Jack McInerney-2

MLS preview: Philadelphia Union at D.C. United

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D.C. United needs Mack McInerney. Or someone very much like him, at least.

McInerney is the young Philadelphia Union striker who has four goals in the young season, placing him among Major League Soccer’s top goal scorers. He still has much to learn about the game, not a bit surprising since young “Jack Mac” is just 20 years old.

But he already has a Costco-sized supply of “strikers instinct,” a level of awareness that plenty of professionals will never know. And his goals aren’t just stat-padders; they tend to be important ones, like the game-winners this year against Colorado and New England or the late, late equalizer last week against Toronto.

Yes, D.C. United could use a guy like that.

McInerney (pictured) isn’t going anywhere, of course. He is part of coach John Hackworth’s up-and-coming bunch in Philadelphia, where one of the league’s youngest assemblies of talent is hanging tough in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack, even if the Union games don’t tend to be the most beautiful.

Then there’s D.C. United, one of the presumed Eastern Conference contenders. Instead, Ben Olsen’s team languishes at rock bottom in the standings, last among 10 teams at the moment with just four points off six matches.

Consecutive losses at home to Columbus and New York have added pressure upon pressure around RFK Stadium. So today’s late afternoon kickoff (5 p.m. ET on ESPN2) looms mightily important for the Black and Red. (And if the weight of it all wasn’t enough, security in the nation’s capital is extra high for this one.)

United’s woes are mostly about the lack of scoring.

The ongoing inability to get Dwayne De Rosario going (attached to injuries and suspensions that have limited him to just two starts and one appearance off the bench in 2013), Chris Pontius’ ongoing struggles and Nick DeLeon’s injury have all contributed as United has turned up just two goals.

Pontius has played every minute so far, with just one assist (and no goals) to show for it. That is not going to get him the U.S. national team call-up that United fans so desperately desire.

So much of the goal-scoring malaise falls on Lionard Pajoy – or on the deciders around RFK for continuing to believe that he will break out and score goals in bunches, never mind the growing sample of data suggesting that the Colombian striker just doesn’t have it in him. He gets into positions reliably enough and certainly works hard enough, but just misses that little something near goal, that confidence or that alarm bell that rings loudly at just the right moment to shoot.

Backup striker Carlos Ruiz looks like a shell of the goal-scoring menace that once infuriated MLS defenders. All that leaves Olsen … searching for answers.

Casey Townsend, who scored twice last weekend while on loan at third-division Richmond, has even remained with the club for Sunday’s contest.  

As for the visiting Union, Hackworth tends to mix and match in the midfield quite a bit, with Keon Daniel or Michael Farfan pulling the offensive strings. Sebastien Le Toux could find himself in there, or further up the field if the McInerney-Conor Casey strike combo is adjusted. Danny Cruz could face his old team. (He was in the middle of big preseason donnybrook.) Or will this finally be the time to give new Brazilian midfielder Kleberson his first Philly Union start? The 2002 World Cup winner has played just 11 minutes since his arrival four weeks ago.

Center back Amobi Okugo is another promising Union man to watch. The 22-year-old American was added as midfield talent but has been outstanding in central defensive duty.

Seven regular season games between the Eastern Conference rivals have produced 22 yellow cards and four red cards. And these teams were involved in a preseason melee that saw De Rosario suspended for the first two MLS regular season matches. So, yes, things are likely to be physical and feisty, especially considering the stakes for D.C. United.

Loss to Sevilla quickly puts Real Madrid’s Zidane on the defensive

SEVILLE, SPAIN - JANUARY 15:  Head Coach of Real Madrid CF Zinedine Zidane looks on prior to  the match against Real Madrid CF during the La Liga match between Sevilla FC and Real Madrid CF at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on January 15, 2017 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)
Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images
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MADRID (AP) Real Madrid’s first loss after a 40-game unbeaten streak was enough to put coach Zinedine Zidane on the defensive.

Two days after Madrid’s unbeaten record was halted by a 2-1 defeat at Sevilla in the Spanish league, Zidane was forced to defend some of his players against criticism from fans and local media.

[ MORE: Klopp, Liverpool still consulting lawyers over absurd Matip situation ]

Most comments were aimed at goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who failed to stop Sevilla’s injury-time winner on Sunday. Navas got to Stevan Jovetic‘s long-range shot but was unable to keep the ball from going in.

“He’s having a really good season,” Zidane said on Tuesday. “You can always ask for more, but if up until now we had gone 40 games without losing, it’s for a reason, and he has been there all the way.”

There have been calls for Zidane to give reserve goalkeeper Kiko Casilla a chance, but the coach said there was “no need to go over this again.”

Zidane also dismissed talk about signing a new goalkeeper.

“These are rumors,” he said. “We are focused on what we are doing this year. Whatever happens next I’m not interested and it’s not the time to talk about it. The three goalkeepers we have are important, they’re doing well and I’m very happy with them. I don’t want to change anything we’re doing.”

[ MORE: How Sevilla hope to break up the Madrid-Barca duopoly ]

Zidane defended forward Karim Benzema, who lost possession near midfield in a mistake that led to host Sevilla’s winner on Sunday.

“Everyone can say and write what they want,” Zidane said. “On a field, playing 90 minutes, you can’t do everything right. There is talk of lack of concentration, but we only had five bad minutes and that happens in football.”

Benzema also missed a chance to score from close range in the game, but a few days earlier it was the French striker who netted in stoppage time in a Copa del Rey match against Sevilla to help Madrid set the Spanish unbeaten record.

Zidane downplayed the end of Madrid’s unbeaten streak. The club hadn’t lost since a 2-0 defeat at Wolfsburg in the Champions League in April.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

“These things happen,” he said. “Nothing is going to change in what I’m going to do. Those who are not Real Madrid fans will want us to lose, but we must be ready and think that what we’re doing is fine. We lost a game, something that happens, and now we have to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Madrid hosts Celta Vigo on Wednesday in a first-leg match in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey.

Celta has won all four matches this year.

“I am not surprised by Celta’s record because they’re a very good team, they fight and play very good football,” Zidane said. “It’ll be another complicated match for us.”

FA fines Man City’s Sagna over “10 against 12” Instagram message

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 02: Scott Arfield of Burnley (L) tackles Bacary Sagna of Manchester City (R) during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Burnley at Etihad Stadium on January 2, 2017 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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LONDON (AP) The English Football Association has fined Manchester City defender Bacary Sagna 40,000 pounds (around $50,000) for an Instagram post about a referee.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Sagna posted a photo with the caption “10 against 12.. but still fighting and winning as a team” on the social network site following City’s 2-1 win against Burnley on Jan. 2.

Sagna later amended the post to read “still fighting and winning as a team” after a match that saw referee Lee Mason send off midfielder Fernandinho.

[ MORE: Klopp, Liverpool still consulting lawyers over absurd Matip situation ]

The FA also warned Sagna about his future conduct.

Klopp, Liverpool still consulting lawyers over in-limbo Matip

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 11: Joel Matip of Liverpool and Andre Ayew of West Ham United compete for the ball during the Premier League match between Liverpool and West Ham United at Anfield on December 11, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images
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Few footballing sagas will ever reach heights of absurdity comparable to that of the Joel Matip/Liverpool versus Cameroon/FIFA battle currently raging, as the Reds defender finds himself “ineligible” to play for his club due to an international call-up 18 months after announcing his international retirement.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

PST’s Joe Prince-Wright summed up the situation quite well, in full, right here. An excerpt:

Matip, 25, was called up by the Cameroon national team for the 2017 African Cup of Nations which is currently taking place in Gabon. However, the former Schalke defender has previously stated that he did not want to play for them and he had retired from international duty.

Cameroon called him into their initial 35-man squad for the competition anyway but did not include him in their final 23-man squad once it became clear Matip, along with six other players, had no interest in playing for them at AFCON.

FIFA has confirmed that Liverpool has been in touch regarding Matip’s status and it now appears that he will not be able to play in any other competition while Cameroon is still in AFCON action under Article 5 of FIFA’s rules.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

Fast forward a few days, and Jurgen Klopp and Co. have no further clarity regarding the situation. It’s so unclear, in fact, that Klopp said on Tuesday he may select the 25-year-old during one of two remaining games this week, and hope for the best — quotes from the Guardian:

“As you can imagine, we are in a lot of talks. We’ve done transfers quicker than this. It’s already long term but now it’s getting really tense on our side. We’ve tried everything but at the end I have to make the decision. Of course I have to ask [Liverpool’s lawyers] but the decision is for me to make. I could put him in the lineup. I don’t think the referee is going to say: ‘Stop, stop, you cannot go on the pitch.’ But I will do it when it’s OK from our point of view. Of course I need advice — I’m not a lawyer.”

“Most of the time in life you know if you do this, then you get this. But it’s not 100 percent clear what happens [if Matip plays]. We try everything to win football games. If this can happen — out of the tournament or whatever — then we have to decide about the risk. He’s ready to play for us and that makes it difficult.”

What an utter disaster of a situation Cameroon have intentionally created here.

VIDEO: Jeison Murillo’s incredible bicycle from a corner kick

MILAN, ITALY - JANUARY 17:  (R-L) Jeison Murillo of FC Internazionale celebrates his first goal with Geoffrey Kondogbia during the TIM Cup match between FC Internazionale and Bologna FC at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on January 17, 2017 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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Look away now, Andy Carroll. Take a bow, Jeison Murillo.

[ VIDEOS: All in a week’s work — Messi free kick no. 1 | Messi free kick no. 2 ]

Just three days after Carroll scored the bicycle-kick goal of the year (so we thought), here comes Murillo, Inter Milan’s 24-year-old Colombian striker, to steal his thunder (below video). The fact he did it directly from a corner kick, with the ball traveling roughly 40 yards before flinging his body into the air and striking the ball so cleanly, (somehow) trumps Carroll’s accomplishment from Saturday.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings — Tight at the top… and bottom ]

Sensational goals come in twos now, apparently, as Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Olivier Giroud scored stunning scorpion-kick goals (WATCH HERE and HERE) just days apart earlier in the season.