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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Celtic’s Griffiths tears into Rangers chairman after “gulf” comments

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Celtic star Leigh Griffiths took the Old Firm bait and promptly swallowed the fisherman.

If you missed it, Rangers chairman Dave King said Celtic should’ve been even further ahead of their rivals given the setbacks handed to Rangers, who finally climbed back to the Scottish Premiership this season.

Celtic went unbeaten, drawing just four of 38 matches and finished 39 points ahead of Rangers on the table.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

If Celtic won all 38, they could’ve finished 47 points clear of Rangers. So, we guess the gulf could be bigger.

Here’s what Griffiths had to say:

“What was the gulf? 30-odd points. How does he expect that to be bigger? They were touting at the start of last season that they were going to win the league and this and that.

Joey Barton was coming up and saying he was going to be the best player in Scotland – he lasted a few months. In the first [Old Firm] game, they got hammered 5-1 and they got hammered 5-1 at the end of the season. So, the gulf couldn’t be any bigger. This season, they’ll be trying to bridge the gap.

“Ultimately it’s about what we do and if we are at our best nobody in Scotland can live with us.”

It was absurd talk from King, who doesn’t need to amp up one of the world’s best rivalries and also doesn’t have a leg to stand on considering the dominant season from the Bhoys. Wow.

San Jose adds Designated Player from Legia Warsaw

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Valeri ‘Vako’ Qazaishvili is the latest MLS Designated Player, as the Georgian will hit the pitch for San Jose this season provided his visa and ITC go through.

Qazaishvili comes from Legia Warsaw after five seasons with Vitesse in the Eredivisie. The 24-year-old attacking midfielder has been capped 24 times, and scored in Georgia’s 2-2 draw with Moldova earlier this month in World Cup qualifying.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

Equally adept at right or left wing, Qazaishvili posted a goal and two assists for Legia following his transfer from Vitesse. He scored 28 goals and added 13 assists in 121 matches for the Dutch side.

From SJEarthquakes.com:

“We were looking for a player, a younger, offensive player, that really excites the fans and has the possibility to stay with us for a long period of time. That’s what we found with Vako,” said Earthquakes general manager Jesse Fioranelli. “We wanted a player that knows how to take on a defender one-on-one, that sees the goal and that also wants to bring a spark to our game.”

San Jose sits seventh in the Western Conference table, and only two teams — Colorado and DC — have scored fewer goals in MLS. Jahmir Hyka and Cordell Cato have been fine, but San Jose needed a better chance creator.

Qazaishvili, in theory, fits the bill. If he has half the impact of fellow Legia export Nemanja Nikolic, San Jose is cooking with gas.

Transfer rumor roundup: Van Dijk to Chelsea, Ox to Anfield

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More and more players are being linked with Manchester United, but — believe it or not — the Red Devils aren’t the only club seeking talent.

DiMarzio is reporting that Antonio Conte is close to securing the services of Southampton center back Virgil Van Dijk, insisting the Dutch back is Conte’s top choice ahead of Juventus power house Leonardo Bonucci (which isn’t to say there isn’t room for both). The price? An eyebrow-raising $77 million.

[ MORE: Confederations Cup scenarios ]

Meanwhile, Conte is selling talented Bertrand Traore outside the Premier League. A solid season on loan at Ajax upped interest in the 21-year-old striker, and L’Equipe says it’s a $22 million move to Lyon for Traore.

How much do you think Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is worth? Liverpool may think his value is as high as $32 million, as The Independent reports that Arsenal is prepared to sell the Southampton Academy product to the attacker-heavy Reds.

Meanwhile, Serge Gnabry‘s wild journey looks to have another stop despite a purchase from Bayern Munich this summer. Gnabry was one of Germany’s heroes at the Olympics and left Arsenal for Werder Bremen last summer. He thrived, and earned a deal to Bayern, but Kicker brings quotes from a Hoffenheim player that are hopeful of a loan for this season.

Messi offers to pay $558,000 to avoid 21-month jail sentence

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi has offered to pay an additional fine of 500,000 euros ($558,000) to ensure he avoids a 21-month prison sentence for tax fraud that a judge is expected to suspend, a Spanish state prosecutor said Friday.

State prosecutor Isabel Lopez Riera told The Associated Press the fine-for-time deal was presented by Messi’s lawyers to the judge who will rule on whether to suspend Messi’s sentence – as is widely expected. Lopez Riera said she has told the judge that her office is not opposed to the deal.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

Lopez Riera said Messi’s lawyers have made a similar offer for the Barcelona player’s father, Jorge Horacio Messi. He is offering to pay 360,000 euros ($402,000) to avoid his 15-month sentence for helping his son cheat on his taxes.

In Spain, prison sentences under 24 months for first-time offenders can be suspended by a judge.

The government attorney representing Spain’s Tax Office in the case will also be able to weigh in on the proposed deal. As state prosecutor, Lopez Riera is impartial in the case as a defender of the public interest.

Last year, a court in Barcelona found Messi and his father each guilty of three counts of defrauding tax authorities of 4.1 million euros ($4.6 million) from 2007-09. The unpaid taxes were from money made through endorsement deals, not Messi’s salary paid by Barcelona.

Messi was fined 2 million euros and his father 1.5 million euros. Both were originally sentenced to 21 months, but his father’s sentence was later reduced to 15 months.

In the last two weeks, Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo and former Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho have been accused by a Madrid-based state prosecutor of having defrauded Spain’s Tax Office of millions of euros (dollars) in unpaid taxes.

Both have denied wrongdoing.