Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: New England Revolution

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No one will begrudge Jay Heaps a learning curve. Being a first-year head coach is challenging enough – and doing so last year at rebuilding New England was always going to be a tough climb.

But it’s fair to ask for progress this year following a deflated 2012 campaign, one where playoff aspirations were drifting from view by August.

The attacking elements are all there. But Heaps, a former defender, and his staff have some ground to make up in that wobbly defense if they want to avoid missing the playoffs a fourth consecutive season.

Considering that this time last year Heaps (right, with Saer Sene) was running his first professional practices – Ever! – he’s presumably better equipped to answer the burning questions heading into preseason camp in 2013:

  • Where is the defensive leadership?

A lot of that depends on an important sub-set of that question: who is in goal?

Matt Reis remains the longtime incumbent, and he seemed to kick the game up a notch after a mid-season benching in 2012. On the other hand, Bobby Shuttleworth has always been a bright understudy, so the position may not be exactly “up for grabs,” but it’s no lead pipe lock for Reis, either.

Some of the Revs’ defensive frailty in 2012 could be pinned on lack of communication and leadership in the back. No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Farrell has the physical tools to be a central defensive force at Gillette Stadium, but is he ready mentally?

Darrius Barnes and Kevin Alston (and perhaps even third-year man A.J. Soares) are getting to places in their careers where they can’t just be “players,” where they need to reliably be voices, instructors on the field.

Someone has to take command back there.

  • Where do all the fascinating midfield parts fit it?

Andy Dorman is back for his second Revolution “go round,” and there are lots of ways Heaps can use the midfield veteran, coming off a moderately productive five-year stay in Scotland and England.

What of Lee Nguyen, who was so effective after being claimed on the cheap 11 months ago from Vancouver that U.S. international Benny Feilhaber was deemed surplus at Gillette? (Yes, it was surely more complicated than that with Feilhaber, but same difference as it relates to Nguyen and the bigger personnel puzzle going into 2013.)

And then there’s lefty specialist Juan Toja, one of the truly intriguing figures in MLS going into this 18th season. We know the guy can play. The questions with Toja have always been along the lines of “Where’s his head at?”

Dorman and Nguyen are fairly versatile, willing and able to play centrally or out wide. Toja tends to drift inside, even when stationed ostensibly on the left, so perhaps a little less so on his end. With all that, there are talented, younger men to factor in, too.

Of course, it’s not all about attacking. Somebody’s got to screen and support that iffy back line – and Clyde Simms or Stephen McCarthy can’t do it all themselves.

  • What does the forward depth chart look like?

If you can’t find a quality forward around the Revs’ ongoing training camp in Casa Grande, Ariz., you aren’t looking very hard. It’s on Heaps and staff to make some order within the stack-up of striking ability.

Saer Sene is coming off knee surgery, but team officials say it’s “so far, so good” on his rehab. The club’s first double-digit goal scorer since Taylor Twellman (Sene had 11 last year) probably won’t be at top speed by the club’s March 9 opener, but he seems on pace to be there soon after.

He and Honduran international Jerry Bengtson, who had his moments after last year’s late-summer signing, seem like options Nos. 1 and 2.

But Diego Fagundez is a bright young prospect, and Dimitry Imbongo might be as well. Plus, the team’s first two draft picks, Donnie Smith and Luke Spencer, may have something to say about it.

And let’s not forget that Heaps could use Dorman, Nguyen or Toja somewhere along a front line, depending on the formation.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: New York Red Bulls

“I’m here, I’m the manager” – Moyes will not quit Sunderland

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This has been one horrible stretch for David Moyes.

The Sunderland manager probably thought he’d been through the worst once he left Real Sociedad, where he went 12-15-15.

But he’s managed just seven wins and seven draws in 38 matches in charge of the Black Cats — an 18 percent win mark. He’s also been charged for threatening to slap a female journalist.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

And after Wednesday, Moyes has lost both of his derby matches against Middlesbrough.

Sunderland is 12 points back of safety with five matches left. The odds the Black Cats are headed for the Championship are somewhere north of 99 percent, and fans are calling for his job.

Well, he isn’t quitting. From the BBC:

“No, I’m here, I’m the manager, you take it on the chin. … I’m a football supporter, I know what it’s like. You don’t like seeing your team lose.

“There is nobody who wants to win more than me. I am used to winning, I’m not used to losing and I don’t want to get used to it either.”

Premier League Preview: The Manchester Derby

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  • City won 2-1 in PL on Sept. 10
  • United won 1-0 in EFL Cup on Oct. 26
  • First Mourinho-Pep match at the Etihad
  • United leads all-time 71W-51D-50L

Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola get a tactical rubber match with plenty on the line when Manchester United and Manchester City meet at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

There will be no Paul Pogba nor Zlatan Ibrahimovic for United, while Gabriel Jesus is set to return for City.

Fourth-place City enters the day one point ahead of United, and both trail Liverpool but have played two less matches.

In case you’ve forgotten, here are the other two meetings between Guardiola and Mourinho this season:

  • Iheanacho, De Bruyne lead City’s 2-1 win in September. Zlatan Ibrahimovic made it interesting by pulling back a goal, but Pep Guardiola’s bunch fired the first shots of the season’s derbies with a win at Old Trafford.
  • It was the same venue six weeks later, when Juan Mata‘s 54th minute goal was the only marker as United knocked Manchester City out en route to its EFL Cup title.

Ander Herrera calls Thursday’s battle the “game of the season.” Here’s what other participants have on their minds.

What they’re saying

United boss Mourinho on finishing above City“If we finish fifth and they finish sixth, we are above them, and it means nothing. But if they finish third and we finish fourth, they are above us but it means a lot.”

City keeper Claudio Bravo on Guardiola’s City: “Our team plays differently to the rest of the teams, but at the same time it’s not easy. We are still in a stage of construction, keep improving and keep growing day by day. I think all the experiences we have got this season are going to help us a lot to grow in the future and get closer to trophies”

Prediction

United is without two of the most influential players in the world, and on the road. Those obstacles are a lot to overcome, and United will have to overload the midfield — maybe with both Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick — and use a classic Mourinho parking of the bus to get a result. But Marcus Rashford can be a menace on the counter, and just may find his way past Bravo. City 2-1.

Allardyce: Referee Moss “wasn’t brave enough” to send off Wanyama

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Sam Allardyce is feeling strong these days (and every day).

The Crystal Palace manager is disappointed in referee Jon Moss after the head official failed to give Victor Wanyama a second yellow card following a tackle on Andros Townsend in the first half of Spurs’ 1-0 win over Crystal Palace on Wednesday.

Sitting on yellow for a foul on Luka Milivojevic, Wanyama slid late on Townsend. The midfielder certainly made sure it looked worse than it was, but even without the tomfoolery it could’ve been a yellow.

[ RECAP: Palace 0-1 Spurs | Pochettino reacts ]

Moss instead gave Wanyama a talking-to, and Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino subbed the fiery midfielder at halftime. Allardyce isn’t too happy, as a dismissal may have given his side a chance at adding Spurs to its list of defeated Top Four candidates.

From the BBC:

“The second challenge was the worst. Mauricio was very clever to sub him at half time. I think the referee made the wrong decision, I don’t think he was brave enough.”

Woah. That merits a punishment for someone like Jose Mourinho, so let’s see if the FA sends a fine Allardyce’s way. To be fair to Big Sam, we wouldn’t have been surprised to see that second yellow.

Yet it wouldn’t take that much “bravery” to send Wanyama off at Selhurst Park as opposed to, say, White Hart Lane. For what it’s worth, Moss has sent off three players this season and one of them was Granit Xhaka at home for Arsenal against Swansea.

La Liga wrap: Real, Barca boast blowouts

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La Liga isn’t exactly competitive from top to bottom, and both Real Madrid and chasing Barcelona took advantage of weaker competition on Wednesday.

[ RECAP: Palace 0-1 Spurs ]


Deportivo de la Coruna 2-6 Real Madrid

When your “B Team” includes James Rodriguez and a certain Alvaro Morata, life is pretty good.

Zinedine Zidane watched as Real took another step toward a first La Liga title since 2011-12 behind a James brace and markers from Morata (below, with style), Lucas Vazquez, Casemiro, and Isco.

Barcelona 7-1 Osasuna

Barca effectively relegated Osasuna. Despite braces from Lionel Messi, Paco Alcacer, and Andre Gomes, the headlines were stolen by Javier Mascherano.

The Argentine scored his first ever Barca goal in just his 318th appearance for the club.

Elsewhere

Leganes 3-0 Las Palmas – Luciano Neves bags brace.
Valencia 2-3 Real Sociedad – Visitors build 3-0 lead.

Standings

 

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Barcelona 34 24 6 4 101 33 68 13-3-1 11-3-3 78
 Real Madrid 33 24 6 3 90 38 52 12-4-1 12-2-2 78
 Atlético Madrid 34 20 8 6 60 25 35 12-2-3 8-6-3 68
 Sevilla 33 19 8 6 58 39 19 12-3-1 7-5-5 65
 Villarreal 34 17 9 8 49 27 22 10-3-4 7-6-4 60
 Real Sociedad 34 18 4 12 52 47 5 9-4-4 9-0-8 58
 Athletic 33 17 5 11 46 37 9 12-3-2 5-2-9 56
 Eibar 33 14 8 11 52 45 7 9-3-5 5-5-6 50
 Espanyol 34 13 11 10 45 44 1 8-5-4 5-6-6 50
 Celta Vigo 32 13 5 14 48 52 -4 9-1-6 4-4-8 44
 Alavés 33 11 11 11 32 40 -8 5-7-4 6-4-7 44
 Valencia 34 11 7 16 49 59 -10 7-4-6 4-3-10 40
 Las Palmas 34 10 9 15 52 61 -9 9-6-2 1-3-13 39
 Málaga 34 10 9 15 40 49 -9 8-2-6 2-7-9 39
 Betis 33 10 7 16 36 51 -15 6-6-5 4-1-11 37
 Deportivo 34 7 10 17 37 57 -20 6-5-6 1-5-11 31
 Leganes 34 7 9 18 30 51 -21 4-5-8 3-4-10 30
 Sporting de Gijón 34 5 9 20 37 67 -30 4-3-10 1-6-10 24
 Granada 34 4 8 22 27 72 -45 4-4-9 0-4-13 20
 Osasuna 34 3 9 22 35 82 -47 1-6-10 2-3-12 18