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

Premier League Preview: Stoke City vs. Manchester United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United (L) shoots while Erik Pieters of Stoke City (R) attempts to block the shot during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford on October 2, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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  • Man Utd leads all-time 43W-34D-28L
  • Clubs even in last six (2-2-2)
  • Red Devils unbeaten in 16
  • Stoke winners of two-straight

After wins over Sunderland and Watford, Stoke City gets a higher class of opponent on Saturday at the Britannia Stadium (Watch live at 10 a.m. EDT on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Fortunately for Stoke, it’s had some success against Manchester United in recent years.

Stoke and United drew 1-1 at Old Trafford on Oct. 2, though Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils are flying now. United is hard to break down, and arguably deserved better than the 1-1 draw it earned versus Liverpool last weekend.

Stoke is now 11 points clear of the drop zone, and a win could raise its status to closer to the Top Five than Bottom Three. United, meanwhile, wants three points that would move it to precipice of the Top Four.

 

What they’re saying

Stoke City’s Glenn Whelan on facing United“There has been a wind of change there and the supporters seem a lot happier now and you get the sense that they are together as a group now. You only have to look at the players within the squad, and even the ones who are leaving, to see how much strength in depth they have there.”

Jose Mourinho praises newly-extended Antonio Valencia“I don’t think it is a reward, I don’t see it in this perspective. I just think he is the best right-back you can have. There is no better right-back in football. It is just for us to keep the best. I don’t think it is a reward. It is a privilege for us to have such a good player and such a good man.”

Prediction

United gets it done, only barely. Stoke will put up a brave battle for boss Mark Hughes, but there are too many weapons to suppress. United, 1-0.

AFCON wrap: Results keep Group C undecided

Ivory Coast's Wilfried Bony controls the ball on his head during their training session at the Stade Akoakam, Oyem, Gabon, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, ahead of their African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match against Congo. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
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Like Group A, Group C in the Africa Cup of Nations has very little decided ahead of the final group stage match.

[ MORE: Guardiola “said goodbye to title” ]

Ivory Coast 2-2 DR Congo

A thrilling first half had DR Congo leading 1-0 and 2-1, with only Wilfried Bony netting for the Ivory Coast. Les Elephants grabbed a draw through Serey Die’s 67th minute goal.

DR Congo now leads the group and is primed to advance with a result against Togo or a Morocco loss or draw against Ivory Coast.

Morocco 3-1 Togo

Mathieu Dossevi gave Togo a surprise fifth minute lead lead, but Aziz Bouhaddouz kickstarted the Moroccan attack to plug the victors into Group C’s second spot ahead of a Jan. 24 showdown with Ivory Coast.

Saturday’s matches

Ghana vs. Mali — 11 a.m. ET
Egypt vs. Uganda — 2 p.m. ET

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Swansea City

SWANSEA, WALES - MAY 01:  Jefferson Montero of Swansea City is challenged by Nathaniel Clyne of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and Liverpool at The Liberty Stadium on May 1, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)
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  • Liverpool leads all-time 22W-8D-10L
  • Swans lost five-straight at Anfield
  • Reds unbeaten in 7 PL matches

One of the Premier League’s top attacks hosts the division’s leakiest defense, as Liverpool may be licking its chops ahead of a visit from struggling Swansea City on Saturday (Watch live at 7:30 a.m. EDT on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Liverpool has drawn at Sunderland and Manchester United in its last two Premier League outings, and sits seven points back of leaders Chelsea.

Swansea City has allowed multiple goals in five of six PL matches since beating Sunderland 3-0 on Dec. 10. It’s no surprise that they’ve lost those five (the sixth being a 2-1 win at struggling Crystal Palace).

What they’re saying

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp on the match“We’re really looking forward to this game. I don’t know when it happened but in England every game now is like a final. Swansea are trying to survive. I don’t know when the title run-in will start, maybe now and we’re in the race. I hope for a special atmosphere tomorrow.”

Swansea City back Federico Fernandez on Liverpool“They are a team that is very strong going forward and that is shown by the number of goals they have scored. If you lose a little bit of focus against these teams then they have the players that will punish you every time. But it’s not only defending strongly when they are attacking, it is also how we keep hold of the ball and how we use it when in possession.”

Prediction

Swansea boss Paul Clement has his hands full, and is grabbing reinforcements in the transfer window (Luciano Narsingh, Martin Olsson, Tom Carroll). That won’t be enough to handle what Liverpool will dish out Saturday, as the Reds break free with a 3-0 win.

Saints’ Fonte moves to West Ham for $10 million

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West Ham has been linked with big name strikers since the summer, but the Irons’ big January transfer to date is a center back.

EURO champion and Southampton mainstay Jose Fonte is moving to London.

[ MORE: West Brom finally sells Berahino ]

Fonte, 33, makes an approximately $10 million move from the South Coast, where the Portuguese back will better Slaven Bilic‘s back line while forcing Southampton to find an answer alongside Virgil Van Dijk.

It’s been a strange trip to London for Fonte and Southampton, detailed by our own Joe Prince-Wright here. Fonte joined Saints during the 2009-10 season, and became a cult hero at St. Mary’s in helping the club move from League One to the Europa League in just over a half-decade.

Something won’t feel right about seeing Fonte in claret and blue, and Saints host West Ham on Feb. 4. Should be quite interesting.