Question to answer in MLS preseason camp: D.C. United

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(Through the week we’ll look at three Major League Soccer clubs per day, considering what they need to accomplish and what questions deserve answers during preseason training camps. Opening day in MLS is March 2.)

Some clubs use preseason to build or rebuild. Some are down to adjusting and tweaking.

The luckiest (Hello, D.C. United!) can use winter rehearsals to refine, fine tune and generally keep things pointed in the right direction.

That isn’t to say that D.C. United manager Ben Olsen and his club don’t have work ahead. They do, especially on defense.

But given the upward trend around RFK and all the talented young players, there’s a lot to be excited about for a club that came quite close to safe arrival into last year’s MLS Cup final.

In the first of 18 preseasons without longtime club staple Kevin Payne at the top of the organizational chart, here are the questions Olsen and Co. need to answer:

  • Are the right pieces present to build a better back line?

It’s a tough call. Major League Soccer’s restrictive salary policies mean clubs can seldom be strong all over the field. Center backs Dejan Jakovic and Brandon McDonald aren’t bad, but they aren’t MLS elite class. Nor are the outside backs Daniel Woolard, Robbie Russell and Chris Korb.

There’s plenty of “pretty good,” but is that enough? Consider that last year’s defense was 7th among 10 playoffs teams in goals allowed in the regular season (43). Again, not bad … but nothing special.

A big piece of the back line preseason puzzle will be unwrapped when United finds out once and for all about Andy Najar, whose extended loan to Belgium power Anderlecht looks more and more like a transfer in the making.

  • Just exactly what is the best spot for Chris Pontius?

Let’s be clear about this: Pontius can be successful as an attacking presence out of midfield or as a striker. But in his fifth year as a pro, it should now be about getting the very best out of Pontius. (By the way, now that Omar Gonzalez has finally found his way into an extended U.S. national team camp, Pontius officially replaces the Galaxy center back for most U.S. supporters as the talented man who most needs to be recognized internationally for his, you know, talent.)

It’s all tied, of course, to where Olsen uses De Rosario in 2013.  Whatever the arrangement, the club should get Pontius into a spot and let him be the best that he can be – which is surely a lot.

  • What’s the best preseason approach for a hectic year ahead?

There is so much attacking talent around RFK, but several of the critical pieces come with their own set of 2013 challenges. May as well begin dealing with them now, in the preseason.

Dwayne De Rosario turns 35 in May, and he’ll presumably be part of Canada’s Gold Cup squad in the summer. He’ll need proper pacing.

Pontius is coming off injury and doesn’t need any preseason setbacks. Bet on seeing him in the U.S. assembly for Gold Cup, by the way.

Nick DeLeon slumped in the middle of the year, and it’s fair to speculate that the dreaded “rookie wall” had something to do with it. He needs the right kind of long-term conditioning during preseason.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: F.C. Dallas

U.S. Open Cup roundup: Poku lifts Miami; Red Bulls, Cincy win on PKs

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While MLS represents the majority of the remaining clubs in this year’s U.S. Open Cup, one side continues to defy the odds.

[ MORE: Minnesota United adds Hearts midfielder Sam Nicholson ]

Miami FC reached their first quarterfinal in club history after knocking off Atlanta United late on Wednesday, behind a goal and an assist from Kwadwo Poku. The victory for Miami sets up a date with FC Cincinnati — who pulled off an unbelievable shootout win against the Chicago Fire.

Meanwhile, the New York Red Bulls and New England Revolution both advanced on the night with wins over the Philadelphia Union and D.C. United, respectively. The Red Bulls and Revs will meet in the final eight as well.

Sporting KC kept its hope of hoisting a fourth U.S. Open Cup title alive on Wednesday with a 2-0 win over the Houston Dynamo. The 2015 winners will take on FC Dallas — who defeated the Colorado Rapids on Tuesday night.

Here are all the results from tonight’s Open Cup action.

Houston Dynamo 0-2 Sporting KC
New England Revolution 2-1 D.C. United
Miami FC 3-2 Atlanta United
New York Red Bulls 1-1 (5-3 on PKs) Philadelphia Union
FC Cincinnati 0-0 (3-1 on PKs) Chicago Fire
San Jose Earthquakes 2-1 Seattle Sounders
LA Galaxy 2-0 Sacramento Republic

Report: City Football Group set to expand outreach with Girona deal

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City Football Group appears on the verge of adding to its global outreach, and it’s next destination looks to be in Spain.

[ MORE: Are Southampton’s days of selling behind the club? ]

The group of investors, which are known for controlling Premier League side Manchester City, are reportedly nearing a deal to purchase a partial stake in Spanish club Girona — which is set to make its La Liga debut in 2017/18.

CFG is said to be gaining a near “50 percent” stake in the club, with the rest of the club owned by Media Base, a company owned by Pep Guardiola‘s brother, Pere.

Over recent years, CFG has vastly expanded its ownership outreach and currently has a stake in five clubs around the world, with Girona set to be the sixth.

MLS side New York City FC, Australian A-League side Melbourne City FC, Japan’s Yokohama F. Marinos and Club Atletico Torque in Uruguay are all part of the CFG enterprise, alongside Man City.

New York Red Bulls ink goalkeeper Luis Robles to new deal

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The “Iron Man” will keep up his amazing journey with the New York Red Bulls, after signing a new deal with the club on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Wesley Sneijder on verge of joining Los Angeles FC ]

Goalkeeper Luis Robles has extended his contract with the reigning Eastern Conference champions, as the American continues to raise his consecutive starts streak, which stands at 157.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed in the club’s release.

Robles joined the Red Bulls back in 2012 after playing in Germany, and the shot-stopper hasn’t missed a start ever since.

Report: Minnesota United adds Hearts midfielder Sam Nicholson

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Minnesota United has had its shares of ups and down in its debut MLS season, but the Loons are on the verge making an exciting young signing.

[ MORE: Wesley Sneijder closing in on Los Angeles FC move ]

ESPN FC is reporting that Minnesota will sign Hearts winger Sam Nicholson from the Scottish Premier League on a deal that makes him a Loon until 2019.

The young attacker is expected to join the MLS side when the summer transfer window opens on July 10.

Nicholson, 22, has played with the Edinburgh side since his youth days, and made his senior debut with the club in 2013. During his time at Hearts, Nicholson scored 16 goals in all competitions for the team.

Last season, Nicholson missed 16 matches due to a significant knee injury.

According to the report, Scottish sides Rangers and Aberdeen were also among those interested in acquiring Nicholson, while English Championship clubs Bristol City and Barnsley also reached out about the attacker.