Thinking through Andy Najar’s prolonged absence

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Word came down from on high yesterday: Andy Najar will get two extra games off for throwing the ball at referee Jair Marrufo during last Saturday’s game. He missed the second leg of DC United’s semifinal with New York, and now he’s set to sit both halves of the Eastern Conference final. Expect Robbie Russell to get the call at right back for Ben Olsen.

What exact does that mean for United? What do they lose in the switch from Najar to Russell?

In defense, DC’s unlikely to miss much. Russell, now 33, might be a downgrade if Houston played somebody more fleet of foot down their left. Then Najar’s speed would be missed. Against Brad Davis, Russell might actually be a better bet to prevent some of those dangerous crosses into the box.

Russell’s experience may also be a bonus for United. Having played a part in Real Salt Lake’s 2009 title run (as well as appearing for Rosenborg in UEFA Champions League), Russell has as much big game experience as anybody at Ben Olsen’s disposal. Against Dominic Kinnear’s bag of tricks, that may come in handy.

Going forward, however, Najar will be missed, especially for a United team that’s generating few good chances in attack. A lot of that is due to the team’s passive defensive approach, their willingness to absorb pressure leaving them unlikely to generate the midfield turnovers that can lead to easy transition chances.

But beyond tactics, Najar, a converted midfielder, is just much better getting forward than Russell, who has only two goals and nine assists in parts of five Major League Soccer seasons. In the last stages of his career, Russell is now more of a traditional fullback than Najar. He’s even seen time in central defense for United. Though he was good for the odd goal during his years in Norway, Russell doesn’t pose an attacking midfielder’s threat.

I’m not convinced it will make that much of a difference. With Najar adapting to right back, he’s still learning how and when to utilize his attacking talent. Some times we see it, as we did in flashes against New York. Often, we don’t. Much of the excitement surround Najar at right back is more about the 19-year-old’s promise than his present.

Against a Houston team that doesn’t give teams many opportunities in transition, Najar’s forays forward could have had little effect, though it would have still been an x-factor, of sorts.

Najar’s suspension means the team has had to sacrifice that wild card for the certainty of Russell’s defending. It may prove a meaningless trade-off.

MLS roundup: FCD win battle of unbeatens; POR rebound vs. VAN

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With seven MLS Saturday afternoons/evenings officially in the books, only 27 more to go…

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FC Dallas 1-0 Sporting Kansas City

The only two remaining unbeaten teams faced off in Frisco on Saturday, and only one came out still unblemished. FCD dominated in the two most important facets of the game — chances created, and goals.

Maynor Figueroa scored the game’s only goal, a 77th-minute header to put home Michael Barrios’ floated cross toward the back post. If not for the (increasingly typical) heroics of Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia (five saves), FCD would have already been 3-0 or 4-0 in front by that point. Sporting’s only shot on target didn’t arrive until the 47th minute, and it was far from a clear-cut chance, as Jimmy Medranda fired from the corner of the 18-yard box and hardly tested Jesse Gonzalez with the effort.

The win sees FCD move to six games unbeaten to start the season (three wins, three draws), while Sporting suffer their first defeat in seven games.


Portland Timbers 2-1 Vancouver Whitecaps

Darlington Nagbe and Darren Mattocks bagged goals for Portland, who wasted little time in bouncing back from last weekend’s home defeat to Sporting. Nagbe’s goal, a stunner from outside the penalty area (WATCH HERE) opened the scoring in the 18th minute, and Mattocks made it 2-0 five minutes before halftime.

Fredy Montero scored his third goal in two games to bring Vancouver back to 2-1 just before the hour mark, but that’s as close as the visitors would get.

Diego Valeri was carried off the field in the 80th minute, which is the worst scare that Timbers fans could have possibly imagined, though the Argentine superstar told reporters after the game that he was feeling much better.


Real Salt Lake 1-3 Atlanta United

The honeymoon period is over for Mike Petke who, after back-to-back wins to open his tenure as RSL head coach, suffered his first defeat since taking over for Jeff Cassar five games into the season.

A series of comedic errors doomed RSL just about from the start, as Hector Villalba (9th minute) and Yamil Asad (46th), two of Atlanta’s South American starlets, put the visitors 2-0 ahead a minute into the first half — the latter was set up by Miguel Almiron, another of the young, South American attackers at Gerardo Martino’s disposal. Albert Rusnak pulled RSL back to 2-1 in the 69th minute, but it would remain that way until second-half stoppage time, when Brandon Vazquez beat Nick Rimando for a 3-1 clincher.


New York Red Bulls 2-0 Columbus Crew SC

Columbus’s defeat away to New York went from bad, to worse, to worst, in 39 minutes’ time on Saturday. Midfield revelation Artur went off with a nasty arm injury in the 6th minute, Alex Muyl put the home side 1-0 up in the 11th minute Daniel Royer made it 2-0 from the penalty spot in the 38th minute, and defensive revelation (and rookie) Alex Crognale went off injured immediately thereafter.


Houston Dynamo 2-0 San Jose Earthquakes

Wilmer Cabrera’s side will live and die by the form of his young attacking quartet this season. On Saturday, Erick Torres and Alberth Elis delivered the goals (read: goals) as Houston picked up a rather comfortable him win over San Jose.

Torres opened the scoring in the 9th minute, and though Elis didn’t double the advantage for another 63 minutes, the result was rarely, if ever, in doubt. San Jose managed just two shots on target (Houston had just three, for what it’s worth), as Adolfo Machado, Tyler Deric and Co. kept their first clean sheet of the season.


New England Revolution 2-2 D.C. United

In a battle of bottom-half Eastern Conference sides, New England and D.C. drew 2-2 after Lee Nguyen and a Sean Franklin own goal stalemated tallies from Jared Jeffrey and Sebastien Le Toux.

Ligue 1: Cavani, Di Maria score as PSG win to leapfrog Monaco

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PARIS (AP) Striker Edinson Cavani scored his 44th goal of the season and created the second goal as Paris Saint-Germain beat Montpellier 2-0 to go top of the French league on Saturday.

Cavani thumped home a cross from midfielder Blaise Matuidi in the first half, with winger Angel Di Maria involved in the buildup. It took Cavani’s career-best tally to 31 league goals and he thought he had another later in the half, but his powerful header was ruled out for offside.

Three minutes after the break, Cavani back-heeled to Di Maria, who curled in from just outside the penalty area for his fifth goal in five games.

Defending champion PSG is three points ahead of Monaco, which has led for most of the season.

Monaco has played two games less and can return to the top on goal difference by winning at Lyon on Sunday.

Both sides are doing well in Europe.

Monaco reached the Champions League semifinals and Lyon got through to the last four of the Europa League this week.

PSG has won eight straight games in all competitions to keep the pressure on Monaco. They meet each other on Wednesday in the French Cup semifinals. PSG then faces a tough away trip at third-place Nice next weekend as the hard-fought title race heats up.

“Monaco’s had a great season and you have to congratulate them,” PSG left back Maxwell said. “But we’re still in it.”

Bordeaux beat last-place Bastia 2-0 at home to move up to fourth spot, with striker Malcom getting the first goal.

But Lyon needs only a draw at home to Monaco to regain fourth spot.

After struggling for most of the season, Lorient is suddenly playing like a team near the top.

The Brittany-based side moved out of the relegation zone and up to 16th place after thrashing Metz 5-1 at home for a fourth win in five games. Midfielder Jimmy Cabot scored two and striker Benjamin Moukandjo grabbed his 13th goal of the season.

Elsewhere, striker Yacine Bammou scored both as Nantes beat struggling Caen 2-0.

Two goals from center forward Lois Diony helped Dijon beat Angers 3-2 at home; while Nicolas De Preville scored a brace as Lille beat Guingamp 3-0.

In Sunday’s other matches, Nice is away to Toulouse and Saint-Etienne hosts Rennes.

La Liga: Griezmann scores no. 25 in Atleti’s win to stay 3rd

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Antoine Griezmann kept Atletico Madrid focused on a strong finish to the Spanish league on Saturday despite its looming Champions League semifinal with Real Madrid.

Griezmann struck late in the second half at Espanyol to earn a 1-0 victory that kept Atletico in third place, three points ahead of Sevilla, and on course for a return to Europe’s top competition next season.

Atletico moved within four points of second-place Barcelona, which visits leader Real on Sunday trailing the pace-setter by three points. Real also has a game in hand as it tries to win the domestic title for the first time since 2012.

On Friday, Atletico and Real were drawn to face each other for a third time in four seasons in the Champions League. Real won the other two meetings in the finals of 2014 and 2016.

While Atletico has two league matches against Villarreal and at Las Palmas over the next week, its hopes for silverware rest squarely on their European clash with Madrid beginning on May 2 at the Santiago Bernabeu.

“2017 is shaping up better than 2016,” Atletico manager Diego Simeone said. “We are defending well and finding the moments to win games. I am sure we could perhaps play better, but the team is winning. There is still a ways to go before the semifinals.”

At Espanyol, Simeone made only one change in his starting 11 from the team that drew at Leicester on Tuesday to advance in the Champions League on a 2-1 aggregate score.

His side, however, showed little signs of weariness against an Espanyol that won four straight at home.

Griezmann decided the contest in Barcelona dominated by both defenses in the 73rd minute when he used one touch of his left boot to volley home a rebound of a strike by Saul Niguez that came off a defender.

The goal was his team-leading 16th in the league and 25th overall.

“We knew we would have a difficult time against a team that is so good at home,” Griezmann said. “But we tried until the end and then held on.”

Cedric Bakambu scored twice, including the stoppage-time winner apparently with his hand, to ensure Villarreal strengthened its hold on fifth place and a Europa League berth.

Villarreal created several scoring opporunities but needed Bakambu to slot home the opener in the 68th.

Leganes was close to grabbing a late draw when Miguel Guerrero struck in the 90th, but Bakambu appeared to use his hand to redirect Jonathan Dos Santos’ cross into the net two minutes later.

The result left Leganes winless in seven matches and clinging to the final spot above the relegation zone.

“He scored with his hand,” Leganes goalkeeper Iago Herrerin said. “We are fighting for our lives. It was impossible not to see it.”

Villarreal coach Fran Escriba acknowledged Bakambu “touched the ball with his hand” after watching replays, but “I didn’t see it live.”

Sandro Ramirez continued his good scoring form, ensuring a third win in four rounds to dispel any relegation fears for Malaga. The former Barcelona forward has scored in all three of those victories.

Ramirez blasted in his own rebound from a free kick just minutes after Jose “Recio” Garcia headed the hosts in front in the 36th.

Before he scored, Ramirez’s powerful free kick struck Valencia’s Ezequiel Garay in the head, leaving him visibly groggy as he remained on the turf. The defender underwent tests at a hospital that indicated mild head trauma. He was released from the hospital soon after the tests.

Last-place Osasuna couldn’t have done much more to crush its fans’ spirits than go up by two goals only to concede twice in the final 11 minutes.

The draw left Sporting also in the drop zone at four points from Leganes and safety with five rounds left.

Serie A: Fiorentina, Inter Milan thrill in 9-goal instant classic

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan lost at Fiorentina 5-4 in one of the most incredible Serie A matches of the season on Saturday and left its European hopes hanging by a thread.

Inter led 2-1 at halftime, Fiorentina led 5-2 after 79 minutes, Inter scored its fourth in stoppage time and watched its equalizer attempt cleared off the goal-line.

Just over a month ago, Inter was hoping to sneak into the Champions League after a 7-1 victory over Atalanta but two points from five matches has seen it slip to seventh, two points behind AC Milan, which occupies the last qualifying position for the Europa League.

Milan hosts Empoli on Sunday.

“We have to understand why what happened happened,” Inter coach Stefano Pioli said. “What we saw in the second half can’t be my team … we played for only 45 minutes. Then there was an inexplicable blackout.

“Since the Atalanta match we haven’t had the right mental attitude. We are Inter and we can’t play like this. We’ve reached the bottom. … We can’t throw away matches like we did in the second half today. Unfortunately this month we’ve thrown away everything we built.”

Fiorentina, which also missed a penalty, moved to within one point of Inter, which hosts third-placed Napoli next weekend.

Matias Vecino broke the deadlock for Fiorentina early but Inter appeared to swiftly turn the match around with two goals in five minutes.

First, Ivan Perisic slotted home Antonio Candreva’s low cross, then Mauro Icardi fired Joao Mario’s through ball across into the bottom left corner.

Fiorentina should have equalized after halftime when it was awarded a soft penalty after Danilo D’Ambrosio was adjudged to have pulled back Khouma Babacar, but Federico Bernardeschi’s weak spot kick saved by Samir Handanovic.

Davide Astori headed in the equalizer shortly after the hour mark, and Vecino again gave Fiorentina the lead two minutes later with his second of the match.

Babacar appeared to seal matters for Fiorentina with two strikes into the bottom right corner in the 70th and 79th minutes to make it 5-2.

But Inter wasn’t finished.

Icardi controlled Perisic’s pass in the area and fired in off the post two minutes from time, and headed in a corner in stoppage time to complete a hat trick.

Inter threw everyone forward and almost leveled from another corner which came out to Marcelo Brozovic, whose effort was cleared off the line by Astori.