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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Eriksen seals Inter move; Fernandinho signs new contract

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Christian Eriksen has finally sealed his move to Inter Milan as he has already trained with his new team.

Antonio Conte really loved the Premier League, huh?

Eriksen, 27, joins Ashley Young, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez as Premier League stars which have swapped England for the San Siro and Inter need the Danish playmaker to hit the ground running as they sit three points behind Juventus in the race for the Serie A title.

The deal reportedly bagged Spurs a $23 million transfer fee, which isn’t bad at all for a player who was out of contract this summer. Eriksen will also significantly increase his wages to over $160,000 per week, so everyone wins here. Even his former club Ajax, who receive a 10 percent sell-on fee.

With Eriksen finally gone, Spurs have moved fast to sign Giovani Lo Celso on a permanent deal and and are close to signing Dutch winger Steven Bergwijn from PSV Eindhoven.

It is true that Eriksen’s final few months at Tottenham have been far from stellar as he’s been booed by his own fans at times and has put in several lackluster displays since he revealed after the UEFA Champions League final last June that he wanted to leave Spurs and was ready for the next challenge.

Overall, though, Eriksen’s six-and-a-half seasons at Spurs can be deemed a huge success as he was a key part of making the Champions League in four-straight seasons under Mauricio Pochettino. His set pieces, pinpoint crosses and drifting between the attacking and midfield lines gave Spurs something a little different and his connection with Harry Kane and Dele Alli in particular was incredibly strong in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 campaigns.


In other news, Fernandinho has signed a new contract at Man City as the 34-year-old Brazilian midfielder (who has played at center back for most of this season) continues to be a key player for the reigning Premier League champions.

Fernandinho has won three Premier League titles, one FA Cup and four League Cups during his seven season stay at Man City and the former Shakhtar Donetsk star was delighted to commit to Pep Guardiola‘s side until the end of the 2020-21 season.

“This is the best possible news,” Fernandinho said. “I want to take this opportunity to put on record how grateful I am to my teammates and the backroom staff here at City. Without them, this deal would not be possible, so sincere thanks to every single one of them. I have enjoyed every second of my time here. I never expected to build such a meaningful relationship with the club and the fans, but it has happened, and I am grateful every single day.”

Fernandinho said he wants the recent success under Guardiola to carry on “for as long as possible” and there’s no doubt he will be connected with Man City for many years to come in a coaching or ambassador capacity after his playing days are over.

A proper pro, Fernandinho is so reliable and his passing is underrated too as he sets the tone from the engine room.

Report: Barcelona to edge out Man United, sign Fernandes

Manchester United lands Bruno Fernandes
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Maybe Bruno Fernandes won’t be staying at Sporting Lisbon after all, as Barcelona have reportedly made a late bid to sign him ahead of Manchester United.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

According to our partners Sky Sports in the UK, Barcelona “have proposed signing him this summer until 2025 but will loan him to Valencia until the end of the 2020-21 season.”

The report adds that with Barca in talks to sign Valencia striker Rodrigo, they are hoping buying and then loaning Fernandes helps to sweeten the deal.

Watch our transfer deadline day show from 6-8 p.m. ET on Jan. 31, live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com.

This is all very bizarre and all very Football Manager.

Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has looked a beaten man in recent days when it comes to talking about the pursuit of Fernandes which has been going on since last summer. United are said to be $26 million short of matching Sporting Lisbon’s valuation of Fernandes and even though the Portuguese playmaker would make a big difference for them in the final months of the Premier League season, it is unlikely the deal will happen and Barca seem ready to nip in at the 11th hour to seal the deal.

Speaking to journalists earlier on Tuesday, Solskjaer bemoaned the January window and how difficult it is to do business and shocked everyone as he revealed that Alexis Sanchez will be welcomed back with open arms in the summer when his loan with Inter Milan ends.

“Well, we’ve got players here we are working hard to get back and if there is something out there then the club are pursuing that and looking at it. Of course, it is the difficult window, it has always been,” Solskjaer said. “” can’t remember how many good ‘uns or deals we’ve brought in January. Henrik [Larsson] was good, Nemanja [Vidic] and Patrice [Evra] were two good ones. Henrik as a loan. Alexis… It is hard because some of the clubs don’t want to lose their players. Alexis will come back in the summer and prove you all wrong.”

It looks like Solskjaer may have to rely on Alexis Sanchez to provide a creative spark for the 2020-21 campaign as Fernandes could well be heading to the Nou Camp instead of Old Trafford.

After chasing Fernandes since the summer, this would be a massive blow for United and Solskjaer.

Liverpool issue injury update on Sadio Mane

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Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp has issued a positive injury update on Sadio Mane but he is still expected to miss the next two Premier League games.

Mane, 27, injured his hamstring against Wolverhampton Wanderers last week and Liverpool feared the worse but the Senegalese winger hasn’t completely torn a muscle.

Speaking ahead of Liverpool’s trip to West Ham to Wednesday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), Klopp confirmed Mane will be out against West Ham and is probably going to miss the home clash with Southampton on Saturday.

“Sadio will not be involved for West Ham and probably not for Southampton,” Klopp said. “After that he should be then fine. The week we have then after that is for him perfect to get back on track. He has a small muscle tear, which is serious enough to keep him out. We were lucky with the injury as well, so it was not that serious. But of course, when you have three games in a week then that means he is out for these three games.”

Overall, this is good news for Liverpool. Mane has been superb this season and is Liverpool’s leading goalscorer, coming up big so often in tight victories.

With the Reds 16 points clear at the top of the Premier League table with 15 games to go they have the ability to rest Mane and give him as much time as possible.

Klopp has already revealed he will not play his first team in the FA Cup fourth round replay against Shrewsbury Town and he will not be there himself (Neil Critchley will manage the U23 side in the game) as the squad has a week off during the mid-season player break.

Mane will be back in mid-February and that is a much better diagnosis than most Liverpool fans were expecting.

USMNT looks toward Olympic qualifying

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NEW YORK (AP) USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter will be looking toward Olympic soccer qualifying when the senior national team plays Costa Rica on Saturday in an exhibition at Carson, California.

Thirteen of the 22 players on the American roster are eligible for Olympic qualifying, which is limited to players under 23. The U.S. men failed to reach the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, and they are in a difficult qualifying group that includes Mexico and Costa Rica.

“It’ll be nice to give them an opportunity to perform in front of a crowd in a real international game,” Berhalter said during a telephone conference call on Monday.

Twelve players have no previous international experience. The U.S. has used 74 players in 30 matches since the 2017 loss at Trinidad and Tobago that ended the Americans’ streak of seven straight World Cup appearances, and 36 players have made debuts: 24 under interim coach Dave Sarachan and 12 under Berhalter, who was hired in December 2018.

“We think this age group is talented for the Olympic age group and we’re excited to see how they navigate through the qualification process and then eventually build the group for the Olympics” Berhalter said.

Olympic qualifying runs from March 20-30 and the U.S. will be coached by Jason Kreis. Since clubs are not required to release players to under-23 teams, top Americans Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent and Sergino Dest are not likely to be available. Major League Soccer starts Feb. 29, and its coaches may be reluctant to provide players.

“We’re going to need a lot of cooperation from Major League Soccer, and I know that’s difficult given the early stage of their season,” Berhalter said.

If the U.S. does qualify for the Olympics, it would be able to add three players over the age limit. But clubs could decline to release players.

“It would be nice to field our strongest team in the Olympics. We’re just not sure that’s going to happen,” Berhalter said.

Veterans on the roster this weekend include forwards Gyasi Zardes and Paul Arriola, defender Aaron Long and midfielder Sebastian Lletget. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid could make his first appearance since a June 2018 exhibition at Ireland.

On other topics:

-Berhalter did not sound overly concerned about Pulisic’s adductor injury. The Chelsea midfielder has not played since Jan. 1 and is not likely to return until Feb. 17 at the earliest. “He played a lot of games in a short period of time over Christmas,” Berhalter said. “He’s a young player playing at an extremely competitive level and it takes a physical toll on your body. And him coming to terms with that is something that’s normal for the process of adapting.”

-On the best position for Adams, who has appeared at right back and right wing for RB Leipzig: “We see him primarily as a central midfielder. We always have seen him as a central midfielder. But we know that when we when we need to be flexible, he can play that position, as well. We think right now the right back position is filled with depth, and he’ll be most suited in our system in central midfield.”

-On the possibility of Long transferring from the New York Red Bulls to West Ham: “It obviously could be a potential big change in where he’s competing and what level he’s playing at. … That would be a step up for him.”

-Jesus Ferreira, a Colombian-born forward who received U.S. citizenship last month, may not be eligible to play this weekend pending the completion of paperwork.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports