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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WATCH: Video Assistant calls back Griezmann goal

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France and Spain used the Video Assistant Referee program on Tuesday in a friendly, and the French likely rue that decision.

Antoine Griezmann had an incorrectly allowed goal reverse for offside, while Gerard Deulofeu saw an initially ruled offside goal allowed upon review in Spain’s 2-0 win over France.

[ MORE: Bolivia stuns Messi-less Argentina ]

Here’s an example, as Griezmann’s barely offside goal was overturned in less than a minute (Both calls took less than a minute to decide):

At the risk of sounding like a caveman, I really don’t like these razor thin offside calls being subject to review.

When you consider the improbability of timing the moment of contact with the ball — how many times have you seen a freeze frame conveniently used to make a case? — it just seems to mess with the spirit of sport.

What do you think?

Bolivia stuns Messi-less Argentina in World Cup qualifying

AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano
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Argentina took steps backward Tuesday in its pursuit of a 2018 World Cup berth, on and off the field.

It started as Lionel Messi was suspended four matches for verbally abusing a referee in Argentina’s Friday win over Chile.

Then La Albiceleste made another move in reverse with a shocking 2-0 loss to Bolivia in La Paz. Argentina started Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala, and Ezequiel Lavezzi on the bench in what many presumed to be an easy win.

[ MORE: Three keys for USA v Panama ] 

Juan Carlos Arce and Marcelo Martins scored as ninth-place La Verde picked up its third win of qualifying with a win over powerful Argentina.

The bad news kept coming for Argentina (and Everton), as Ramiro Funes Mori left the match in the 36th minute with injury.

Bolivia will finish the international break at least 10 points back of the playoff spot, while Argentina could finish as low as that fifth-place spot.

STREAM: CONCACAF tripleheader concludes with USMNT

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CONCACAF’s bottom three sides in the Hex standings look to make the table incredibly tight as World Cup qualifying finds three-straight matches on the docket beginning at 5 p.m. EDT.

Honduras vs. Costa Rica

Los Catrachos were creamed 6-0 by the U.S. on Friday, and return home hoping a wounded Costa Rica remains vulnerable. Honduras is dead last on goal differential, but three points would be huge and put them level with Los Ticos. Costa Rica won its first two matches before falling to Mexico on Friday.

Trinidad and Tobago vs. Mexico

El Tri has two wins and a draw from their first three Hex matches, and will be without Rafa Marquez on Tuesday. A win guarantees Mexico the top spot heading into the next round of matches in June. The Soca Warriors surprised some with their 1-0 win over visiting Panama on Tuesday. Mexico is a different class.

Panama vs. USMNT

Despite its miserable start, the U.S. can find itself as high as second with a win and help from Honduras. The injuries remain plenty for the Yanks, who are without Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood, Sebastian Lletget, and John Brooks. Panama has allowed just a single goal through three Hex matches, but also has only managed one.

AFC and Oceania wrap: Iran, New Zealand take next steps

Photo by Amin M. Jamali/Getty Images
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With CONMEBOL and CONCACAF serving as the main course later Tuesday, the morning and afternoon saw big World Cup qualifiers on the other side of the world.

[ MORE: Three keys for USA v Panama ] 

Asian qualifying

Iran is on the verge of qualification for Russia 2018 after Persepolis star Mehdi Taremi bagged his ninth international goal in a 1-0 home win over China.

Iran leads Group A by four points, but second-place South Korea and third-place Uzbekistan kept pace with 1-0 home wins of their own. Hong Jeong-ho scored in South Korea’s win over Syria, while Odil Ahmendov’s 65th minute free kick was enough to push Uzbekistan past Qatar.

The goalkeeping was… less than ideal.

Over in Group B, shutouts were the name of the game for high-powered hosts as well.

Japan stayed atop the group with a 4-0 win over Thailand, as a trio of players with Premier League experience — Maya Yoshida, Shinji Kagawa, and Shinji Okazaki — joined Gent’s Yuya Kubo on the scoreboard.

Saudi Arabia is level with Japan on points thanks to Yahya Al-Shehri’s post-halftime goal in a 1-0 win over Iraq, while Australia saw off United Arab Emirates thanks to goals from Burton Albion’s Jackson Irvine and Ingolstadt’s Mathew Leckie.

That leaves Australia three points behind Saudi Arabia and Japan in the race for two of three automatic spots. The Socceroos hosts the Green Falcons in June before an August trip to Saitama in a pair of matches which will decide who goes directly to Russia and who has to win a pair of playoffs: One against the Group A’s third-place team and another against CONCACAF’s fourth place side.

Oceania qualifying

New Zealand took the next step in collecting Oceania’s berth in the intercontinental playoff with a 2-0 win over Fiji in Wellington. PEC Zwolle winger Ryan Thomas bagged a brace for the All Whites.

New Zealand will next face either Tahiti, Solomon Islands, or Papua New Guinea over two legs in late August and early September for the right to battle the fifth place CONMEBOL team for a World Cup berth. That could be Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, or even Colombia.

Tahiti hosts Papua New Guinea at 1 a.m. EDT Wednesday, and will be the odds-on favorite to face New Zealand with a win.