DC United v Real Salt Lake - 2013 U.S. Open Cup Final

D.C. United stuns Real Salt Lake in 2013 U.S. Open Cup final

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Let’s save the larger debates for later about whether D.C. United’s season was somehow saved – heck, for that matter, whether coach Ben Olsen’s job was saved – on a gorgeous Tuesday night in the Utah mountains?

And we may need time to digest what, exactly, to make of the irony or all domestic soccer ironies, that one of the worst teams in Major League Soccer history – not by subjective measure, but by a mounting stack of hard statistical evidence – is the new Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup champion.

But for now, let’s just tip our caps to Olsen’s men, who bravely ignored the blistering odds and brushed off any negative energy from a league campaign gone sideways to concoct a moment of redemption, to dig some joy from these months of misery.

D.C. United is the new U.S. Open Cup champion (on the storied tournament’s centennial, 100th version no less). And Lewis Neal, a fairly anonymous figure among some of the real giants who have performed through the years for the Black and Red, now has his place in club history. It was Neal’s goal just before half that held in up the 1-0 win at a stunned Rio Tinto Stadium.

In addition to $250,000 prize money and the right to feel good about something for a while, United will claim the CONCACAF Champions League berth that goes to each year’s Open Cup winner.

Relentless, determined, committed pressure from D.C. United meant more Tuesday over 90 minutes than the yawning and telling 36-point gap between the teams in Major League Soccer’s standings. Yes, 36 points. United has just three wins in league play all year (a 3-21-6 record, dead last in the East and last for months in our own weekly rankings)

But that’s tournament play, and that’s what makes single-elimination competition like the Open Cup special. Just as Wigan showed the world six months ago while claiming the FA Cup implausibly, a lesser team can pour enough effort into one match to smite the giants over 90 minutes.

Real Salt Lake, with the better talent and the home-field edge, looked strangely out of sorts or tentative (or maybe a little combination of both) in Tuesday’s early minutes. Unable to break down United’s recessed defense, the home team needed half an hour to concoct its first good scoring opportunity. That came when Ned Grabavoy joined Sebastian Velasquez to find Joao Plata’s clever run through, only to see the shot sail high and wide.

For all of RSL’s possession, the men from Utah weren’t doing much with it. And it cost Jason Kreis’ team just before intermission.

Olsen’s plan of “bunker and break strategically” paid off just before the break when Perry Kitchen, DCU’s best man to that point, launched a sequence that finished with a loose ball in RSL’s penalty area. Neal pounced and his well-placed, well-hit left-footer gave RSL ‘keeper Nick Rimando little chance.

RSL turned up the pressure immediately after the break, but timely interventions from center back Dejan Jakovic (who gets beaten up regularly by fans and media) and from goalkeeper Bill Hamid kept United’s lead. Hamid’s 81st minute stop on a close-in effort from RSL striker Alvaro Saborio marked his night’s best work.

Meanwhile, center back Ethan White may have put in the best 90 minutes yet in a United shirt.

RSL, finding the urgency that so dearly missed through the first 45 minutes, got closer and closer. Velasquez’s big shot off the cross bar in the 60th minute. Ten minutes after that, Nat Borchers went just wide with a header and Saborio went just high in stoppage time.

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.