Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: LA Galaxy

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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.)

On March 3, LA Galaxy will start MLS’s third three-peat quest. In 1998, a young(er) Bruce Arena, having guided D.C. United to the league’s first two titles, made a third-straight MLS Cup only to lose to expansion Chicago. Ten years later, Dominic Kinnear’s Houston Dynamo didn’t make it that far, failing to become the first team to claim three straight titles.

Just over five weeks before their defense starts, LA still have too many questions to know whether they’ll be able to match last year’s result. While the roster’s that reported for preseason training would still be competitive in the Western Conference, the absence of Landon Donovan and a lack of replacement for David Beckham means Los Angeles have more questions than the team they beat in last month. And unlike the beginning of last season, none of those questions are in defense.

But as LA’s 2012 showed, Major League Soccer’s is a long season. Teams need not have their answers in March, but if Bruce Arena can answer these questions in preseason, the team will be better-situated to fight in the always competitive West.

  • How do you replace David Beckham?

With Frank Lampard,” is the easy response from Galaxy fans. But let’s slow down. Until that’s settled, we might want to consider the backup plans, because while the Lampard-to-LA rumors are hot enough to warm us through winter, the Chelsea legend wouldn’t be the first to leverage MLS for a contract elsewhere (or, simply change his mind).

One way or another, LA seems intent on filling their vacant Designated Player spot, but even if they don’t, Bruce Arena still has a solid midfield of the recently-retained Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas. For part of last season, the duo were a better pair than Beckham and Juninho. With the two Brazilians, LA’s still above-average in the middle of the park.

LA will miss Beckham’s distribution, though. They’ll miss his calm on the ball, his ability to read and reaction to a game, and that extra gear he always had when stakes were highest.

It’s difficult to know how much that’s worth (or how you replace it).

  • How big are Robbie’s shoulders?

At the end of last year, everybody on the Galaxy agreed: Robbie Keane was Major League Soccer’s best player after he returned from Euro 2012. But with Beckham gone and Donovan out indefinitely, Keane’s going to have to carry the attack, something he’s only done on the end of others’ distribution.

He’s certainly capable of doing it. The pass Keane played to Donovan to win MLS Cup 2011 is still in him. His ability to read a developing attack may be unparalleled in MLS, whether that be running among defenders or pulling the strings to exploit them.

The big risk is burn out. Keane shows no sign of slowing down, but he turns 33 in July. And he’s never had to carry this load before.

Then again, if Donovan comes back sooner rather than later, he won’t have to.

  • Can you count on Landon?

We know Donovan’s going to be back, and despite having to split his attentions between club, country, and England over the last three years, the Galaxy captain has always been there for the team when needed. But when a guy contemplates retirement and openly ponders whether he still has the drive, it’s fair to wonder if those feelings will come back during the season.

I give Donovan a lot of credit for his honestly. It’s difficult for an athlete to show weakness and trust it will be perceived intelligently by media and fans. Still, he’s decided to give us the benefit of the doubt (that, or he just doesn’t care). He trusts that through his honesty we’ll see his conflict and be sympathetic, no matter the outcome.

You can both question Donovan’s commitment and respect what he brings. It would be no failing on his part to try and comeback only to realize it’s just not in him. The question is: How likely is that to happen?

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: Montreal Impact

Manchester derby “the game of the season”

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Whatever way you slice it up, Thursday’s Manchester derby is huge.

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Manchester City host Manchester United (Watch, 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at the Etihad Stadium with Pep Guardiola‘s side just one point ahead of United in the Premier League table.

City currently occupy fourth spot and the final UEFA Champions League qualification berth but are coming off the back of a damaging FA Cup semifinal defeat to Arsenal after extra time.

United and Jose Mourinho haven’t lost in 23 Premier League games, the longest current unbeaten streak across Europe’s top five leagues, and are in the UEFA Europa League semifinals as their banged up squad have stood tall in the final months of the campaign.

Speaking ahead of the derby, one of United’s stars this season believes everything comes down to this one game.

“It is going to be the game of the season,” Ander Herrera said. “We are one point behind them. If we win we have the chance to finish in the top four, if they win it is going to be very difficult. It is the game of the season.

“Make or break? Probably. Both teams are in a good moment so if one of us wins the game we are not going to lose a lot of games, or make mistakes after that. Us or them. It is going to be key. I don’t know the ‘winner takes all’ expression but it is going to be a massive game. We are in a very good moment, a very good run and we respect them but we are doing a lot of good things and we have to show it on Thursday.”

Herrera’s comments say it all.

It is fair to say that both Manchester clubs have flattered to deceive for much of this season with Guardiola’s tactics yet to flourish in England and Mourinho’s rebuild hampered by injuries and a lack of goals at crucial moments.

On Thursday there will be a raucous atmosphere at the Etihad as both teams are aware of what is at stake.

More of the pressure may well be on City who now have just a place in the top four to focus on and with many previously giving United no chance of finishing in the top four, a win at City would take them above their “noisy neighbors” and into the UCL spots.

Former Czech Republic defender Rajtoral kills himself

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PRAGUE (AP) Former Czech Republic defender Frantisek Rajtoral, who won the domestic league title four times before joining Turkish club Gaziantepspor, died on Sunday. He was 31.

[ MORE: Bayern scouted Kyle Walker, Alex Sanchez this weekend ]

The Czech football federation said in a statement that Rajtoral had “committed suicide in Turkey.”

His agent Pavel Zika confirmed the player’s death, describing it as a “huge tragedy.”

Gaziantepspor announced Rajtoral’s death in a brief statement on its website.

Rajtoral played 14 international matches for the Czech Republic.

In the top Czech league, he won four titles with Viktoria Plzen and played in the group stage of the Champions League twice for the club. He moved to Hannover in the Bundesliga in 2014 for half of the season, on loan.

He left Viktoria Plzen last year to move to Turkey.

Bellerin wants to represent Spain U21s despite Wenger’s wishes

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Arsene Wenger has made it clear about Hector Bellerin representing Spain this summer but the Arsenal defender is prepared to go against his manager’s wishes if he is selected.

[ MORE: Bayern scouted Kyle Walker, Alexis Sanchez over the weekend ]

The 22-year-old has said he hopes to play for Spain’s Under-21 side this summer during the 2017 European U-21 Championship but Wenger has been weary of Bellerin’s injury status and wants his fullback to maintain a clean bill of health throughout the offseason.

“I really want to play,” Bellerin told IBTimes. “Representing Spain is very important. If [Albert] Celades gives me the chance I’ll be there.

“Those are opinions of the managers. I have to keep working. The truth is that I had a difficult injury but I think that I am at 100% now and I’ll try to prove it when I get the chance.”

Bellerin signed a six-and-a-half year deal with the Gunners in November, where he has resided since coming up in the club’s academy. He has made 102 appearances for Wenger’s team in that span over all competitions.

Roma boosts bid for 2nd in Serie A by beating Pescara 4-1

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PESCARA, Italy (AP) Roma boosted its bid for second place in Serie A and automatic entry into the Champions League with a 4-1 win at Pescara, which was mathematically relegated on Monday.

[ MORE: Newcastle joins Brighton in promotion to Premier League ]

Roma moved four points clear of third-placed Napoli, which drew against Sassuolo 2-2 on Sunday. Third place in Serie A receives a Champions League playoff.

Pescara remained 15 points behind Empoli. There are only five matches left and Empoli has the better head-to-head record, which is the deciding factor if two teams finish level on points.

There were 48 goals in total in the 33rd round, matching the record set in October 1992.

Roma took control shortly before halftime, with Kevin Strootman breaking the deadlock after Stephan El Shaarawy unselfishly rolled the ball across the area.

Radja Nainggolan, who earlier hit the bar, doubled Roma’s lead two minutes later.

Mohamed Salah extended Roma’s advantage three minutes after the break and the winger doubled his tally on the hour following a swift counterattack.

Ahmad Benali got a consolation for Pescara and a Cristiano Biraghi free kick also hit the post for the home side.