MLS playoff preview: D.C. United at New York Red Bulls

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D.C. United came out of its weekend draw with New York feeling like the better club and talking about missed an opportunity to whup a team that was there for the playoff whupping.

Nothing wrong with confidence, of course, except for this: they didn’t actually win the game and now the playoff waters are more choppy. Ben Olsen’s team will have to win at a place where not a lot of teams did in 2012.

Meanwhile, the weather looks quite uncooperative, with nasty stuff on the way for the team’s Eastern Conference semifinal series return leg.

(MORE: Which team benefits from impending nasty weather)

(MORE: Analysis of Saturday’s 1-1 draw)

Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET, Red Bull Arena, NBC Sports Network

The series is tied on total goals, 1-1

On the New York Red Bulls

  • Hans Backe’s team was 11-2-4 with a plus-16 goal difference at Red Bull Arena this year.
  • Hard to makes heads or tails of the Rafa Marquez situation. Was that alleged calf injury a real factor in his halftime removal, or just more cover for a player who doesn’t really deserve it? He was spotted arguing with manager Hans Backe going into the locker room at halftime Saturday, which seems suspect. Then again, Marquez is made of Teflon, isn’t he? Nothing sticks. No matter how many different ways he hurts the team through ill temper, flagging effort or thoughtless quotes, they just trot him back out there.
  • What Backe said about Marquez’s injury Monday: “Probably it has to be … a late decision, I would guess. I don’t think it’s a big (injury), but definitely we will have to wait until tomorrow to tell.”
  • A potential replacement plan looks fairly straight forward: Heath Pearce, recently relocated from center back to the left, will move back into the middle alongside Markus Holgersson. Roy Miller or Wilman Conde will play on the left.
  • Perhaps Kenny Cooper and his 18 goals, benched for Saturday’s contest, wouldn’t have helped create a couple more chances. But he could hardly have helped produced fewer than replacement Sebastien Le Toux, so that choice was a push at very best for Backe.
  • Thierry Henry was hardly at his 15-goal, 12-assist best Saturday. They need more from his Wednesday.
  • Goalkeeper Luis Robles sure didn’t look like a man making just his fifth start this year. Among his five saves were two real delights.

On D.C. United

  • If United’s road record this year (5-9-3) doesn’t look too promising, this might: Ben Olsen’s team, adding more defensive focus, went 2-0-2 away from RFK Stadium down the stretch, allowing just two goals over those four contests.
  • That said, Olsen must replace Andy Najar, whose attacking push up the right side will be sorely missed.
  • (MORE: Longer suspension ahead  for Najar?)
  • Important, second year holding midfielder Perry Kitchen: “There’s still 90 minutes to go. Our heads are up.”
  • The finishing simply has to improve – because New York might not kick one in for the visitors this time. And Bill Hamid cannot have another wobble. So, suffice to say the work in front of both goals needs a boost.
  • Underrated hero of Saturday’s match: unheralded left back Chris Korb. Along with Chris Pontius, they were United’s top men in Saturday’s draw. (Yes, Pontius needed something better from the penalty spot, but he was The Man on the United’s attack otherwise.)

Bottom line:

The predominant back story here is the Hurricane Sandy-related venue swap. Originally, this second leg was to be in New York, but conditions demanded a change.

If this one is tied after 90 minutes, an extra 30-minute period (and potentially penalty kicks) will determine the survivor – and that will not make United fans any more pleased over the whole unfortunate situation.

United could surely squeak out a 1-0 result … and if Backe’s Red Bulls can’t muster any more urgency than we saw in most matches down the stretch, the most talented team ever assembled on paper will fall way too quietly.

Report: Newcastle activates $12m release clause of ex-Arsenal youth

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Reports out of Turkey say Newcastle United have finally struck the transfer market for a new No. 10.

[ MORE: West Ham adds Diop ]

Aksam reports that Rafa Benitez got the Magpies hierarchy to activate a near $12 million release clause for Besiktas midfielder Oguzhan Ozyakup.

The 25-year-old was part of Arsenal’s youth set-up until 2012, making two League Cup appearances in 2011-12 before moving to Besiktas.

Dutch-born Ozyakup is 35-times capped with a goal for Turkey, twice captaining the Crescent-Stars.

Ozyakup lost playing time to Talisca this season, and registered just four assists in 24 appearances. In 219 appearances for Besiktas, he’s posted 27 goals with 50 assists.

Like the move for Newcastle?

Lukaku pens inspiring post on hard-scrabble upbringing

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Manchester United and Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku has an inspiring and emotional post in The Players’ Tribune which tugs at the heart strings and explains his competitive fire.

[ MORE: West Ham adds Diop ]

Lukaku talks about how his family’s poverty caused him to become a fierce competitor in the hopes of meeting his dreams head-on and providing for his family.

The Belgian, 25, scored twice in his side’s 3-0 World Cup-opening win over Panama earlier this week, and is now far removed from his youth, but he tells his story as if it lives fresh in his mind.

From The Players’ Tribune:

There were even times when my mum had to “borrow” bread from the bakery down the street. The bakers knew me and my little brother, so they’d let her take a loaf of bread on Monday and pay them back on Friday.

Lukaku also talks about racism in football, his debut for Anderlecht, and that aforementioned competitive drive. It’s 100 percent worth the read.

West Ham signs club record center back from Toulouse

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West Ham has reportedly set a club record with its latest signing under new manager Manuel Pellegrini.

Issa Diop is the player, the 21-year-old Toulouse captain and center back costing the Irons around $29 million.

[ MORE: Arsenal signs Leno ]

Diop scored three goals with an assist and eight yellow cards in 31 Ligue 1 matches this season, giving the young defender 95 apps, six goals, three assists, and 23 yellows since debuting with the senior team at 18.

Capped by France at every level below the senior team, Diop’s 2.2 interceptions per game ranked sixth in Ligue 1.

Toulose finished 18th in Ligue 1, but won its promotion/relegation playoff to stay in the French top flight.

From WHUFC.com:

“I am very happy to sign for such a historic, English club, and I hope to show my best here. I am a very ambitious player and West Ham is a very ambitious club, as we’ve seen with the appointment of the new coach. I hope to help the team win lots of games and make the fans happy.”

Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show: Episode 3

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In the third episode of Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show, England pulls out a massive win while VAR finds its way into the World Cup spotlight.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ] 

There will be plenty more to come over the next few weeks, with the show coming via the Men In Blazers.

Click play on the video above to watch the first episode in full.