Nick DeLeon,  Lionard Pajoy, Chris Pontius

Drilling down on: D.C. United 1, at New York 0

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The men of D.C. United keep doing what they do best these days, find a way. Any way, and quite often by the teeny tiniest of margins, through these 1-0 squeakers.

An 88th minute goal game United its latest 1-0 win, and definitely its biggest.

But that’s all it takes. Just one goal Thursday from Red Bull Arena decided what will be written as one of Major League Soccer all-time post-season memory makers, for reasons good and bad.

Quick recap of what this absolutely bananas two-leg conference semifinal series had: a Hurricane Sandy-related (and somewhat controversial) venue swap, a 24-hour match postponement due to a different winter storm, two own goals, two missed penalty kicks, one rare penalty kick retake order, three red cards and then the late, game-winner from a rookie.

While D.C. United, which advanced 2-1 on aggregate, prepares for the Eastern Conference finals against Houston, New York could well be prepping for a coaching change … and who knows what the team’s quirky management will do with an expensive, underachieving roster?

Man of the Match:

D.C. United rookie Nick DeLeon may go on to play year after glorious year in Major League Soccer and yet never score a bigger goal. He shook free (exploiting the positional gaffe of a fellow rookie) to take a clever pass from right back Robbie Russell and made no mistake with his right-footed finish in the 88th minute.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

Referee Mark Geiger got things right:

D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid was apoplectic, but he was wrong. Referee Mark Geiger got this one right, as Hamid made contact with the onrushing Kenny Cooper with about 20 minutes remaining.

Hamid has done this before, getting out of control as he rushes out to confront shooters. Given the situation, Geiger had no choice; It’s a red card and a penalty kick – although Hamid was quite close to the edge of the penalty area.

Then the choice to order a re-take after Cooper nailed the original penalty kick? Geiger was right on that one, too.

It’s not a decision we see very often, and surely one that should only be ordered on egregious violations. Thierry Henry, getting about three big steps into the penalty area (trailed by two encroaching teammates) qualifies as egregious.

Cooper’s signature stutter-step worked against Henry and his teammates here – but they’ve seen Cooper do this before, right? We certainly have.

Oh, and Rafa Marquez’s red card (two yellows, that is)? Yep. That one was easy for Geiger.

Missed opportunities, the scourge of the Eastern Conference playoffs so far:

Let’s be clear, this wasn’t the orgy of squander we saw last night from Kansas City, where the Eastern Conference champs crashed out of the MLS playoffs while missing chances after begging chance. But the Red Bulls’ finishing simply wasn’t good enough Thursday. When you take a 0-0 match into the late minutes at home, you’ve left yourself open to the possibility of something unforeseen – like a goal against the run of play from a rookie.

That came about 15 minutes after United backup goalkeeper Joe Willis saved Cooper’s penalty kick. It came about five minutes after Dax McCarty skied a brilliant arrangement from Henry (who was far more lively and energetic in this one that in Saturday’s first leg in Washington.)

Henry went just wide off Cooper’s cross in the second half. Before the break, New York failed to score on three shots from in close as United struggled to clear the ball.

Again, we see that the MLS playoffs are all about timing:

The talented teams keep falling, Sporting Kansas City and San Jose last night, and star-strewn New York tonight.

And that’s not such a shocker, historically speaking; it’s been said so many times that this is MLS Playoff cliché No. 1, but here it is again: More than being about having the best team, MLS playoffs are really about being hot at the right time.

D.C. United certainly is, now 6-0-3 over the last two months. All this, of course, without their best player, Dwayne De Rosario.

Beyond strong and headstrong play from Chris Pontius, Brandon McDonald, DeLeon, Perry Kitchen and a couple of others, the side is thriving on belief and desire – and that’s a powerful marriage when the blend and the timing is stacked just so.

Packaged for take-away

  • Of all the shockers in this one, how about this for the night’s top head-scratcher: Awarded a free kick two minutes into stoppage time, from the top of the penalty area, with Henry standing over the ball and the season in the balance — reserve New York left back Roy Miller took the shot. Roy. Miller. That’s just not something that can be explained.
  • Kenny Cooper was 10 for 10 in spot kicks in MLS before tonight.
  • Best, ongoing battle of the night: DCU striker Lionard Pajoy and Red Bulls center back Markus Holggerson.
  • Rafa Marquez? There’s just too much to say for this post. We’ll have more later.
  • Willis was United’s starter in goal to begin the season and he very nearly kept the injured Hamid on the bench for an extended run. He’ll be in goal for at least one more while Hamid sits for the mandatory one-game suspension.
  • New York outshot the visitors 18-8.
  • Geiger was also the man in the middle on another “re-take-gate.” In that one, D.C. United was the offending party, and team president Kevin Payne had some very unkind words for Geiger, who had ordered a penalty kick re-take against his team.

Match highlights are here:

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Messi named La Liga Player of the Month for first time in career

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 06:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Copa del Rey Round of 16 first leg match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol at Camp Nou on January 6, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Lionel Messi has won every individual award imaginable, but now he can add another trophy to his shelf.

For the first time in his career, Messi was named La Liga’s Player of the Month for January.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings, Vol. VIII ]

It’s hard to believe, but somehow the Barcelona superstar had never won this honor before. Despite winning a record five Ballon D’or trophies as the best player in the world, this trophy had eluded Messi since its inception in 2013.

Messi scored six goals in six January matches as Barcelona sit atop the La Liga table, currently holding a three-point lead over Atletico Madrid.

Despite their dominance in La Liga, this is only the second time a Barcelona player has won this monthly award, as Neymar took home the honor in November of 2015.

USWNT-Mexico preview: Energized Yanks look to keep rolling toward Rio

FRISCO, TX - FEBRUARY 10:  Team USA poses for a photo before play against Costa Rica during 2016 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying at Toyota Stadium on February 10, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The United States women’s national team looks to keep rolling through CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying with a match with Mexico on Saturday.

Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, is again the scene after the Yanks battered Costa Rica 5-0 on Wednesday.

[ MUST WATCH: Christen Press’ dazzling first touch, spin, goal ]

A win over Mexico would move the USWNT into the all-important semifinal, where a win would gain them entry into this Summer’s Olympic Games.

Mexico staged a blowout of its own on Wednesday, cruising past Puerto Rico 6-0 thanks in large part to a hat trick from Maribel Dominguez.

[ VIDEO: Alex Morgan caps off a 12-second, six-pass goal ]

Mexico has only beaten the USWNT twice in history, and only the 2010 Gold Cup semifinal is considered official.

In recent history, the USWNT beat up Mexico 5-1 last year, and thrice in 2014 by a combined score of 15-0. Expect very little to change with an energized, impressive U.S. side on Saturday.

[ SATURDAY: Watch USWNT vs Mexico live online on NBC Sports Live Extra ]

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks: Big boys to turn up

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Week 26 of the Premier League season is here. This will be a lot of fun with massive games at both ends of the table.

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live online ]

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out.

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.

BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Arsenal 3-2 Leicester City – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Norwich City 0-2 West Ham – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, USA) –  [STREAM]

Man City 3-1 Tottenham Hotspur – (Sunday 11:15 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Sunderland 0-2 Manchester United – (Saturday, 7:45 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS…

Everton 2-1 West Brom  – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Swansea 1-1 Southampton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) –  [STREAM] 

Crystal Palace 2-1 Watford – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) –  [STREAM]

Chelsea 3-2 Newcastle – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Bournemouth 2-1 Stoke City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) –  [STREAM]

Aston Villa 2-1 Liverpool – (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Ranieri on Leicester City’s dream season: “Nobody wake us up please!”

during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Leicester City at the Etihad Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Manchester, England.
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There’s plenty to like about Leicester City’s run to the top of the Premier League, but perhaps nothing is more enjoyable that its manager’s musings.

Claudio Ranieri, the Tinkerman himself, has provided some of the best quips of the season.

[ MORE: Top 5 storylines to look for in PL ]

From “I want to be the crazy man in the Premier League” to “It’s like nobody wants to win the league“, the 64-year-old Italian has offered plenty of beauties.

Make way for some more gems, from LCFC.com:

“I think we work so hard to achieve this level. We want to stay at this level. It’s no pressure for us. The pressure was at the beginning to start well, to carry on and maintain the standard of our performance.
“Now we are safe and we want to fight with respect with all our opponents. Face to face, we play with our strength and they play with theirs. If we win, fantastic. If we lose, next match.
“I think the pressure is on the other teams. We have pressure for our little gap. We continue to dream with our fans and we want to continue to dream. Nobody wake us up please!”
We love this man. To go from a short-lived run in Euro qualifying with Greece to this remarkable roll with Leicester has to be a bit dream-like. We get it. And we love that he’s going with it.