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.”

Manchester City defeat a “cruel” reminder for Hull City’s Bruce

BRISTOL, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 21: Hull City Manager Steve Bruce during the Sky Bet Championship match between Bristol City and Hull City at Ashton Gate on November 21, 2015 in Bristol, England.  (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)
Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images
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For nearly 90 percent of Hull City’s League Cup quarterfinal against Manchester City, the Tigers hung tough.

A 1-0 deficit made dreams of an Etihad equalizer far from absurd, and Hull had to be thinking about the possibility of another extended Cup run after making it to the 2014 FA Cup Final.

[ MORE: League Cup roundup sees Man City, Stoke, Everton advance ]

Then, the 80th minute hit Hull. Seven minutes later, it was 4-0 Man City. Boom. It finished 4-1.

From the BBC:

“If we needed a reminder how cruel it was to play against the big boys, we just had one.

“After 80 minutes we just had our best spell of the match and after 87 minutes it was 4-0. It was never a 4-1.”

Hull is three points off the lead in the Championship after being relegated from the Premier League last season. Their only loss since Sept. 12 came Saturday against Derby County, so the gifts of Man City were likely a surprise.

With loads of genuine respect to Bruce and complete understanding of what he’s inferring, it did feel more like a 4-1 than the 1-0 his Tigers faced for 68 minutes after Wilfried Bony‘s 12th minute tally.

What would it mean for MLS if Portland wins it all on Sunday?

Fanendo Adi, Portland Timbers
AP Photo/The Oregonian, Randy Rasmussen
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It’s a tricky question, isn’t it? Would there be an underlying thread, a lesson, or a copycat inspiration inside of Portland scoring a minor upset of Columbus at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday?

Here are some thoughts on the storylines from a post-Timbers title.

1) Stick with the boss

Caleb Porter’s reputation is rather “hate or love”, and people (including this “perhaps still bitter from the Olympics” writer) were expecting his days to be numbered after a rough start to this season.

In his first year in PDX, Porter engineered a 20-point upgrade to the West’s No. 1 slot, but Year Two featured no playoffs and it looked headed that way for much of this year.

[ MORE: USMNT back Alvarado on Club America’s transfer list? ]

But after leaping into control of its playoff destiny with a game to play, Porter now has a Conference Final and an MLS Cup Final (at least) on his resume inside of three seasons.

Where other teams have gone through coaches like candy, Portland keeps going with Porter. Perhaps there’s a lesson there, as in 102 games he’s posted 41 wins and 36 draws to go with just 25 losses (and he was missing Will Johnson and Diego Valeri for the critical moments of his bum season).

2) Spend* at the back, and spread it out

Portland spent the league’s 10th highest total dollars on players when including Designated Players, but that total leaps to sixth if you discount the big money guys (Liam Ridgewell, Lucas Melano, Diego Valeri).

You have to get to 19th on the list of top MLS salaries to find Portland’s first entrant (Ridgewell), and you don’t hit another until No. 33 (Fanendo Adi).

[ MLS: Impact to sign 96-times capped Ivorian defender? ]

But Portland has six players in the Top 100, compared to Columbus’ four. High-end spenders NYC (five players), Toronto (four), and L.A. (four) all don’t hit that figure inside of the Top 100 (and to be specific, Portland does in 98).

They also rank ninth in spending on forwards, 14th on midfielders, and third in defenders. Of the 15 players making more than 100k in base salary, four are defenders and one is goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey.

All numbers come from Spotrac*

3) Get Darlington Nagbe

This will be harder to copycat, seeing as there’s only one Darlington Nagbe, but the Timbers’ midfielder is versatile and helps Porter challenge opposing coaches because of the unpredictable nature of how he can be deployed on the pitch.

In fact, when you run numbers on advanced statistics site Squawka, you’ll see something quite interesting. Among players who hit the pitch in at least 2/3 of their teams’ games this season, Nagbe is fourth in MLS in combined score. More intriguing? Besides Michael Bradley, he’s the most complete contributor (offense, defense, possession) of any top scorer.

[ MORE:  Who is the favorite for MLS Cup 2015? ]

Nagbe stats4) Parity continues to reign

For the same reason people barely celebrate the NHL’s Presidents Trophy, the MLS Supporters Shield is a bit of a fallback party for fan bases who fail to capitalize on a season’s worth of solid play.

In much of world soccer, the season-long title matter more than a tournament, but North America is about the playoffs. The fact of the matter is that only one team in MLS this season finished more than four wins out of a playoff spot (Chicago), and most teams that missed the playoffs by a bunch (New York City, Colorado, Real Salt Lake, Houston), earned their gaps off the playoff pace by losing a lot once they were officially eliminated.

Even Chicago, who was awful, had a shot at the playoffs when August ended, only to lose seven of eight to finish the season. MLS, for better or worse, literally is anyone’s ball game at nearly any time.

League Cup roundup: Man City, Everton, Stoke knock off Championship clubs

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 01: Wilfried Bony of Manchester City celebrates scoring the opening goal during the Capital One Cup Quarter Final match between Manchester City and Hull City at Etihad Stadium on December 1, 2015 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images
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There will be no lower league wonder story in the League Cup semifinals.

Southampton and Liverpool’s marquee matchup in the quarterfinals of the League Cup will hit your screens on Wednesday, but three other Premier League teams booked their spots in the semis with Tuesday wins.

[ REPORT: Club America transfer lists USMNT’s Alvarado ]

Man City last won the League Cup in 2013, while Stoke last won in 1972 and Everton has never hoisted the Football League Cup. As for Wednesday’s quarterfinalists, Southampton’s last League Cup final came in 1979, while Liverpool most recently won in 2012.

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 01: Romelu Lukaku (L) of Everton celebrates scoring during their Capital One Cup Quarter Final at Riverside Stadium on December 1, 2015 in Middlesbrough, England. (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)

Middlesbrough 0-2 Everton

The Toffees got two goals in eight first-half minutes, with Gerard Deulofeu scoring a goal off a magnetic dribble and shot in the 20th minute and Romelu Lukaku adding another in the 28th.

Manchester City 4-1 Hull City

Steve Bruce‘s Tigers still have plenty of power from last season’s relegation campaign, and planted men behind the ball in hopes of springing an upset on Manchester City. The defense was broken in the first half by Wilfried Bony after just 12 minutes. Kelechi Iheanacho scored late, before Kevin De Bruyne put home two more. Andrew Robertson provided late consolation for Hull.

Stoke City 2-0 Sheffield Wednesday

The Potters got a wonderful left-footed volley goal from Ibrahim Afellay on the half-hour, and that was about all they’d need against the visiting Owls. Phil Bardsley hammered in a low free kick late to insure and ensure the victory.

Report says Club America transfer lists USMNT back Alvarado

Ventura Alvarado - Club America
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Could Ventura Alvarado be leaving Club America? And where would the young USMNT defender go?, citing a Mexican web report, says Alvarado has been transfer listed by Club America after making just 7 appearances during the Apertura season.

Alvarado, 23, has earned 13 caps for the U.S. (all in 2015), but his performances have been uneven for country since debuting in late March. A dual national, he was cap-tied during the Gold Cup.

[ MORE: Impact to sign 96-times capped Ivorian defender? ]

Given that status, will he be attractive to other Liga MX clubs? Could he fit the plans of an MLS club? At age 23 and without consistent playing time for club, could a European stop be in the mix?

Transfermarkt estimates his value to about $1.6 million, and he comes with valuable international and CONCACAF Champions League experience. It will be interesting to see his destination, should the reports be true, as we continue to weigh what it means to be a U.S. international on the world stage.