Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: Houston Dynamo

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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.)

For a team that finished in the middle of their conference last season, the Houston Dynamo carry surprisingly few questions into their 2013 campaign.

That’s because they’re not a fifth-place caliber team. Two years in a row, Dominic Kinnear has guided his team to an MLS Cup final, and while Sporting has claimed two conference titles in that time, there’s little doubt which team are currently kings in the East.

Bringing back the same core that clicked during last year’s playoffs, Houston should be expected to better their 2012 regular season finish. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some doubt.

  • Is the defense for real?

Houston lost Geoff Cameron and didn’t miss a beat. They made a change at right back mid-stream and never lost their edge. As with most Kinnear teams, Houston’s defense served as the bedrock for the coach’s approach.

That’s no guarantee everything will unfold the same this spring. Bobby Boswell may have has his best MLS season in 2012. Will that continue into 2013? Will Jermaine Taylor resume the same high level he carried through his time in Cameron’s spot? And how will Kofie Sarkodie respond to his first March as Houston’s first choice right back?

Expect all those questions to come back positive. At not point during last year’s run did the you watch this back four and think “this has to be a fluke.” But sample sizes being what they are, it’s worth watching to make sure our initial perceptions coincide with the long-term reality. Preseason will give us our first hints.

  • Can Rico play a more attacking part?

Ricardo Clark’s return from Germany allowed Kinnear to switch from the 4-4-3 he used through summer to his preferred 4-4-2. With Clark and Adam Moffat in the middle, the Dynamo had a tandem that could both destroy play and clean up the second balls.

This year, however, Ricardo Clark may need to expand his game. Both he and Dominic Kinnear had hoped he’d play a more attacking role when he came into the starting XI, but his presence rarely translated into something going forward.

Conceivably, Houston could be fine if Clark plays the same way he did down the stretch in 2013, but the Dynamo would be much more balanced (and ultimately, dangerous) if they didn’t have to rely solely on Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia. Preseason’s the perfect time for Clark to start taking some chances.

  • How does Houston reach the next level?

Making finals is nice and losing to the Galaxy is understandable, but at some point it’s going to get old. And there’s always going to be a talented team at the end of any championship road.

If Houston’s going to reclaim an MLS crowd, they need something else. Perhaps that’s Clark finding some creativity. Maybe it’s Will Bruin becoming an All-Star. Boniek Garcia may become one of the league’s elite players. Perhaps Tally Hall becomes MLS’s Petr Cech. If so, we may start to see it in preseason.

Any of these things may prove enough to give Houston that one missing quality they need to win (instead of merely compete in) their last game.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: LA Galaxy

Report: Wenger, Arsenal agree to new two-year contract

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Arsene Wenger and Arsenal are said to have agreed a new two-year contract and the deal will be ratified by the board on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Huddersfield seal PL promotion

The Telegraph are reporting that Wenger has agreed to extend his stay at Arsenal to the summer of 2019 after meeting with majority shareholder Stan Kroenke on Monday and being offered the deal.

It is believed there will be an official announcement on Wednesday regarding Wenger’s future.

The 67-year-old Frenchman secured the FA Cup trophy on Saturday, beating Chelsea 2-1 at Wembley with a fine team performance as he became the most successful manager in FA Cup history with seven titles and Arsenal have now won 13 FA Cups, more than any other team.

Still, the failure to finish in the top four of the Premier League for the first time in 20 years has overshadowed the second half of the 2016-17 season and the club have

Wenger had previously knocked back the notion of having a “Director of Football” come in to help him with transfers and other organizational aspects and it is believed that will not happen at Arsenal despite Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis speaking about it in the past.

Instead, it is believed there will be restructuring behind-the-scenes and Wenger, along with Kroenke, will reveal their plan to have Arsenal challenging for the Premier League title in the next two seasons.

We all knew this was coming and perhaps now the “Wenger Out” brigade will finally have to accept that the Frenchman’s reign will go on into a 23rd season.

In the end, there were other options which became available at the 11th hour with Thomas Tuchel leaving Borussia Dortmund and Luciano Spalletti leaving AS Roma, but the easy option was always to keep Wenger on board as Arsenal’s hierarchy have clearly shown they are more than happy with his performance over the past five years.

Yes, finishing in the top four is a must for next season but after missing out on that target by just one point this season despite everything which happened following the embarrassing UEFA Champions League exit to Bayern Munich in early March, plus the contract saga around Wenger, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, the Gunners aren’t far off where they want to be.

Top four. Nothing more. Therein lies the big problem as fans will hear about Wenger’s plan to get Arsenal back challenging for the Premier League title, but will they really believe they can do it?

Thomas Tuchel leaves Borussia Dortmund; Arsenal next?

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Thomas Tuchel has left his position as manager of Borussia Dortmund.

[ MORE: Huddersfield seal PL promotion

Tuchel, 43, is considered as one of the brightest young managers in the German game but with Dortmund scrambling to a third-place finish this season and not showing real signs of progress from 2015-16, especially defensively, the club and Tuchel have agreed to mutually part ways.

In a statement Dortmund did not reveal the reason for Tuchel moving on, simply stating that they “went their separate ways” after two years together.

Dortmund did win the German cup, the DFB Pokal, at the weekend, beating Eintracht Frankfurt in the final, and over the past two seasons Tuchel has led BVB to second-place and third-place finishes in the Bundesliga, as well as appearing in the German cup final in both seasons.

He led Dortmund to the UEFA Europa League quarterfinal in 2015-16, where he lost to former Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool, and Dortmund then lost to AS Monaco in the quarterfinal of the UEFA Champions League this season following an attack on their team bus before the first leg which understandably shook his team.

Now that Tuchel has gone, many are suggesting that he could arrive in England at Arsenal with the Gunners previously linked to the German coach.

In the past Tuchel hasn’t exactly brushed off speculation about him heading to manage in England one day, playing it cool when asked in February about reports linking him to Arsenal: “You know more than I do,” was his response.

With Arsene Wenger’s future set to be announced publicly on Wednesday, following a board meeting on Tuesday, it appears that Wenger and Stan Kroenke have already made a decision about what the Frenchman does next.

It would appear a long-shot that Tuchel, a manager who was given plenty of resources at Dortmund but finished third this season, would get the job, especially after Wenger won the FA Cup and finished the season strongly with Arsenal despite failing to secure a place in the UEFA Champions League next season.

That said, Tuchel created a fast, young, attack-minded team at Dortmund which is something the Arsenal board may be impressed by.

Given the success of German managers in England over the past few years — Klopp at Liverpool and now Wagner at Huddersfield to name two men with previous connections to Dortmund — perhaps Arsenal now see this as the perfect time to go for Tuchel.

Wenger is still the favorite to be in charge of Arsenal on Aug. 12 when the 2017-18 kicks off, but maybe there’s a chance the Gunners take a chance on the highly-regarded Tuchel.

USMNT eyeing the table as it kicks off training camp

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (AP) Goalkeeper Tim Howard‘s uniform was filled with grass stains after the first day of training camp.

And this was considered a light workout.

“Just getting everybody back together, getting a sweat,” Howard said Monday after the U.S. squad went through a roughly 60-minute workout. “Day by day, we’re just trying to add on to the pile, put some concepts in and get some understanding between players.”

What awaits the squad in resumption of the final round of World Cup qualifying is certainly a gantlet. They have a game against Trinidad and Tobago on June 8 in Commerce City and then at Mexico three days later.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

There’s little margin for error, with the U.S. currently in fourth place in the six-team standings. They have three home and three away matches remaining. The top three teams qualify, with the fourth-place squad going to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“We need to keep climbing that table. We feel like this is a good opportunity to do it,” said Howard, now with the Colorado Rapids and who will feel right at home with the Trinidad game on his turf at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. “One game, that’s as far as you can look. You can’t look to next week or the week after or two months from now.”

For now, Howard will be coach Bruce Arena’s goalkeeper over Brad Guzan, Ethan Horvath and Nick Rimando, who all were invited to camp. But it’s an ongoing evaluation.

“We have good goalkeepers here. That’s the least of my worries, to be honest,” Arena said.

Given the short amount of time between games, Arena fully plans on using more players than usual. One particular competition to watch will be at right back between Timmy Chandler and DeAndre Yedlin.

“I have a close eye on everything,” Arena said. “We have a bunch of good players here. … We’re watching everybody and thinking about how we can best utilize everyone.”

[ MORE: Kroenke, Wenger meet; Decision looms ]

The roster features a solid blend of youth and experience. Leading the youngsters is Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder who last weekend became the youngest American to win a club medal in Europe.

On the veteran side are players such as Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley and Howard, all of whom have more than 30 World Cup qualifying appearances.

“We’re past the experimentation phase. These are all guys who the manager believes in whole-heartedly,” Howard said. “They’re not here for anything other than to play minutes, play important minutes.”

Arena couldn’t agree more.

“This is a nice group we have here. Hopefully, we can find the right balance in the team, putting them in the right position to complement them both individually and collectively,” Arena said. “If we can accomplish that, there’s no reason to believe we can’t be successful in these two games.”

Joining the camp in Colorado are a few players who weren’t with the squad in March. Guzan, Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood and Yedlin are all on the field. Guzan didn’t participate because his wife was expecting their second child, while the others were dealing with injuries, illnesses and yellow-card suspension.

Now, it’s a matter of getting their timing down – and accustomed to the altitude.

“There’s no reason to make it an excuse,” midfielder Paul Arriola said. “Just doing the best we can to acclimate to it.”

Arena’s squad will get things rolling in a friendly against Venezuela in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday.

“That’s a good game for us,” Arena said. “It gives us a little bit of exercise at lower altitude, which isn’t perfect for what we need to do to get ready here and Mexico City, but it’s a start. Think it will be good to give a chance to 16 players and build from there – get us ready for Trinidad and Mexico.”

Stam after Reading playoff final loss: “Tough to take”

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Jaap Stam has won silverware in three different leagues for five different teams, and has a Champions League title from his time at Manchester United.

He’s used to winning, and that includes his first stop as a full-time manager. And that makes Reading’s loss in Monday’s playoff final sting a bit more.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

Reading lost in penalty kicks and it’s not like the Royals were thoroughly outclassed by Huddersfield Town. But it still burns. From Sky Sports:

“You don’t want to play football to be in the grey areas, you want to get the max out of your career, win trophies and play at the highest level.

“It’s tough to take, but it has to be difficult. It’s not good to lose a game like this, you need to feel it and experience it and then take that forward if you get into the same moment again. The good players do that.”

Reading loses a trio of loan players — Lewis Grabban, Reece Oxford, and Jordon Mutch — as well as American midfielder Danny Williams. It won’t be easy for Reading to get back into the playoffs without an injection of money, but Stam’s first rodeo as a manager was a good ride that came up just short.