Nyarko said with a laugh in a Tuesday conversation with ProSoccerTalk.

“I was like, ‘Guys! I’m excited, man. I haven’t been here in a while. I’m overly ecstatic.’ Hopefully we can get it together, make a run, and create something special.”

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

The 30-year-old Ghanaian international with one cap was once one of those who took team success as a given. Nyarko walked off the College Cup pitch for Virginia Tech in 2007 and was picked 7th overall by the Chicago Fire. He promptly appeared in the MLS Cup semifinals in each of his first two seasons in Chicago.

BRIDGEVIEW, IL - SEPTEMBER 22: Patrick Nyarko #14 of the Chicago Fire advances the ball on the Columbus Crew during their MLS soccer match at Toyota Park on September 22, 2012 in Bridgeview, Illinois. The Fire defeated the Crew 2-1. (Photo by John Gress/Getty Images)
(Photo by John Gress/Getty Images)

“I thought this was how things went. With the teams we had, I thought it was going to be an eternal thing and we would always enjoy these things,” Nyarko said.

It turns out postseason success isn’t as simple as that. Aside from a 2012 knockout round loss to Houston, the longtime Fire man didn’t see playoff action.

So Thursday, yeah, you can bet it’s special. After 222 regular season MLS games and 23 goals — all but 26 of them with Chicago — Nyarko is back for just his fourth playoff campaign.

“It makes the decision to move on from Chicago kinda worth it,” Nyarko said. “Being in Chicago for that long, through the good through the bad, I finally decided to leave. If it had not resulted in a successful year and the playoffs, it would’ve been for nothing. I couldn’t have justified that.”

[ MORE: Power rankings — Going to the playoffs edition ]

Now DC is a sneaky, if not chic, pick to surprise in the East. The Black-and-Red have lost just once in their last seven games, and that was a Decision Day loss in which head coach Ben Olsen sat the vast majority of his starters in order to rest for Thursday. In the past six weeks, the No. 4 seed earned results against the trio of teams ahead of it in the Eastern Conference standings.

In other words, no one wants to see DC on their schedule right now. PST made the case for each team’s championship chances on Monday, and Nyarko is convinced that DC can make a long, long run to the final.

“We are high in confidence right now, and the way we’ve closed out the season we discovered our identity,” Nyarko said. “Everyone works for each other, covers each other, we attack together, and we keep up that intensity.”


Nyarko’s traditional stats aren’t going to jump out at you; His four goals match his career-high, and his eight assists are second to Luciano Acosta, but Nyarko brings a different level of savvy to the squad.

On a team with United States men’s national team center back Steve Birnbaum, you could argue that midfielder Nyarko is the team’s best defensive asset. He does the dirty things and is fouled more than anyone else on the team, but has also completed the second-most key passes on the team (to Acosta).

And the advanced stats say he’s getting the job done, too. Squawka has him in pretty good company as a Top Five midfielder when it comes to defensive performance score per game.

Nyarko DC MLS

“It’s unfortunate how the stats are usually what’s preached out to the fans,” Nyarko said. “I look for people who can make their team better. I’m ecstatic when the teams wins, and shattered when the team loses. I won’t necessarily be the last person to touch the ball before someone scores, but before that, the double teams, the division, that’s what I pride myself on. I know what I bring to a team.”

Which isn’t to say he wasn’t scratching his head when DC started the season winless through five matches, especially when he was the new guy.

[ MORE: Three MLS sides advance to Champions League knockout rounds ]

April 23 2016: D.C. United forward Patrick Nyarko (12) makes a long pass during a MLS match at RFK Stadium, in Washington D.C. DC United defeated the New England Revolution 3-0. (Photo by Tony Quinn/Iconsportswire)
(Photo by Tony Quinn/Iconsportswire)

“This year, making the change was the hardest, not knowing what to expect, getting into a new team that had been in the playoffs the last few years,” Nyarko said. “When things weren’t going well, especially early in the year when I was inconsistent, I took a lot of the blame. Am I messing up the chemistry? I knew I was playing well, but you can’t help but think that.”

The midfielder credits Olsen and the veteran locker room for bringing the team together this season, calling Olsen the “ultimate player’s coach”. Nyarko only needs two fingers to count the times Olsen has lost his cool this season, and learned that his coach was a different breed when he approached him early in the season to talk about the offense.

“Usually I try not to get into coaches, but we weren’t scoring as many goals,” Nyarko said. “He wasn’t worried about it. He made a comment like, ‘I’m not gonna get on you guys, the chances are there, it’s just not going in. I’m not going to yell. It’s not like you’re deciding not to finish.’ I was like, ‘Woah, this guy thinks like a player’. The freedom he gives you, he knows everyone’s ability, and he doesn’t restrict you. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake.”

Nyarko also points to a player as an emblem of DC’s success, and that’s Lamar Neagle. The ex-Seattle Sounders man has been in on 15 goals but hasn’t complained that he’s been used off the bench in his 10 of his 31 appearances.

“This guy’s leading us in goals and he doesn’t start and he’s mentally strong enough to want to help our team,” Nyarko said. “This is an exciting team that came along at the last part of the season and we hope to continue our push toward MLS Cup.”


Pep don’t play: Man City boss still waiting on Yaya agent apology

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 27:  Yaya Toure of Manchester City looks on during a training session on the eve of their UEFA Champions League Group C match against Celtic at the City Football Academy on September 27, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
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Pep Guardiola is interested in using malcontent Yaya Toure for Manchester City, even for Wednesday’s EFL Cup derby tie with Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Here’s the problem: Pep’s still waiting for Yaya’s agent, Dimitri Seluk, to apologize for scathing comments aimed at the City boss earlier this season.

[ MORE: EFL Cup Weds. preview ]

On Tuesday, Guardiola was again asked about the possibility of playing Toure. With City winless in its last five matches across all competitions, now would be a time for guy like Toure to get a look.

But Guardiola had made it clear that he won’t use Toure until Seluk apologizes to the manager. So, Toure continues to sit.

“I would like to take Yaya (with the team), believe me, I would like, but you know the situation,” Guardiola said to the BBC.

Come on, Seluk. Just say you’re sorry. Call Pep’s bluff.

VIDEO: Bobby Wood strikes twice in Hamburg’s cup win

Moenchengladbach's Christoph Kramer, left, and Hamburg's Bobby Wood challenge for the ball during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Borussia Moenchengladbach and Hamburger SV in Moenchengladbach, Germany, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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It was Cup time in Germany as well on Tuesday, and several Americans took the time to shine.

Fabian Johnson and Andrew Wooten both scored on the day, but it was Bobby Wood who stole the show in a day filled with USMNT prospects and players in Germany.

[ MORE: EFL Cup Tues. roundup ]

The Hamburger SV man broke his slump in a big way, scoring a brace for his first goals since Sept. 10 in a 4-0 win over Hallescher FC.

The first goal was just indicative of a gulf in class, and it looked nice, but the second really does the trick for the Hawaii-born 23-year-old.

John Brooks and Hertha knocked out FC St. Pauli with a 2-0 defeat, and Fafa Picault subbed into the match for the hosts.

Timmy Chandler subbed into Eintracht Frankfurt’s match with Alfredo Morales’ Ingolstadt in the 90th minute, and Eintracht advanced in penalty kicks.

EFL Cup preview: Manchester, London Derbies on Weds.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10: Josep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City and Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United look on during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford on September 10, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
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While Tuesday’s EFL Cup Round of 16 matches saw a pair of second-tier teams clinch berths in the quarters, Wednesday’s games are all-PL ties.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s EFL Cup roundup ]

The headlines will be gained by the second iteration of Pep vs. Mou in a Manchester Derby, but all three matches have something for the neutral.

West Ham United vs. Chelsea — 2:45 p.m. ET

Both London clubs have issued statements begging their fans to leave the intensity to the players on the field, as the Hammers and Blues’ always percolating rivalry heads for the boiler.

Chelsea knocked off West Ham at Stamford Bridge back in August, but the hosts looked very good despite underwhelming finishing in this weekend’s 1-0 win over Sunderland. That said, Chelsea had no problem finishing at all when it clobbered Manchester United on Sunday.

This sets up to be a beauty.

Southampton vs. Sunderland  — 2:45 p.m. ET

The St. Mary’s set sure would like to clinch another season of European football, and is four wins away from getting that done via the EFL Cup route.

As for Sunderland, it will take any momentum it can muster from Wednesday’s match. The Black Cats have been very poor, with just two points from its first nine Premier League matches, but handled QPR and Shrewsbury Town to reach the Round of 16.

Manchester United vs. Manchester City  — 3 p.m. ET

The “primetime” match — by 15 whole minutes — gives Manchester United a chance to right several ships by taking down Pep Guardiola‘s clipper.

Neither side is in tremendous shape right now, though City remains atop the Premier League table. The tactics will be interesting as neither manager will have any interest in blowing off this EFL Cup Round of 16 tie.

City has won two of the last three Cups, while United hasn’t been to this tournament’s final since its last win in 2010.