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.”

Youthful Tottenham Hotspur lose to Juventus in ICC opener

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 26:  Cameron Carter-Vickers of Tottenham Hotspur and Paulo Dybala of Juventus FC compete for the ball during the 2016 International Champions Cup match between Juventus FC and Tottenham Hotspur at Melbourne Cricket Ground on July 26, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
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Italian champs Juventus beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 at Melbourne Cricket Ground in Australia on Tuesday as Paulo Dybala and Medhi Benatia both scored in the first half and Erik Lamela pulled one back for Spurs in the second half.

[ MORE: United to let four go ]

The International Champions Cup clash saw both teams field plenty of youngsters but Juve put the result to bed inside the opening 15 minutes with two well-taken goals.

New Spurs signings Vincent Janseen and Victor Wanyama started the game, while U.S. youth international Cameron Carter-Vickers started at center back and DeAndre Yedlin was on the bench but came on at half time and played left back.

Mauricio Pochettino‘s young side defended poorly early on but he will have been pleased to come through the game without any injuries — plus youngster Marcus Edwards impressing off the bench — and Spurs’ attention will now switch to playing Atletico Madrid in Melbourne on Friday.

Dybala scored after just six minutes with the first effort of the game as young Spurs defender Dominic Ball gave the ball away and Carter-Vickers couldn’t clear the ball which led to Dybala smashing home with his left foot. 1-0 to Juve.

A strong Juventus side continued to pin Spurs back as Miralem Pjanic becoming more influential and Dybala hammered a shot towards the to corner after Carter-Vickers was caught out but Michel Vorm tipped it over.

From the resulting corner Benatia headed home across the goal and despite protests of a push by Benatia from Spurs’ players, the goal stood. 2-0 to the Italian champs.

Spurs began to grow into the game after their initial struggles and looked dangerous from wide areas but Janseen was a frustrated figure up front, while William Miller went down in the box under a heavy challenge but no penalty kick was awarded.

At half time Pochettino made four changes with Josh Onoma, Harry Winks, Erik Lamela and Yedlin coming on, with the USMNT man slotting in at left back before playing the final 12 minutes at right back as he showed plenty of promise going forward.

Pjanic was set clean through in the second half but skewed his effort over the bar when he should’ve hit the target and at the other end Lamela struck a low left-footed effort just wide of the far post via a deflection.

After a flurry of subs for both teams Lamela pulled one back for Spurs. Wanyama won the ball back 40-yards out in a central area and Lamela drilled a low shot into the bottom corner to make it 2-1.

Lamela had a great chance to equalize late on but hit his shot straight at the goalkeeper, while Shayon Harrison was also kept out as Spurs couldn’t find an equalizer with the first game of their tour of Australia ending in defeat.

Ronaldo shows no sign of injury while hanging with Conor McGregor

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Cristiano Ronaldo may not be ready for the UEFA Super Cup, but he’s no longer limping around.

To explore the Real Madrid superstar’s Instagram is to see Ronaldo, sometimes clothed, hanging out with celebrities.

In the last couple weeks we’ve seen him with Eva Longoria, Jennifer Lopez, and now his “bro” Conor McGregor.

[ MORE: Who wins the League of Hate? ]

Wait, what?

Yeah, Ronaldo is friends with the MMA star, and showed no ill form (and no brace of any kind) in several posed photos with McGregor.

Although admittedly, McGregor’s IG game is a bit better: The Irish fighter posted a photo of himself sunning in his briefs with the caption, “I’m gonna get him on the Forbes list by next year. But I’m gonna get him on the tan by next week.”

Good luck with both, bro.

Great to see you bro!!💪🏽🔝

A photo posted by Cristiano Ronaldo (@cristiano) on Jul 24, 2016 at 3:48pm PD

Bruce pens letter to Hull fans: “Desperately wanted to make it work”

YORK, ENGLAND - JULY 23: Steve Bruce manager of  Hull City ahead of the pre-season friendly match between York City and Hull City at Bootham Cresent on July 23, 2014  in York, England. (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)
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Many Hull City fans didn’t want Steve Bruce to leave the club, and this open letter shows why.

After leaving the club by “mutual consent” on Friday — it was first widely reported that he quit — fans protested at Hull’s game on Monday.

[ MORE: Who wins the League of Hate? ]

Bruce may’ve had his problems with Hull’s ownership, but he certainly got his supporters’ feelings right down to the core.

From the Hull Daily Mail:

My biggest regret is having to walk away but it was a decision I had to make for the sake of the club. The last 12 months have been very tough and it felt like the right step for the club to move forward in a different direction and with someone else in charge.

I desperately wanted to make it work this summer and be a Premier League manager again but, sadly, it wasn’t to be. Nevertheless, I’ve left Hull City with some fantastic memories that I’ll always cherish, including just eight weeks ago in the Championship play-off final at Wembley.

Class from the longtime boss, and we imagine he’ll have a job very soon if he wants it.

Report: Everton to activate release clause of Stoke’s Arnautovic

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 28: Marko Arnautovic (1st L) of Stoke City competes for the ball against Seamus Coleman (2nd L) and Gareth Barry (1st Rof Everton during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Stoke City at Goodison Park on December 28, 2015 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images)
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Everton is going to activate Marko Arnautovic‘s $16 million release clause to bring the Stoke City striker to Goodison Park, according to a report out of Austria.

Stoke had been trying to sign Arnautovic to a contract extension, but the player was reportedly prepared to play out the final year of his deal.

[ MORE: Who wins the League of Hate? ]

The huge 27-year-old Austrian has been with Stoke since 2013, and broke through with 11 Premier League goals last season.

Arnautovic would give Everton support behind Romelu Lukaku, and insurance in case the Toffees do wind up selling their Belgian striker. Everton also has Arouna Kone as a potential target forward, but Oumar Niasse is expecting to leave after less than a year at Goodison Park.