MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on New York Red Bulls ahead of Sunday’s match at Houston

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Ahead of Sunday’s first-leg of this Eastern Conference semifinal series, here are the must-knows about Mike Petke’s Red Bulls (Sunday’s match kicks off at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC):

  • A team of lunch pail toilers

In a lot of ways, managing in this league is about navigating Major League Soccer’s restrictive salary cap. More specifically, where do you put your bargain guys? Because every team has quite a few of them.

For the Red Bulls, the lower salary guys are on the flanks, where Eric Alexander (right) and Jonny Steele (left) have gotten almost all of the starts this year. Both are consummate MLS toilers, quick into the tackle, quick to drive the team forward with some energ, always OK with finding Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill as quickly as possible, 100 percent amenable with letting the pricey types do what they are so handsomely paid to do.

In a lot of ways, Steele and Alexander represent the team in manager Mike Petke’s image more than the stars. Dax McCarty certainly does; the Red Bulls scrappy, busy midfield harrier remains in constant motion, interrupting passing lanes and making himself ever available as the defenders’ initial outlet.

Petke wasn’t a star guy, of course, during his not-so-distant playing days; he was a lunch pail guy in his years as a player for the New York organization.

(MORE: PST previews Dynamo-Red Bulls)

  • Thierry Henry can still score a crackerjack, can’t he?

Of course, even a team of toilers loves to have a guy around who can score (and inspire) with highlight-making goals. That’s Henry, a studious, intelligent soccer man who always knows how to save a little for the stretch-run.

We all remember that fabulous hit just last week against Chicago, right?

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Here’s the thing with Henry: he took some flak from names in the game for his choice not to go play on the artificial turf in Seattle late in the year, and fair enough. But the man knows his body, and can we just see his side for a second?

Maybe, just maybe, if Henry does go play on the artificial turf in Seattle, perhaps he aggravates those heel issues and then doesn’t have that kind of a goal in him. Maybe.

  • The key to the offense is … Peguy Luyindula?

Can it really be that a team blessed with talented types like Henry and Cahill is having its offensive strings pulled by … a guy whose name most of us cannot pronounce? Looks like it.

Peguy Luyindula had two assists last week, and he seems to have found role at the top of the Red Bulls’ midfield diamond.

Here’s the thing about New York’s attack in 2013: Henry could probably perform the creative duty, and does so to an extent, but usually as his team moves in closer to opposition goal. He is a forward in the Red Bulls’ typical 4-4-2 setup, so when Henry drifts too far back into the midfield, the team can sometimes suffer in getting enough men into the attack. We’ve seen that happen over the last two or three years in Harrison, N.J.

Tim Cahill can man the attacking midfield role, but it’s clearly not his best spot.

The team thought it had the answer in Brazilian technician Juninho, but he proved too old and washed out by mid-season. (I mean, who saw that coming? Oh, wait a minute … ) That left the club without anything close to a true playmaker. Until Luyindula’s arrival into the role, that is.

(MORE: CSN Houston’s video preview of Dynamo-Red Bulls)

  • Luis Robles in charge

If we’re being honest, most observers didn’t expect to see Luis Robles between the pipes for the Red Bulls by this time of the year.

Ryan Meara, who was so good last year before injury chopped down his potential Rookie of the Year campaign, seemed to be getting healthy and fit in the preseason. And Robles, who was more or less out of the professional game with the club picked him up late last year, seemed prone to gaffes, like a couple that really hurt the Red Bulls early this year.

But Robles settled into the role and has established himself as a dependable man behind commanding center back Jamison Olave and the Red Bulls’ back line.

Oh, and he makes the occasional big save, too, which is exactly what you want from a goalkeeper. His big, diving reach into the upper corner during the team’s last trip into South Texas was truly outstanding stuff.

  • Fastest goal in MLS history

We cannot really talk about this year’s lopsided series (New York won all three meetings, including two in Houston by a stunning combined score of 7-1) without mentioning Tim Cahill’s early goal as the teams met at BBVA Compass Stadium two weeks ago.

It was the fastest goal in MLS history. In fact, let’s not talk about it. Let’s just watch the darn thing:

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Prosecutors question Beckenbauer in World Cup fraud case

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BERN, Switzerland (AP) Swiss authorities say prosecutors have questioned Germany soccer great Franz Beckenbauer in their ongoing World Cup fraud case.

[ MORE: Shorthanded USMNT looks to build momentum vs. Honduras ]

Criminal proceedings against Beckenbauer and three other German members of the 2006 World Cup organizing committee were opened in 2015. The four are suspected of fraud, money laundering, criminal mismanagement, and misappropriation relating to a payment of 6.7 million euros ($7 million) to FIFA in 2005.

[ MORE: Five questions for USMNT ahead of Honduras WCQ ]

The Swiss attorney general’s office said in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday that federal prosecutors questioned Beckenbauer earlier in the day in Bern, adding that “Beckenbauer was cooperative.”

Beckenbauer’s home in Austria was raided last year for evidence on behalf of Swiss federal prosecutors investigating corruption linked to FIFA.

Report: Man City launching massive bid for AC Milan’s Donnarumma

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Gianluigi Donnarumma has quickly established himself as the best young goalkeeper in European soccer, and AC Milan won’t be letting the 18-year-old go without a pretty penny in return.

[ MORE: Schedule, preview for UEFA World Cup qualifying ]

According to Sky Sport Italia, Manchester City is preparing a massive bid in the range of $130 to $160 million to acquire the AC Milan shot-stopper as the English side’s goalkeeping situation is still unsettled.

The Citizens have failed to hunker down at the goalkeeper position this season despite spending big to bring in Barcelona’s Claudio Bravo, who has underperformed. Willy Caballero has also been shaky at times for the English giants, while on-loan keeper Joe Hart will almost certainly move on from the club over the summer.

Donnarumma is currently second in Serie A in saves (110), trailing only Crotone’s Alex Cordaz, who has stopped two more shots.

Since turning professional in 2015, Donnarumma has quickly enjoyed his rise through Italian football for both AC Milan and with the national team. After previously featuring for the Under-15, U-17 and U-21 sides, Donnarumma has established himself as the surefire replacement for Gianluigi Buffon once he retires from the international game.

Honduran federation suggests U.S. Soccer gamesmanship ahead of WCQ

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Three critical points are on the line for the U.S. Men’s National Team and Honduras on Friday night when CONCACAF World Cup qualifying returns to action, but the Central American side may have some added motivation.

[ MORE: Shorthanded USMNT looks to build momentum vs. Honduras ]

In the lead up to their Hexagonal meeting in San Jose, California, Honduran federation president Jorge Salomon has suggested that his national team has had difficulty finding training facilities because of U.S. Soccer’s gamesmanship.

[ MORE: Five USMNT questions ahead of WCQs ]

Salomon told Honduran outlet Diez that Los Catrachos were forced to train in Fort Myers, Florida ahead of the match because of U.S. Soccer’s attempt to sabotage Honduras’ comfortability ahead of Friday.

“That’s why we went to (Fort Myers),” Salomon told Diez. “We found two (fields) but they weren’t up to the standard for a national team.

“They have blocked us from some fields to train, but that is part of the sporting psychological battle you face when you are the visiting team,” Salomon added. “It’s no problem, we have done a good job.”

Meanwhile, Goal USA is reporting that U.S. Soccer claims to have provided Honduras with the same resources that it does for every visiting opponent and that it was Honduras’ choice to train in Florida as “a cost-saving measure.”

Rapinoe named to USWNT roster ahead of April friendlies

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The U.S. Women’s National Team wasn’t at its best the last time they stepped out for the SheBelieves Cup, but Jill Ellis’ group will have a chance to find their feet again next month as they prepare to face Russia in a pair of friendlies.

[ MORE: Five questions for USMNT ahead of Honduras WCQ ]

Ellis announced her 24-player roster on Thursday, which was headlined by the inclusion of Seattle Reign midfielder Megan Rapinoe.

“This is our last chance to get together before the NWSL starts and we’ll take full advantage of the training time as well as the two matches against a team in preparation for the European championships,” said Ellis. “Following these matches, my staff and I will begin a heavy investment in attending and evaluating the NWSL games as well as tracking our players overseas before we get back together for our European trip in the summer. I’m very much looking forward to our domestic league starting.”

Back-to-back losses to England and France in the SheBelieves Cup gave the USWNT an unwanted start to 2017, however, the Russians will give the U.S. another strong test in April.

The USWNT will play the first of the two friendlies on April 6 in Dallas at Toyota Stadium before meeting the Russians three days later in Houston at BBVA Compass Stadium.

Here’s the entire 24-player roster for the USWNT ahead of their Russia friendlies.

Goalkeepers (3): Jane Campbell (Houston Dash), Ashlyn Harris (Orlando Pride), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders (6): Meghan Klingenberg (Portland Thorns FC), Ali Krieger (Orlando Pride), Kelley O’Hara (Sky Blue FC), Megan Oyster (Boston Breakers), Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City), Casey Short (Chicago Red Stars)

Midfielders (8): Morgan Brian (Houston Dash), Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns FC), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns FC), Rose Lavelle (Boston Breakers), Carli Lloyd (Houston Dash/Manchester City), Allie Long (Portland Thorns FC), Samantha Mewis (NC Courage), Megan Rapinoe (Seattle Reign)

Forwards (7): Crystal Dunn (Chelsea FC), Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride/Olympique Lyonnais, FRA), Kealia Ohai (Houston Dash), Christen Press (Chicago Red Stars), Mallory Pugh (UCLA), Amy Rodriguez (FC Kansas City), Lynn Williams (NC Courage)