Chicago Fire v D.C. United

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

Bremen beats Wolfsburg to leave Bundesliga relegation zone

BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL - AUGUST 10:  Serge Gnabry of Germany reacts during the Men's First Round Football Group C match between Germany and Fiji at Mineirao Stadium on August 10, 2016 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.  (Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)
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WOLFSBURG, Germany (AP) — Midfielder Serge Gnabry scored twice as Werder Bremen moved away from the Bundesliga’s relegation zone with a 2-1 win at fellow struggler Wolfsburg on Friday.

Bremen and Wolfsburg are level on points and two above Hamburger SV, which is in 18th place and in the relegation zone.

It was a fifth defeat in six games for Wolfsburg coach Valerien Ismael, who won the league and cup double as a player with Bremen in 2004.

Gnabry fired the visitors ahead with a deflected shot in the 10th minute and made it 2-0 eight minutes later, controlling the ball with his chest before prodding home on the volley.

Striker Borja Mayoral, who is on loan from Real Madrid, scored with his chest following a Wolfsburg corner as Wolfsburg hit back moments later.

Midfielder Daniel Didavi struck the post with a free kick as Wolfsburg kept pushing for an equalizer.

Mancini reportedly not interested in Leicester City, De Boer says no

GENOA, ITALY - APRIL 20:  Head Coach of FC Internazionale Roberto Mancini looks during the Serie A match between Genoa CFC and FC Internazionale Milano at Stadio Luigi Ferraris on April 20, 2016 in Genoa, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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Two top candidates to replace Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City have reportedly turned down any interest in the job.

Roberto Mancini, the heavy favorite out of the gates after Ranieri’s dismissal, tweeted his support for Ranieri after the news broke. “I am sorry for my friend Ranieri,” Mancini said. “He will be in the history of LCFC, in the hearts of Leicester fans and all football lovers.”

However, the fellow Italian has rebuffed Leicester’s informal advances towards his services. According to Sky Sports, Leicester sent “intermediaries” to “sound out” Mancini’s feelings towards the position, but came back empty-handed. The report states Mancini was turned off to the club after a short and unsuccessful spell there as a player in 2001.

That leaves a host of other names who have been linked to the job, with no clear favorite. One person mentioned was Dutch legend Frank de Boer, who is unemployed after an unusually short stint in charge of Inter Milan. However, De Boer’s agent went public to say he was not ever in the running.

“There is zero possibility that Frank could go to Leicester,” agent Guido Albers told Italian publication Tuttomercatoweb. “I too heard these rumors, but that’s all they are – rumors. I can affirm without doubt that Frank will not become the Leicester City manager. This will 100 per cent not happen.”

Albers explained that De Boer is only interested in joining a club in the offseason, preferring to enter a project with a blank slate rather than joining midseason with particular goals already clearly laid out. With Leicester, it seems De Boer is turned off by the notion of a relegation battle.

Win over Las Palmas again has La Real on edge of CL spot

GETAFE, SPAIN - DECEMBER 11:  Xavi Prieto of Real Sociedad in action during the La Liga match between Getafe CF and Real Sociedad de Futbol at Coliseum Alfonso Perez stadium on December 11, 2015 in Getafe, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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All it took was one mistake. Real Sociedad’s Xabi Prieto capitalized, and has La Real once again on the verge of next year’s Champions League.

La Real finished 7th in 2013/14, and 9th in 2015/16, and this year, they’re closer than ever. Preito’s goal on the mistake by Las Palmas goalkeeper Javi Varas gave Real Sociedad the 1-0 road win and has them just a point off a Champions League place.

[ MORE: Antonio Conte pulling from experience to keep Chelsea on top ]

That could be even closer next week, as fourth-placed Atletico Madrid has to welcome Barcelona to the Calderon tomorrow, leaving the door open for La Real to make another move next weekend.

The goal down the stretch is not just to win the games they should, but make the teams above them work. La Real has won seven of their last ten matches, but the three losses came to Real Madrid, Villareal, and Sevilla, all teams fighting at the top of the table. They still have chances down the stretch, with matches against Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, and Eibar coming up, with the latter on the docket next weekend.

Conte pulling from prior experience as title race pushes on

WOLVERHAMPTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18: Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea looks on during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Chelsea at Molineux on February 18, 2017 in Wolverhampton, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte has recalled some painful memories to push himself and his players forward despite their commanding lead at the top of the Premier League table.

Chelsea sits eight points clear of Manchester City, and has the chance to go even further in front with many of the top teams off this weekend, but that won’t give the Italian any better sleep at night.

In the 1999/2000 season, Conte was nearing the end of his 13-year Juventus tenure. He’d won three league titles already, plus two league cup trophies and a Champions League title with the Serie A giants. With a comfortable nine point lead after 26 matches, the club became complacent. They would lose four of their final eight matches, collapsing on the final day in the pouring rain, allowing Lazio to come roaring back to win the title.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks for Week 26 ]

“I was captain of the team,” Conte said. “I remember after this game I must go to the European Championships with the national team. I didn’t sleep for six days because it was a shock for me to lose the title.”

Clearly, that still haunts him. “I have experienced this,” Conte continued. “When I continue to repeat that there are 13 games, there are 39 points… there is a long time before we can say we won the title. We must be focused, we must go step by step.”

The Blues host Swansea City at Stamford Bridge on Saturday before a trip to West Ham next weekend. If anyone believes the Chelsea players are complacent holding such a significant lead with 13 matches to go, it’s clear that’s not nearly the case. Anything can happen in three months.