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Championship playoff preview: First legs see underdogs at home

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Who’s going to join Cardiff City and Wolves in the Premier League next season, and who will be left behind to meet Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion, and (probably) Swansea City?

[ MORE: Playoff primer ]

The next steps in that particularly journey are Friday.

Derby County (6) vs. Fulham (3) — 2:45 p.m. ET Friday

Fulham took four of six points from the Rams during the season, including a 2-1 win at Pride Park Stadium in March.

And the Cottagers had been in fine form until a season finale loss that cost them a chance at instant promotion to the Premier League. Third place teams have claimed just five of 15 playoff finals.

Derby defender Richard Keogh: “Our aim was minimum was a top-six finish, that’s cemented now and the play-offs is something we are all looking forward to. We know what the play-offs are like. It’s a pressure environment, but if you look though our squad the majority of us have been through a play-off campaign, so hopefully that will help us in the lead up to this.”

Fulham boss Slavisa Jokanovic: “It’s like in tennis; we lost one set, and we must be ready to keep going and cross the line. 180 minutes are ahead of us, and everything is probably going to be open after the game we’re going to play against Derby tomorrow. We must be ready for tomorrow’s challenge, and we must be ready for the game we’re going to play at Craven Cottage, too.”

Middlesbrough (5) vs. Aston Villa (4) — 12:15 p.m. ET Saturday

Thrice these teams have met since August, and the home side has been blanked each time. Boro knocked Villa out of the EFL Cup, but Villa took four of six points in the Championship. The last win came four days into the tenure of current Boro manager Tony Pulis.

Aston Villa boss Steve Bruce has a lot of people in his corner following the death of both his parents inside of a 90-day window. He says it has “rocked me to the bones” and is grateful for the distraction of the playoffs.

Bruce: “I think about the possibility of going to Wembley with Aston Villa and I know my mum will be there in spirit. She used to love a day out at Wembley, she really did. My dad wasn’t a huge fan of those trips, but she loved it. I just hope we have something to celebrate at the end of the month, because that is what they would have wanted.”

Middlesbrough’s Jonny Howson: “Looking at it, the playoffs have been different for me every single time. Form and recent match-ups in the league, it all goes out of the window. No-one can predict them. Yes, we’ve played Villa three times this season, and we know their players well – but it will be a completely different game now. We’ve got to get our focus right and start gearing up towards Saturday. It’s going to be a great atmosphere, we want to get off to the best start we can and get a good foothold in the tie.”

Nashville MLS expansion club snares ex-Liverpool CEO Ayre

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Former Liverpool CEO Ian Ayre is moving from Merseyside to the Music City.

The Tennesseean’s Joe Rexrode says Ayre is set to take the reins of Nashville SC as the first CEO in club history when it makes its debut in the 2020 MLS season.

[ MORE: No World Cup for Chelsea trio ]

Liverpool hired ex-EA Sports executive Peter Moore to replace Ayre in 2017 after the latter, 54, spent six years with the club as managing director and then CEO.

From the Tennessean:

“The MLS has huge ambitions to be one of the biggest and leading leagues in the world, and is on that trajectory,” Ayre said. “Both as a soccer fan and an executive in the industry, it’s something I’ve had my eye on because it’s important. … You talk about MLS and its growth, I think it’s becoming easier and will become easier to attract the right talent to something that’s exciting and developing. And if you have a reputation of being involved in a club like Liverpool, you hope that stands for something when you start to try and attract talent.”

Report: Lampard interviews twice with Championship club

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Steven Gerrard‘s longtime England midfield mate Frank Lampard could soon be joining him in a management.

While Gerrard is tasked with rebuilding Rangers’ Scottish title push, Lampard’s reported new gig would entail leading Ipswich Town back to the Premier League for the first time since 2002.

[ MORE: No World Cup for Chelsea trio ]

Sky Sports says Lampard has already interviewed twice with Ipswich Town ownership in a bid to earn his first senior management gig.

Lampard, 39, played for Chelsea, Man City, New York City FC, West Ham United, and Swansea in a sparkling 20-year playing career.

Town finished 12th in the Championship, 15 points back of a playoff spot and 19 clear of relegation.

No World Cup for Chelsea’s Spanish trio

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Spain has left Chelsea trio Alvaro Morata, Marcos Alonso, and Pedro off its World Cup squad.

Also omitted were Napoli’s Jose Callejoin and Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin.

[ MORE: MLS Things — The Archive ]

Manager Julen Lopetegui did include Blues defender Cesar Azpilicueta and ex-Chelsea man Diego Costa, as well as Manchester United’s David De Gea, Arsenal’s Nacho Monreal, and Man City’s David Silva.

Spain is expected to contend for the tournament crown in Russia, led by a stellar midfield which includes Silva, Andres Iniesta, Isco, and Thiago Alcantara.

Spain is in a group with Portugal, Iran, and Morocco.

Spain’s World Cup squad

Goalkeepers: De Gea, Kepa Arrizabalaga, Pepe Reina

Defenders: Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Azpilicueta, Nacho, Alvaro Odriozola, Jordi Alba, Monreal, Dani Carvajal

Midfielders: Sergio Busquets, Asensio, Iniesta, Isco, Saul Niguel, Thiago Alcantara, Koke, Silva.

Forwards: Diego Costa, Rodrigo, Iago Aspas, Lucas Vazquez.

MLS Three Things: RBNY beats Atlanta, is a special club right now

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At this point, Jesse Marsch could take the USMNT job, Tyler Adams could bolt for the Bundesliga, and we’d still have to select the New York Red Bulls to finish with a home playoff game.

[ MORE: Willian’s shot at Conte ]

That’s how well run RBNY is these days, which is to take nothing away from their coach and 19-year-old star, but considering they navigated a solid CONCACAF Champions League run en route to this start… well…. wow.

On a night when Luis Robles’ ironman streak ended, Kaku recorded two assists, and Ezequiel Barco bagged his second goal in three matches, they don’t even meet the requirements of our three things.

Form giants deliver more goals

Marsch’s men have been shutout once this season, and most multiple goals in four-consecutive wins. Three of those four wins have come on the road, at LA, Colorado, and now Atlanta.

RBNY has the best points-per-game in Major League Soccer, has scored the joint-most goals despite playing in the second-fewest games, and is allowing barely more than a goal-a-game.

Bet against ’em. We dare ya.

BWP delivers the goods

RBNY’s 33-year-old English star scored twice and won a penalty that Daniel Royer converted as he continued his assault on all future Red Bulls’ hopes of becoming the club’s leading scorer.

Bradley Wright-Phillips has almost 50 more goals than his nearest competitor, Juan Pablo Angel, and he makes headers look like child’s play.

Victory comes with a price

Kemar Lawrence was lost with a scary-looking face-plant on a clearance, and needed to be stretchered off the pitch. Hopefully it’s not long-term for the Jamaican back.