Drilling down on: D.C. United 1, at New York 0

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The men of D.C. United keep doing what they do best these days, find a way. Any way, and quite often by the teeny tiniest of margins, through these 1-0 squeakers.

An 88th minute goal game United its latest 1-0 win, and definitely its biggest.

But that’s all it takes. Just one goal Thursday from Red Bull Arena decided what will be written as one of Major League Soccer all-time post-season memory makers, for reasons good and bad.

Quick recap of what this absolutely bananas two-leg conference semifinal series had: a Hurricane Sandy-related (and somewhat controversial) venue swap, a 24-hour match postponement due to a different winter storm, two own goals, two missed penalty kicks, one rare penalty kick retake order, three red cards and then the late, game-winner from a rookie.

While D.C. United, which advanced 2-1 on aggregate, prepares for the Eastern Conference finals against Houston, New York could well be prepping for a coaching change … and who knows what the team’s quirky management will do with an expensive, underachieving roster?

Man of the Match:

D.C. United rookie Nick DeLeon may go on to play year after glorious year in Major League Soccer and yet never score a bigger goal. He shook free (exploiting the positional gaffe of a fellow rookie) to take a clever pass from right back Robbie Russell and made no mistake with his right-footed finish in the 88th minute.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

Referee Mark Geiger got things right:

D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid was apoplectic, but he was wrong. Referee Mark Geiger got this one right, as Hamid made contact with the onrushing Kenny Cooper with about 20 minutes remaining.

Hamid has done this before, getting out of control as he rushes out to confront shooters. Given the situation, Geiger had no choice; It’s a red card and a penalty kick – although Hamid was quite close to the edge of the penalty area.

Then the choice to order a re-take after Cooper nailed the original penalty kick? Geiger was right on that one, too.

It’s not a decision we see very often, and surely one that should only be ordered on egregious violations. Thierry Henry, getting about three big steps into the penalty area (trailed by two encroaching teammates) qualifies as egregious.

Cooper’s signature stutter-step worked against Henry and his teammates here – but they’ve seen Cooper do this before, right? We certainly have.

Oh, and Rafa Marquez’s red card (two yellows, that is)? Yep. That one was easy for Geiger.

Missed opportunities, the scourge of the Eastern Conference playoffs so far:

Let’s be clear, this wasn’t the orgy of squander we saw last night from Kansas City, where the Eastern Conference champs crashed out of the MLS playoffs while missing chances after begging chance. But the Red Bulls’ finishing simply wasn’t good enough Thursday. When you take a 0-0 match into the late minutes at home, you’ve left yourself open to the possibility of something unforeseen – like a goal against the run of play from a rookie.

That came about 15 minutes after United backup goalkeeper Joe Willis saved Cooper’s penalty kick. It came about five minutes after Dax McCarty skied a brilliant arrangement from Henry (who was far more lively and energetic in this one that in Saturday’s first leg in Washington.)

Henry went just wide off Cooper’s cross in the second half. Before the break, New York failed to score on three shots from in close as United struggled to clear the ball.

Again, we see that the MLS playoffs are all about timing:

The talented teams keep falling, Sporting Kansas City and San Jose last night, and star-strewn New York tonight.

And that’s not such a shocker, historically speaking; it’s been said so many times that this is MLS Playoff cliché No. 1, but here it is again: More than being about having the best team, MLS playoffs are really about being hot at the right time.

D.C. United certainly is, now 6-0-3 over the last two months. All this, of course, without their best player, Dwayne De Rosario.

Beyond strong and headstrong play from Chris Pontius, Brandon McDonald, DeLeon, Perry Kitchen and a couple of others, the side is thriving on belief and desire – and that’s a powerful marriage when the blend and the timing is stacked just so.

Packaged for take-away

  • Of all the shockers in this one, how about this for the night’s top head-scratcher: Awarded a free kick two minutes into stoppage time, from the top of the penalty area, with Henry standing over the ball and the season in the balance — reserve New York left back Roy Miller took the shot. Roy. Miller. That’s just not something that can be explained.
  • Kenny Cooper was 10 for 10 in spot kicks in MLS before tonight.
  • Best, ongoing battle of the night: DCU striker Lionard Pajoy and Red Bulls center back Markus Holggerson.
  • Rafa Marquez? There’s just too much to say for this post. We’ll have more later.
  • Willis was United’s starter in goal to begin the season and he very nearly kept the injured Hamid on the bench for an extended run. He’ll be in goal for at least one more while Hamid sits for the mandatory one-game suspension.
  • New York outshot the visitors 18-8.
  • Geiger was also the man in the middle on another “re-take-gate.” In that one, D.C. United was the offending party, and team president Kevin Payne had some very unkind words for Geiger, who had ordered a penalty kick re-take against his team.

Match highlights are here:

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Japan upsets ten-man Colombia in Group H opener

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On paper, the 61st-ranked team in the world beating the 16th-ranked team in the world is a massive upset. But considering the circumstances within the game, perhaps this wasn’t an upset after all.

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Two set pieces were the difference as Japan defeated ten-man Colombia, 2-1 on Tuesday morning in Saransk. Colombia played with ten men for nearly the entire match, after Carlos Sanchez was sent off for a handball in the box and a denial of a goal scoring opportunity.

The game took a massive turn in the third minute, as Colombia centerback Davinson Sanchez failed to control a pass and Yuya Osako found himself free on goal. His shot was parried away by Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina but Kagawa’s rebound shot was clearly blocked by Sanchez’s right arm. The referee, Damir Skomina immediately pointed to the penalty spot and went to the back pocket, sending Sanchez to the showers.

Kagawa stepped up and cooly sent Ospina the wrong way to put Japan on top.

Late in the first half, after both teams had chances on target, Colombia came back and evened the scoreline.

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Juan Fernando Quintero, starting in place of the recovering James Rodriguez, smartly took a free kick and fired it low, under the wall as it jumped. Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima reacted late and although he arrived as the ball was crossing the line, he couldn’t keep it from going over, tying the game in the 39th minute.

Ultimately, despite its efforts, Colombia began to tire and on a corner kick, the Blue Samurai took back the lead and control of their destiny in Group H. A corner kick from Keisuke Honda was re-directed past Ospina by Osako, who jumped well over Santiago Arias, to give Japan a 2-1 lead in the 75th minute.

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Rodriguez was introduced in the 57th minute but try as he did, Colombia was unable to find the final pass in the box, and Japan held on for the unexpected victory.

With the win, Japan top Group H ahead of a meeting with Senegal, while Colombia will have to regroup to face Poland.

In a World Cup full of unexpected results, Tuesday brought yet another memorable win for an underdog.

New Zealand women footballers rebel against national coach

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Wellington, New Zealand (AP) Only weeks after New Zealand Football made headlines by signing a revolutionary equal pay deal with its female players, the organization is facing a mutiny by members of its women’s team against the national coach.

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New Zealand Football confirmed on Tuesday it had received a letter signed by a number of New Zealand players complaining about the methods and tactics employed by Austria-born coach Andreas Heraf.

The complaints follow the New Zealand team’s recent 3-1 loss at home to Japan. Heraf angered his players, and fans of the Football Ferns national team, by taking an entirely defensive game plan into the rare home international.

Heraf then further angered his players with comments defending his approach.

He said there was “a big difference in quality” between the New Zealand and Japanese players and that New Zealand “will never have that quality” to compete with top teams like Japan. He said the scoreline might have been 8-0 if New Zealand had not adopted a defensive approach.

One of New Zealand’s leading players, United States-based Abby Erceg, retired after playing 132 matches for New Zealand, citing Heraf’s approach in previous international matches.

She later told New Zealand media: “I couldn’t stand to wear that (national symbol) on my chest any more when his vision was to cower in a corner and not get beat by too much.”

New Zealand Football defended Heraf against the media and public criticism but admitted his comments were “strange” and “wrong” and did not accurately reflect his views. Heraf later apologized and said he had not expressed himself clearly.

But efforts to dampen the controversy have failed. New Zealand Football said in a statement it had “received a letter from the NZ Professional Footballers Association (NZPFA) last night with a number of complaints from the players of the Football Ferns.”

The mutiny comes only weeks after New Zealand gained international headlines for a deal which gives female pay parity with their male counterparts.

New Zealand Football signed the deal which provided female players with equal match payments, travel arrangements and prize money.

At the time, New Zealand women’s captain Ali Riley said the deal meant New Zealand would “be able to compete against the top teams, to be able to do well at a World Cup and the Olympics – this is what we needed.”

VIDEO: Colombia sees red, Japan takes early lead

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The first red card of the World Cup came just moments after fans took their seats in Saransk.

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After David Ospina blocked a breakaway opportunity from Yuya Osako in the third minute of the match, Japan star and former Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa fired the rebound on goal. But his shot was blocked by the arm of Colombia midfielder Carlos Sanchez, which earned him a straight red card from referee Damir Skomina and an early trip to the locker room.

Kagawa then stepped up to the spot and calmly sent Ospina the wrong way to give Japan the shock early lead.

Colombia will play the rest of the match with ten men and no James Rodriguez, who was named to the bench for this match as he recovers from a reported calf injury.

Rodriguez out of Colombia starting XI

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Taking a page out of Egypt’s book, Colombia will be without its talismanic playmaker for its first match, Tuesday morning against Japan.

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Juan Fernando Quintero replaced James Rodriguez in Colombia’s starting Xi to take on Japan in Saransk as Colombia coach Jose Pekerman clearly hopes a few extra days of recovery for the injured Rodriguez will help him return to 100 percent fitness. Rodriguez is battling a reported calf injury.

Rodriguez scored six goals and had two assists in five games at the last World Cup in Brazil, helping guide Los Cafeteros to their first World Cup quarterfinals appearance.