Federico Higuain

Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: Columbus Crew

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(Over the next week we’ll look at two or 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.)

Anyone else thinking that manager Robert Warzycha has to get it right this year?

Things started well enough when the former Polish international took over for Sigi Schmid back in 2009. A Supporters Shield was claimed and the team made the playoffs.

That’s been the high water mark, however. Two subsequent playoff appearances have helped maintain a certain level of success, although the club is still looking for its first post-season win since claiming the MLS Cup under Schmid back in 2008.

Last year saw a back slide as the Crew failed to qualify for the playoffs; they just couldn’t keep the momentum going from Federico Higuain’s fantastic start.

So as camp begins in 2013, the pressure is surely building. Answering these three questions would things begin moving the right direction.

  • Can the new faces get acquainted quickly?

It seems a little early for a roster re-do, seeing as the Crew pretty much took a sledgehammer to the side just two years ago. But here we are.

Dilly Duka, brimming with potential, wants a trade. Chilean midfielder Milovan Mirosevic has just moved on. Sebastian Miranda, Cole Grossman and Emilio Renteria are out of there, as well.

Longtime No. 1 William Hesmer is gone, having lost his spot to Andy Gruenebaum. Gruenebaum will start in goal, but they’ll need a reliable backup. So the team will need to integrate lots of replacement parts.

MLS vet Tyson Wahl has made Columbus his latest stop. Brazilian veteran Gláuber was just signed to partner with Chad Marshall in the center of Columbus’ defense. Club GM Mark McCullers says several new signings may be announced over the coming days and weeks; the blog Massive Report says defensive midfielder Matías Sánchez may be one of them.

  • How best to build around and capitalize on Higuain?

Over 17 MLS seasons, few players have landed with such a ferocious impact as the Argentine attacker did last season. Higuain started only 11 matches and yet still managed to generate some league MVP chatter.

Clearly, the Crew have found something potentially quite special in their 28-year-old forward / attacking midfielder, whose resume includes stops at Boca Juniors and River Plate, and whose brother Gonzalo is among the Galacticos of Real Madrid.

“Something special” means one thing: you build around the guy, fitting the parts and designing the system concentrically around his particular set of abilities. Warzycha and his staff didn’t have time to do so last year. Now they do.

  • How to get the best from everyone?

I love Eddie Gaven and continue to see him as one of Major League Soccer’s most underrated men. Then again, wouldn’t it be nice to see the team’s busy flank midfielder get more than two assists (to go with those nine goals, which, to be fair, is above average production for his position). No one has quite unlocked Tony Tchani’s full potential, which is mostly about making him more consistent. Chad Marshall can still dominate, but he can have his off nights, as well.

Once Warzycha and McCullers fill in the roster gaps, getting the best from the familiar faces around Crew Stadium will certainly help the cause and ease the significant transition ahead.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: D.C. United

Klinsmann wants “urgency” as USMNT for crucial World Cup qualifiers

HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 21:  United States manager Jurgen Klinsmann (R) walks across the pitch with a group of players after losing their game against Argentina 4-0 during a 2016 Copa America Centenario Semifinal match at NRG Stadium on June 21, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Jurgen Klinsmann isn’t a man who messes around.

He wants his U.S. national team players to follow his lead.

[ MORE: Boufal signs for Saints ]

After naming a 26-man squad for the USMNT’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers against St. Vincent and the Grenadines this Friday and Trinidad & Tobago next Tuesday, Klinsmann didn’t spring any real surprises with the injured duo of Clint Dempsey and Gyasi Zardes not available for selection.

Speaking to U.S. Soccer he revealed that although he’s stayed loyal to the players who led the U.S. to a fourth-place finish in the Copa America Centenario this summer, he wants to see added urgency from his team with a qualification to the final round of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup very much in the balance.

“We definitely think that the group that got fourth in the Copa America deserves a certain priority going on to the next World Cup qualifiers because they did tremendously well in the Copa America,” Klinsmann said. “It was an exciting tournament with great games. The whole group learned a lot, playing teams like Colombia, Ecuador and Argentina. This is a big stage, and they deserve to come back and confirm what they did in the tournament in these upcoming, very important World Cup qualifiers. We are preparing for these two games very seriously, with a lot of urgency because we want to finish off our group in first place if possible, and this group of players gets the chance to do that.”

Heading into these final two Group C games in the third-round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, the U.S. sits in second place behind T&T and everything is set up for a showdown in Jacksonville, Florida against the Soca Warriors.

[ MORE: USMNT squad in full for WC qualifiers ]

The U.S. should comfortably take care of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines later this week but with Guatemala and T&T squaring off in the other Group C game, there is a scenario where a defeat to T&T next Tuesday would eliminate the U.S. national team from World Cup qualifying before the Hexagonal round. If Guatemala wins its final two games and the U.S. beat Saint Vincent and the Grenadines but either lose or draw to T&T, they will be out of World Cup qualifying.

Right now that’s unthinkable but the fact that Klinsmann has decided to call up 19 of the 23 players who represented him at the Copa America this summer proves that he has finally found his core group of guys and will continue with a settled back four, however in midfield he will be missing the suspended Michael Bradley for the opening game and Jermaine Jones isn’t 100 percent fit.

The big issue for the U.S. over the next 10 days is up top.

Bobby Wood will play a leading role after netting on his debut for Hamburg this past weekend but without Zardes and Dempsey the U.S. needs Jozy Altidore to step up and prove he has once and for all recovered fully from a spate of nagging injuries. After Altidore, youngsters Rubio Rubin, Jordan Morris and Christian Pulisic will provide options, plus veteran Chris Wondolowski will also be around if needed.

You do wonder if the U.S. has enough firepower to break through a stubborn T&T defense next week who will likely come to U.S. soil knowing a draw or a smash-and-gran win will seal them top spot in Group C. Scoring goals will be the main concern nagging Klinsmann for the next 10 days as his squad  are under pressure after a defeat at Guatemala and a draw at T&T earlier in qualifying.

Allardyce explains Barkley omission, yet to name captain

BURTON-UPON-TRENT, ENGLAND - JULY 25:  Newly appointed England manager Sam Allardyce attends a press conference at St. George's Park on July 25, 2016 in Burton-upon-Trent, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Sam Allardyce raised plenty of eyebrows with the omission of Everton’s Ross Barkley from his first squad as England manager.

[ MORE: Fabregas wants Chelsea stay ]

Allardyce, 61, named a 23-man squad for England’s 2018 World Cup qualifier against Slovakia as he prepares his squad for his first game in charge.

The former Sunderland, West Ham, Newcastle, Blackburn and Bolton manager surprised many with the inclusion of West Ham’s winger Michail Antonio, and in a press conference on Monday he also confirmed he would name his England captain on Tuesday.

He also spoke about his decision to leave Barkley out.

“We’ve had to make some very, very difficult decisions. None more so than Ross Barkley. It’s disappointing for him,” Allardyce said. “The door will always be open for Ross but at this moment I think the squad I’ve named is right.”

Of course this is the right approach to take from Allardyce when it comes to dropping Barkley from the squad. He is still only 22-years-old and has considerable experience in the PL and with England at two major tournaments, even though he didn’t lay a single second at EURO 2016, he will get another chance. Allardyce would be foolish to complete cast the Everton playmaker aside and he knows it.

[ MORE: Allardyce’s first England squad in full ]

Barkley’s confidence may have been impacted by not being used by Roy Hodgson this summer but there is Wayne Rooney, Adam Lallana and Dele Alli to compete with in that central attacking area.

Ronald Koeman has given Barkley a central role for the Toffees since taking charge and it is now down to the Liverpool born playmaker to become more productive in the final third and turn his undoubted potential into goals, assists and become the main man at Goodison Park. He has all the tools to succeed but maybe this snub will help Barkley refocus and go back to basics as he tries to impress Big Sam.

Fabregas denies rift with Conte, says he’s not leaving Chelsea

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 15:  Cesc Fabregas of Chelsea looks on from the sidelines during the Premier League match between Chelsea and West Ham United at Stamford Bridge on August 15, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Cesc Fabregas has not started a single Premier League game for Chelsea so far this season under new manager Antonio Conte.

[ MORE: Boufal signs for Saints ]

The Spanish midfielder, 29, is seen by many as far too good to be sitting on the bench somewhere and coupled with reports that Fabregas had a falling out with Conte, many thought he could move on elsewhere in the final days of the window.

Apparently that is far from the truth.

After seeing widespread media speculation regarding a “bust up” with Conte, the former Arsenal and Barcelona playmaker has moved to quell the notion of him leaving Stamford Bridge.

Fabregas led the PL in assists in 2014-15, getting off to a flying start in Chelsea’s title-winning season. However his form dipped as that season closed out and last season he was a shadow of his former self as Jose Mourinho was fired and Chelsea ended up finishing in 10th place in the Premier League table.

With N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic the first-choice central midfield pairing for Conte, he has seen great balance in his side as they’ve won all three of their opening PL games.

Fabregas did provide a sumptuous assist on Diego Costa‘s late game-winner at Watford last weekend with a beautifully weighted 50-yard through ball but his lack of power and speed seem to mean he’s on the outside looking in when it comes to Conte’s starting lineup.

If he has aspirations of playing for Spain and playing regularly, surely Fabregas should move on. His qualities are undoubted in the right team but Conte’s Chelsea clearly won’t suit his strengths and vice versa.

Below is the message which Fabregas posted on Instagram.


Southampton sign rising star Sofiane Boufal for club-record fee

Sofiane Boufal signs for Southampton FC, pictured at The Staplewood Campus, Southampton, 29th August 2016, pictured with Executive Director of Football Les Reed
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Southampton have made a huge statement by signing Sofiane Boufal from Ligue 1 side Lille.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights 

After the deal was all but secured last week Saints announced the acquisition on Monday and it is believed Boufal initially cost over $21 million, a club-record transfer fee.

The Moroccan international attacking midfielder, 22, has signed a five-year deal with the club as Claude Puel has added an exciting, dynamic player to his ranks.

In the past Boufal had been linked with many of Europe’s top clubs but speaking to Southampton’s website after signing, Boufal revealed why he chose to move to St Mary’s.

“I’m very, very happy to sign for Southampton and I am really excited to play in St Mary’s Stadium in front of the fans,” Boufal said. “Southampton showed big interest in signing me, and I can see that this club is the best place for me to continue my progression as a footballer. I hope I can achieve many great things with Southampton. It is a very good club, with excellent facilities, and I feel it is the perfect environment to continue my development.”

This is a huge signing for Saints and one that should breath new life into their attacking unit, although Boufal may not be ready until a few weeks from now as he continues his recovery from a knee injury suffered at the end of last season.

Puel’s men have scored just two goals in their opening three games of the season and although they’ve looked confident in possession, they’ve run out of ideas in the final third. Boufal’s trickery, pace and direct running will help out with that.

After selling Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle this summer, Saints lost their top two goalscorers from last season. With Shane Long energetic but hardly prolific and both Jay Rodriguez and Charlie Austin injury prone in recent years, Puel’s options up top needed boosting. Boufal can operate centrally or on either flank and alongside Dusan Tadic and Nathan Redmond he will provide plenty of competition in the attacking areas.

At Lille he showed plenty of productivity last season with 12 goals in all competitions after making the step up from second-tier Angers in January 2015. Many in France have compared him to Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez.

It may have taken Saints a while to get this deal over the line but just like in previous windows they’ve sealed a gem close to the transfer deadline day. In the past two seasons they’ve picked up Mane and Virgil Van Dijk in the latter stages of the summer window and both of those buys turned out to be great players, and business, for the south coast club.

Boufal is expected to make a major impact in the PL and Europa League for Saints. Turns out that they aren’t just a selling club after all…