What we learned from Saturday’s New England-Sporting Kansas City playoff match

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  • Football lines. Sigh

For all the wonderful strides in Major League Soccer, every now and then the smack in the face arrives, the one that reminds everyone the league still has miles to go.

Saturday the reminder blow came from both playoff venues, one outside Boston and one in Seattle. In both cases, games were played on artificial turf, as usual per the facility. The difference was in the dizzying American football lines, as both venues prepare to host NFL games to come.

It’s not just that it clobbers the game’s aesthetics. In New England’s case, the NFL’s Patriots – the Kraft family owns both teams that play at Gillette Stadium, the MLS club and the NFL organization – shorten the soccer field so that it won’t intrude on the Patriots’ end zone logo.

So the field plays at about 106 yards, just barely enough to comply with FIFA regulations. A shorter field, combined with the fast, skidding pace we always see from artificial turf, made for a hectic match. One that was pretty hard on the eyes, too – hardly what the league ideally wants to showcase in its post-season money matches.

  • Claudio Bieler did not travel for KC

When a Designated Player cannot get into the starting lineup, trouble is a’ brewin’.

When a DP doesn’t even travel, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Argentine striker Bieler lost his place in manager Peter Vermes’ starting lineup lately for Kansas City. It had to do with a groin injury, we think; from there it’s all kind of murky. Did he come back unfit? Or is he just turning out not to be what the club expected?

Bieler started well enough in his first year at Sporting Park, among the league’s leading scorers early in the season. But his scoring fell off the table in the summer – and then he lost his place in the lineup.

(MORE: New England’s 2-1 win provides tentative margin for second leg)

  • Talking about the refereeing, and the controversial goal

The game wasn’t without controversy, as Andy Dorman’s opener was very close to offside. (Hat tip to journalist Travis Clark, who summed it up best like this: “Consensus from my Twitter feed about that goal: clearly onside and offside.” Exactly.)

It was an extremely tough call. I keep watching it, and I still cannot be sure.

Otherwise, referee Ismail Elfath probably managed this helter-skelter mess of a match about as well as it could have been. Elfath is one of the less experienced MLS referees, but generally one who can manage players better than some of the older hands.

Remember, Sporting KC led the league in fouls. That’s a statistical fact. Not so easily proven through data is this: Sporting is the league’s best team at the cynical art of tactical fouling. So, that’s a lot for the man in the middle to sort out, and Elfath wasn’t completely overmatched by it.

Sporting KC right back Chance Myers may hear from the league about twice getting his hands to the face/head of New England players. And so may New England’s Dimitry Imbongo, who always had the elbows up high too often.

By the end, seven players were booked.

If notoriously physical KC to advance, its depth will surely be tested. Two post-season bookings will mean that a player sits out the following match.

  • Kansas City didn’t respond well

Sporting Kansas City got just a little lucky in getting that absolutely massive 69th minute goal, cutting New England’s lead in half. First, Imbongo’s bad foul along the flank gave the visitors a free kick, which turned into an opportunity and a goal.

It happened at a moment when Sporting KC was falling absolutely to pieces, not dealing at all with the controversial goal – or with the deficit that came with it. Clearly frustrated, they were fouling and missing runners – which is exactly how New England’s Kelyn Rowe slipped in for the Revs’ second strike.

It was all so reminiscent of last year’s playoff ouster – from which Sporting KC apparently learned absolutely nothing. Peter Vermes’ team fell behind by a goal at Houston. Rather than playing it safe and sticking with the original plan, SKC pushed forward. Instead of concocting an equalizer, they were exposed and gave up a second goal to Houston … which was one goal too many for the furious return leg.

It’s a two-game series, guys. You know that, right?

(MORE: Man of the Match is New England’s Matt Reis)

  • Revs young attackers have a hard time

Revolution 13-goal scorer Diego Fagundez? He was virtually nowhere to be found Saturday. It was, after all, the 18-year-old’s first playoff game. And dealing with Myers along SKC’s right side is never a bunch of fun.

And second-year man Kelyn Rowe certainly made a huge moment with his game-winner – but he wasn’t having a great match before that.

In all fairness, attacking players with good matches weren’t really to be found at all Saturday at Gillette. The field was small and fast, and both defenses were in charge.

The exception early was Kansas City’s Graham Zusi, who was able to find just enough space to do a little bit of creating for his team. Zusi was the conductor on the only three first-half chances, all from the visitors. But he was quiet after intermission, as the Revolution gained some possession and managed to put a foothold on the game.

Once again, the match highlights from NBCSN:

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Video: Orlando City product scores crazy bicycle kick

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Goals like this one below never grow old.

Orlando City academy product Alejandro Pereira scored a brilliant bicycle kick for his Under-17/18 side in their 2-0 win on Thursday night during the U.S. Soccer Development Academy playoffs.

Orlando will continue its path in the Academy Playoffs on Saturday when they face off against Players Development Academy (PDA) U-17/18, before meeting Indiana Fire U-17/18 on Monday.

Brazilian league filled with possible transfer targets

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SAO PAULO (AP) While soccer takes a rest in Europe and the Brazilian league gets going again, many local players have already caught the eyes of foreign clubs.

[ MORE: Confed Cup scenarios before final group stage matches ]

A few of them are already in Brazil coach Tite’s plans for next year’s World Cup in Russia, and signing them now instead of next season could be a real bargain.

Here are some names to know:

LUAN

A 24-year-old striker at title-favorite Gremio, Luan has yet to play abroad and his coach has already said it will be hard to keep him in Brazil until the end of the season. After eight matches, Luan has scored four goals. Gremio executives have said they won’t take less than 24 million euros ($27 million) for him. Luan was part of Brazil’s gold-medal winning team at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He began the tournament on the bench, but eventually took a place in the starting lineup alongside Neymar and Gabriel Jesus. Ronaldinho said Luan deserves to be at Barcelona. “Luan would fit in perfectly there, he is very creative,” Ronaldinho said.

GUILHERME ARANA

More than 20 percent of the goals scored by Corinthians this year have come from the left foot of 20-year-old defender Guilherme Arana. An excellent Brazilian-style dribbler, Arana had several assists in the derbies against the team’s three Sao Paulo city rivals. Arana has yet to make his international debut, but he believes his short time with Tite at the club could help him get to Russia next year. Many in Brazilian media have dubbed him “the new Marcelo.”

LUCAS LIMA

A close friend of Neymar, 26-year-old midfielder Lucas Lima has been frequently linked with a transfer to Barcelona. In the first 100 days of 2017 he had 10 assists – the same number he produced all of last season. He is in top physical shape, something that has earned him praise from coaches and a series of callups from Tite to play with Brazil. Lima has rejected a series of offers from Chinese clubs because he wants to play in Europe.

GUSTAVO SCARPA

Fluminense midfielder Gustavo Scarpa is classy and cerebral, traits he tries to mirror from his hero Andres Iniesta. But the 23-year-old Brazilian can also provide some stunning shots from long distance, like the goal he scored from his own half in February in a Brazilian Cup match against Globo. Scarpa likes to play as a left winger, but he can also be used in a central midfield position and as a left back. Tite called on him for a friendly against Colombia in February. In the 2016 Brazilian league, he scored eight goals and had 10 assists. He has just finished recovering from a right foot injury.

DUDU

A fan-favorite at defending champion Palmeiras last season, 25-year-old striker Dudu has yet to score in this year’s competition. Still recovering from injury, Dudu is fast and often runs right at goal. He played at Dynamo Kyiv without much success from 2011-14, and he admits he was not very mature when that transfer happened. In March, he was part of the Brazil team for World Cup qualifying matches against Uruguay and Paraguay, as a replacement of injured Douglas Costa.

RODRIGO CAIO

A 23-year-old Sao Paulo defender who has frequently been called up by Tite, Rodrigo Caio has played more than 200 matches for his club. Caio wants to go to Europe after a first attempt at Valencia fell through — he failed a medical check because of a now-healed knee injury. Also a gold medalist at the 2016 Olympics, the defender can play as a defensive midfielder. Although he looks a lot like Kaka, his style is more like Dunga’s: great tackles, accurate passing and leadership.

Red or Blue: Revisiting the first two years of the Hudson River Derby

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When two sides meet at Red Bull Arena on Saturday afternoon the tension between players will be high and even more so when the supporters cross paths.

It may be nearing the end of June, but the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC will meet for the first time this season in MLS play on Saturday as the two clubs renew their Hudson River Derby (New York Derby, for some) rivalry.

[ MORE: MLS Power Rankings — Week 17: East leads way at the top ]

Some still question the validity of the rivalry given the brief history in which the two clubs have faced off against one another, but that little percent of the population is completely outweighed by those that really follow MLS.

Now entering the third year in which the Red Bulls and NYCFC meet, there’s more dislike between the two clubs, the players and certainly the managers as well.

Albeit a lopsided first six encounters, five wins to one in favor of the Red Bulls, every time the sides meet is another opportunity to not only build the rivalry but also expand on the question: Is New York red or is it blue?

This has become a popular topic between supporters of each team and subsequently turned out to be a marketing dream for the clubs and MLS as a whole.

When it comes down to the on-field play, many of the same faces are still intact with their clubs from when the teams met a little over two years ago. David Villa and Bradley Wright-Phillips spearhead the attacks for their respective sides, but the star strikers have performed in very different manners in the previous derbies.

Wright-Phillips has scored an impressive eight goals in six MLS meetings against NYCFC, while Villa — who has 51 MLS goals — has just found the back of the net once against the Red Bulls.

Outside of the Red Bulls’ 7-0 thrashing last year, the majority of the matches between the two teams have been close encounters. And this time around should be no different.

The teams met just a week-and-a-half ago at RBA in a U.S. Open Cup match that saw the hosts narrowly come away with a 1-0 victory, which has been the story of the Red Bulls season thus far.

Only four Red Bulls players have scored goals in 2017, which in comparison to NYCFC’s 10 players is a stark difference. Patrick Vieira’s side has scored 12 more goals this season as well, which certainly plays into NYCFC’s hands, however, when these two clubs get together there’s been a noticeable struggle for NYCFC in the attacking third.

Vieira’s men have scored just five goals over the first two seasons of this matchup, while the Red Bulls have found the back of the net 18 times.

Here’s a brief breakdown of results when the two sides have met since 2015. (Winner in bold)

May 10, 2015 — Red Bulls 2-1 NYCFC
June 28, 2015 — NYCFC 1-3 Red Bulls
August 9, 2015 — Red Bulls 2-0 NYCFC
May 21, 2016 — NYCFC 0-7 Red Bulls
July 3, 2016 — NYCFC 2-0 Red Bulls
July 24, 2016 — Red Bulls 4-1 NYCFC
June 14, 2017 — Red Bulls 1-0 NYCFC (U.S. Open Cup match)

MLS at Week 17: New York Derby headlines host of intriguing fixtures

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It’s hard to believe the MLS regular season is already halfway done, but that’s the truth.

Two Eastern Conference sides continue to dazzle in the Supporters’ Shield race, and while one of them was expected to have success in 2017 the other is putting on a surprise performance for the ages.

The Texas Derby will kick off one of several rivalry matches this weekend, while will be headlined by Saturday afternoon’s clash at Red Bull Arena between the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC.

The weekend will come to a close late on Sunday night when a Cascadia rivalry is renewed as the Portland Timbers host the Seattle Sounders in a critical Western Conference bout.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Here’s a full look at the MLS docket ahead of a busy weekend.

Toronto FC vs. New England Revolution — 8 p.m. ET Friday

The Revs spoiled TFC’s impressive unbeaten run just two weeks back but Toronto is back on track and once again looks like the best side in MLS. Jay Heaps and Co. will likely have a difficult time north of the border when these sides meet at BMO Field.

Houston Dynamo vs. FC Dallas — 9 p.m. ET Friday

The first rivalry matchup takes place down in Texas this weekend and few would’ve thought that Houston would be sitting above Dallas in the Western Conference standings to this point. Led by goalscorer Erick “Cubo” Torres and his 10 finishes this season, the Dynamo have been one of the most potent attacks in MLS in 2017. Dallas’ backline has been a stalwart though through 15 matches, with the club only allowing 14 goals (second-fewest in MLS).

New York Red Bulls vs. New York City FC — 1:30 p.m. ET Saturday

NYCFC has undoubtedly been the better of the two sides as the MLS season nears the halfway point, but to say this rivalry has been one sided in its now third year is an understatement. The Red Bulls have won seven of their eight matchups against their Bronx foes across all competitions, including last week’s U.S. Open Cup win at Red Bull Arena. Patrick Vieira and Co. will be seeking their first win at RBA on Saturday, while also attempting to create some separation from the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference table.

Atlanta United vs. Colorado Rapids — 7 p.m. ET Saturday

This matchup is a tale of two very different teams. Atlanta continues to bounce up and down in its debut season, although largely impressing in the attacking third in many of its matches. Meanwhile, the Rapids are struck at the bottom of MLS on 16 points, and there’s little sign of improvement from Pablo Mastroeni’s group.

Philadelphia Union vs. D.C. United — 7 p.m. ET Saturday

Something has to give when these two clubs meet. D.C. is coming off of a nice home win against Atlanta, so advantage to Ben Olson’s group despite the club’s poor goalscoring form. The ninth-place side has just 12 goals this season, which is three less than the next worst team in MLS.

Columbus Crew vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

The Crew have reverted to their defensive tendencies from a season ago, allowing the most goals in the Eastern Conference so far (29). The Impact, however, are finally finding their groove after going unbeaten in their last four.

Minnesota United vs. Vancouver Whitecaps — 8 p.m. ET Saturday

The Loons have had a rough go of it so far in MLS, but the good news is the club is certainly improving. Wednesday’s performance against the Timbers was a real bright spot in the team’s inaugural season, and now they can look to follow up that effort with their second consecutive win, which Minnesota hasn’t done in 2017. Vancouver has shown its own improvements recently, going unbeaten in five of its last seven matches.

Chicago Fire vs. Orlando City — 8:30 p.m. ET Saturday

When these two sides met a few weeks ago, all we had was an uneventful 0-0 draw. Expect something much different this time around, particularly from the Fire, who have built up a full head of steam as they enter Saturday’s contest unbeaten in their last eight matches.

LA Galaxy vs. Sporting KC — 10:30 p.m. ET Saturday

This has the makings of a quality playoff matchup down the road, especially given the Galaxy’s resurgence as of late. Like the Fire, the Galaxy have their own eight-match unbeaten run to boast and it has propelled them up to fifth place in the West. Sporting KC continues to run the Western Conference with 27 points and a stingy backline that has only conceded 11 goals in 17 matches. That’s pretty unheard of stuff.

San Jose Earthquakes vs. Real Salt Lake — 10:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Neither side has managed to find a rhythm this season, but with seven teams separated by six points in the Western Conference playoff race it’s a match like this that holds extra weight.

Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders — 10 p.m. ET Sunday

The Cascadia battles have become some of the best in MLS, and while the Sounders are still struggling to find their form from a season ago this one has all the makings of another massive clash. Neither side enters Sunday’s matchup in the finest form, but there’s nothing that could be more beneficial for either club than a rivalry victory.