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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UEL: Saint-Etienne hope Beric comes to the rescue vs. Man United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United and Kevin Monnet-Paquet of Saint-Etienne in action during the UEFA Europa  League Round of 32 first leg match between Manchester United and AS Saint-Etienne at Old Trafford on February 16, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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PARIS (AP) While Zlatan Ibrahimovic was scoring a hat trick in Manchester United’s win over Saint-Etienne in the Europa League last week, Robert Beric’s 11-minute substitute appearance at Old Trafford was barely noticed.

Still reeling from a hamstring injury, Beric’s cameo had little impact as Ibrahimovic ended Saint-Etienne’s 10-game unbeaten run in Europe by 3-0.

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Beric’s condition has improved since the heavy loss, and he featured in a French league game in Montpellier last weekend. The 1976 European Cup runner-up is hoping that’s enough for Beric to help it overturn their deficit against United on Wednesday in the last-32 return leg.

Beric, a versatile center-forward capable of playing with his back to goal and creating, joined Saint-Etienne last season. He’d scored 27 goals in 34 matches in his final season with Rapid Vienna, but was unable to replicate the feat in the French league because his progression was abruptly stopped by a serious right knee injury.

He is expected to start at Geoffroy Guichard Stadium after his teammates managed to force United goalkeeper Sergio Romero into only a single save from 14 shots last week.

“Beric is so skillful and astute in front of goal that we all want to give him a starting nod,” former Saint-Etienne striker Herve Revelli, now a club ambassador, told L’Equipe.

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]

United was carved open at times, but the French club was made to pay for its blatant lack of efficiency. Revelli insisted Beric can make a difference.

“He is likely to put our chances into the back of the net,” Revelli said.

With an estimated budget of close to 70 million euros, Saint-Etienne simply can’t afford the services of a world-class striker. When he joined the 10-time French champion for a reported six million euros, Beric became the third most expensive player signed by the club.

A humble player and a man of few words, Beric is somewhat the opposite of the self-infatuated Ibrahimovic.

Unlike Ibrahimovic, who once said he will be “God of Manchester,” Beric rarely speaks about himself and his rare comments on social networks are limited to praise of his teammates and Saint-Etienne fans.

Beric, who scored the last of his three league goals this season back in September, is not yet fully fit and should not be able to last the whole match. But Revelli is counting on his instinct for goals.

[ MORE: Guardiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” ]

“With him in a finisher role, I firmly believe in our chances,” said Revelli, Saint-Etienne’s all-time best scorer.

Saint-Etienne needs to find a way to stop Ibrahimovic, but history does not favor the home side.

During his time in France with Paris Saint-Gernain, Ibrahimovic was the scourge of Saint-Etienne, scoring 14 goals in 13 games in all competitions. He now has 17, including three hat tricks.

“It’s difficult to neutralize him. There is a possibility that we will set up an anti-Ibra plan,” Saint-Etienne coach Chirstophe Galtier said. “I don’t know what’s inside Zlatan, but for sure he likes to play against us. It’s not easy to score a hat trick in a European Cup game.”

Champions League Wednesday: Leicester’s last stand; Porto-Juve

SEVILLE, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 21:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City looks on during a press conference ahead of the UEFA Champions League round-of-16 first leg against Sevilla FC at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on February 21, 2017 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Previewing Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League round-of-16 action…

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Leicester City vs. Sevilla

There’s no two ways about it: Leicester’s season — and perhaps their status as a Premier League club — is quickly spiraling out of control. The Foxes, just nine months after winning the PL title, sit 17th in the league table, one point clear of relegation, with 13 games still to play. Chances are, they won’t be back in the Champions League anytime soon, making Wednesday’s round-of-16 first-leg clash away to Sevilla all the more a monumental moment in the club’s history.

Where has hasn’t it gone wrong for Claudio Ranieri‘s side this season? If you’re of the mind that one player — N'Golo Kante in Leicester’s case — doesn’t make a team himself, then we’ll have to go one step further in diagnosing the stunning regression seen at the King Power Stadium this season: Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who combined to score 41 goals in the PL last season, have managed all of eight together in 2016-17. It’s the loss of Kante, though, that has left the defense forever exposed (43 goals conceded in 25 PL games, after conceding 36 in 38 all of last season), and the goal-getters forever feeding on scraps (24 goals scored, compared to 68 last season).

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]


Porto vs. Juventusfrom the AP

Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci will be left in the stands for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Porto as punishment for his outburst aimed at coach Massimiliano Allegri.

Allegri announced the move on Tuesday at the pre-match news conference, saying he had agreed it with club officials as “a fair decision, out of respect for the squad, the fans and the club.”

Bonucci became embroiled in a heated argument over substitutions with Allegri after a 4-1 win over Palermo on Friday.

Allegri also will punish himself for his angry reaction to Bonucci, announcing a donation to charity.

U.S. U-20s awaken in 2nd half vs. Haiti, keep WCQ hopes alive

USMNT U-20 team (Photo credit: U.S. Soccer)
Photo credit: U.S. Soccer
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With many thanks to the hat trick scored by Brooks Lennon (Real Salt Lake, on loan from Liverpool), the U.S. U-20 national team’s hopes of qualifying for the 2017 U-20 World Cup remain intact.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

After dropping all three points in their opening group-stage game against Panama on Saturday, Tab Ramos’ young Yanks faced elimination from CONCACAF’s U-20 Championship in Costa Rica with a defeat to Haiti on Tuesday. After 15 minutes, the Americans found themselves a goal down, the prospect of winning zero points from their first two games a terrifying possibility.

Then, Lennon struck from the penalty spot. A draw wouldn’t be enough, realistically, though, as they’d still trail Haiti by three points ahead of the final group game, against Saint Kitts and Nevis, with the top two sides from each team advancing to the classification stage.

The score remained 1-1 until halftime, after which point the Yanks roared to life with three goals in a seven-minute span. Luca de la Torre (Fulham) scored the first of the bunch, an empty-net finish after a failed punch by the goalkeeper. Lennon quickly followed suit with two more to make it 4-1.

With three points from two games and a goal differential that now sits at +2, the Yanks are second in Group B, just ahead of Haiti on goal differential (+1). Panama sit atop the group with six points and a +5 goal differential. A U.S. victory over Saint Kitts and Nevis, to go with a Haitian upset of Panama, would see the Americans finish top of the group go into Group E in the classification stage, which would see them accompanied by a pair of second-place sides. The first-place side in each classification group qualifies for May’s tournament in South Korea.

Guradiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” as a club

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21:  Josep Guardiola manager of Manchester City reacts as Leonardo Jardim head coach of AS Monaco looks on during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Manchester City FC and AS Monaco at Etihad Stadium on February 21, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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In the past, when faced with adversity in the UEFA Champions League, Manchester City could do little more than wilt and crumble as their European dreams when up in smoke year after year, typically in embarrassing and/or heartbreaking fashion.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

On Tuesday, when faced with 2-1 and 3-2 deficits late into the second half of their round-of-16 first leg against Monaco, deja vu was quickly setting in for anyone who’s followed Man City’s rise from middling afterthought to mega-rich conglomerate with aspirations of world domination. Then, something strange (based on years of recent history) happened: Sergio Aguero fired City back to level at 2-2 in the 58th minute. Sure, more shocking defending saw the deficit restored three minutes later, but again, Aguero dissented.

For this reason, and perhaps this reason alone considering the putrid defensively display over the course of 90 minutes, first-year City manager Pep Guardiola should be heartened by Tuesday’s events at the Etihad Stadium. In his mind, it was a massive step forward in the club’s psyche — quotes from the BBC:

“I am so happy for the result, we are still alive. These kind of things help this club to achieve another step. We attacked in small spaces. That’s why they wanted me to come here. Everybody has to be congratulated.

“We are going to fly to Monaco to score as many goals as possible. If we don’t score in Monaco we will be eliminated.”