Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: San Jose Earthquakes

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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.)

How many MLS sides would relish a list of preseason questions to answer as short as San Jose’s?

No, the Earthquakes didn’t quite get where they wanted to be in 2012. But some of that was about running into the league’s hottest team, the eventual champs.

Otherwise, you could argue that Frank Yallop’s men did just about everything right in a record-breaking – let’s scratch that and call it a “record-shattering” – season.

The Supporters Shield winners migrated into preseason camp earlier this week with most of last year’s Supporters Shield winning side intact. They have a to-do list, just like every club; theirs just doesn’t take as long to go over.

Some top questions to begin answering as the team sets up this week in Arizona:

  • Will Simon Dawkins return?

His time at Buck Shaw Stadium has been courtesy of loan agreements with Tottenham Hotspur, where he remains under contract and, depending on whom you ask, may or may not be considered fairly valuable property.

Dawkins’ availability in 2013 doesn’t drastically alter the team one way or the other, but he does provide some valuable depth in a season that promises to be busier than last year’s around the Bay, mostly due to CONCACAF Champions League involvement.

Club officials certainly want him back; he’s a fantastic finisher out of the midfield and his pace helps add balance to an attack well equipped with ample bulk closer to goal.

  • What does the striker situation look like behind Chris Wondolowski?

I’m sure Yallop will tell us that no starting spot has been awarded, that they must be earned. And I know that, Yallop being an honest man, he’ll mean it.

On the other hand, a returning 27-goal scorer who reliably works his socks off in practice is most likely going to start. So let’s look at the stack-up of striking talent behind Chris Wondolowski.  There’s a lot to consider.

Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart are back to provide all the hustle, bustle and muscle they did in 2012. Marcus Tracy once had some “next big thing” wrapped around him. And former Seattle Sounders man Mike Fucito is in camp and ready to pounce should any one of them slip even a wee little bit.

  • Will Yallop deliver a slightly different preseason message?

Show me someone who says he saw the Earthquakes fabulous 2012 campaign coming, I’ll show you a liar. Or someone I want sitting next to me on my next trip to Vegas, at least.

Here’s the thing: it’s a little tougher to be all that when everyone expects it. I’m not saying it can’t happen; I now say that you doubt San Jose at your own peril.

But it may take slightly different approach, and  preseason is perfect tone-settin’ time.  Even with no adjustment, San Jose will be fine in 2013. But if we’re talking about fractions of improvement to get over the championship hump, perhaps a fresh message would help re-spice the stew.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: Seattle Sounders FC

Report: Leicester City fire manager Craig Shakespeare

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Leicester City have pulled the trigger much early than many expected.

Official confirmation has yet to come from the club but multiple reports state that Craig Shakespeare, who only took charge permanently of the Foxes over the summer, has been fired after eight games of the 2017-18 Premier League season.

Claudio Ranieri‘s former assistant coach has reportedly been fired by the ruthless Leicester owners with the Foxes for winning just one of their opening eight Premier League games of the season.

That form sees the Foxes sat third from bottom and only on six points. The last three times Leicester have gained six points or less in their opening eight games of a PL season they have been relegated.

Stats like that would have surely alarmed their Thai owners.

The last time Leicester went six PL games without a win Ranieri was fired but this is still a shock considering  Shakespeare, 53, had been in charge for only four months.

Shakespeare was in interim charge at the end of last season after Ranieri was fired in February and led Leicester to seven wins from their final 13 games which saved the then reigning champs from relegation.

However, he never seemed like the long-term man to lead the shock 2015-16 PL champions back to the upper echelons of the Premier League and he is now on his way out of the King Power Stadium.

PL Playback: Man United too defensive?

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STUBBORN MOURINHO STRIKES AGAIN

Just when we thought Manchester United and Jose Mourinho had turned the corner, they put in a timid, defensive performance at Anfield in a dour 0-0 draw against Liverpool on Saturday.

Mourinho got exactly what he wanted but United should have gone for more.

[ MORE: Klopp questions United’s tactics ] 

On Sunday I had a quick chat with an ex-United defender who was part of their treble winning campaign in 1999 when Sir Alex Ferguson‘s men were at their swashbuckling best.

We discussed United’s defensive mindset at Anfield and he simply said: “did we expect any different from Jose Mourinho away from home against a rival?”

Great point.

[ MORE: Player ratings | Three things ] 

After United had won six games out of seven and scored 21 goals to open up the Premier League campaign, everyone had got wrapped up in their attacking brilliance and expected them to go at Liverpool for the win.

Look at Mourinho’s record since arriving at United against the other teams in the so-called “top six” away from home.


October 17, 2016: Liverpool (A) 0-0
October 23, 2016: Chelsea (A) 0-4 defeat
April 27, 2017: Man City (A) 0-0
May 7, 2017: Arsenal (A) 0-2 defeat
May 14, 2017: Tottenham (A) 1-2 defeat
October 14, 2017: Liverpool (A) 0-0


The above says it all. What else did we expect?

Since he take charge at the start of last season, Mourinho’s United have scored just one goal in their last six trips to the big boys. We can trace this defensive approach back to his time in charge of Chelsea and his mantra of beating the big boys at home and then holding them to draw away from home is still his approach.

Except, with Manchester City blowing teams away this season the points average United may need to win the title could see Mourinho’s overcautious approach away from Old Trafford come back to bite him.

That’s because he has the attacking talents to excel and if he had gone with Henrik Mkhitaryan instead of Ashley Young and Juan Mata instead of Ander Herrera from the start against Liverpool on Saturday, he could well have been rewarded for taking a risk and trying to exploit Liverpool’s defensive weakness.

United had one chance against Liverpool as Romelu Lukaku broke free in the box but hit his shot straight at Simon Mignolet. That was their only shot on target in 90 minutes and that is exactly what Mourinho was playing for. One chance to snatch a victory at Anfield as he limited any danger for his side.

They certainly did with Liverpool barely having a sniff either and this game was in fact in the bottom three of Opta’s new Expected Goals stat when it came to the quality of goalscoring chances created in games in the Premier League so far this season.

With Mourinho having one of the best goalkeepers in the world in David De Gea in the best form of his life, he can rely on him to save the best chance an opponent has in each game, just like he did with his stunning stop from Joel Matip.

Speaking after the game Jurgen Klopp said that Liverpool “could not play the way Manchester United played” under him and there is an element of truth to that.

“I’m sure if we played like this, you could not do this at Liverpool. Obviously for United it is OK,” Klopp said.

Under Rafael Benitez the Reds were often a stubborn defensive unit to break down and that certainly saw them win trophies and challenge for the Premier League title. Klopp’s high-pressing, attacking style has seen Liverpool entertained the masses, if not their own fans all the time, since he took charge two years ago but they have come no closer to winning the PL title and defensive issues continue to halt any progress they make.

But Mourinho, in true fashion, blamed Klopp for United’s defensive game plan not working.

“I was waiting for them to make an offensive change, to try more, to take out Can or Wijnaldum and bring on Sturridge or someone. Which I was waiting for. But he never did it,” Mourinho said of Klopp. “I think he’s very offensive, very offensive, very offensive, but 90 minutes in the same system, the same players, he didn’t try anything.”

Mourinho will never change and United’s fans will have to accept that in big games away from home they can expect plenty more defensive displays and reliance on a counter-attacking game.

That is just the way he is and a strong start to the Premier League season isn’t going to change it. Simple.


SHOCKS FOR LONDON CLUBS

Hands up for those of you who had Chelsea and Arsenal losing to Crystal Palace and Watford respectively heading into last weekend?

Liars.

Seriously, though, Chelsea’s defeat at Palace (who had yet to score a goal or grab a point before last weekend) was incredibly telling as to the squad Antonio Conte has as key injuries have ravaged the reigning champs.

With Alvaro Morata out, Victor Moses limping off during the game and N'Golo Kante out for the rest of the month, we are now beginning to realize just how lucky Chelsea were with injuries last season.

As for Arsenal, well, where do we start?

They were 1-0 up and cruising late on at Watford but when Mesut Ozil spurned a great chance to make it 2-0, Watford came to life.

Helped with the introduction of bullish striker Troy Deeney, Arsenal’s defense capitulated and were bullied as the Hornets grabbed victory.

Okay, Richarlison went down far too easily to win a penalty kick for the equalizer, but Tom Cleverley and Watford’s attackers just wanted it more than Arsenal’s defenders in stoppage time as he slammed home to send the Hornets fans wild.

Watford sit in Arsenal’s perennial perch of fourth place (well, until last season) and as things stand you could create a beliavable argument that they have a better chance of finishing there than Arsenal when the season ends.

The same frail defensive displays continue to haunt Arsene Wenger‘s men away from home — they have defeats at Liverpool, Stoke and now Watford in their opening four away games in the PL — and nothing has really changed.

“I have to watch what I say, but it’s [having] a bit of cojones, is what I’ll say. Whenever I play against Arsenal, I’ll go up and think, ‘Let me whack the first one and see who wants it.’ I came on today and jumped up with Mertesacker — I didn’t even have to jump, actually — I nodded it down, the crowd gets up, ‘Yeah, we’ve got somebody who can win it,’ and they all just backed off,” Deeney said.

“For me as a player, I just think, ‘Happy days.’ That’s my strength — if you’re going to let me do my strength against you, you’re going to have a tough afternoon.”

Both Arsenal and Chelsea are looking anything but title contenders right now with both teams nine points behind leaders Man City.

It is early in the season but this weekend proved just how far both Arsenal and Chelsea are from challenging for the title this season.


SWASHBUCKLING CITY

The main reason Chelsea, Arsenal and the rest of the Premier League has to be worried is because Man City are so damn good.

They destroyed Stoke City 7-2 at the weekend and Stoke didn’t play badly.

Missing Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany and Benjamin Mendy, Pep Guardiola‘s side were exquisite.

They’ve now scored 29 goals in their opening eight games of the season. The last top-flight team to score that many was Everton in 1894-95.

Kevin De Bruyne ran the show, once again, and Man City are now clear atop the table.

Judging by the mouthwatering offensive display you can watch below, it’s unclear if anyone is capable of stopping them.

Watch the highlights below. Trust me.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Pots for 2018 World Cup taking shape

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With the FIFA World Rankings for October released on Monday, these are the set of rankings which will be used to place the 32 qualified teams in pots for the 2018 World Cup draw in Moscow on December 1.

[ MORE: Seeds for Euro qualifying confirmed

How the tournament will look in Russia next summer is starting to take shape, but things are still a little undecided with nine places still up for grabs during the next international break in November.

With Pot 1 fully confirmed, Pot 2 is also looking incredibly strong with five of the eight teams confirmed and 2010 world champs Spain have been placed in the second spot.

Some tasty “Group of Death” scenarios could be set up and remember, teams from the same confederation cannot be drawn together, except from UEFA as two European teams can be drawn in the same groups for the World Cup due to 13 spots handed to UEFA.

Below is a look at how the four pots may well end up as we have assumed the highest-ranked teams will all qualify for the World Cup during the next international break when playoffs and the final round of games take place.


2018 World Cup pots (if the highest-ranked teams all prevail in playoffs/final round of games)

Pot 1: Russia, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland, France

Pot 2: Spain, Peru*, Switzerland*, England, Colombia, Italy*, Mexico, Uruguay

Pot 3: Croatia*, Denmark*, Iceland, Costa Rica, Tunisia*, Egypt, Senegal*, Iran

Pot 4: DR Congo*, Serbia, Nigeria, Australia*, Japan, Panama, South Korea, Saudi Arabia

*denotes teams yet to qualify heading into playoffs/final round of games


Four different Group of Death scenarios
Germany, Spain, Egypt, Japan
Brazil, England, Senegal, Serbia
Argentina, Mexico, Croatia, Nigeria
Belgium, Colombia, Costa Rica, South Korea

UEFA playoff draw sets up intriguing battles

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The fight for the final four 2018 World Cup spots from UEFA is well and truly on.

On Tuesday in Zurich, Switzerland the draw for the two-legged playoffs was made as the eight best runners up from the UEFA qualifying group stages found out their fate.

[ MORE: Latest World Cup rankings released ]

The Republic of Ireland will face Denmark over two games, while Northern Ireland face Switzerland and two monster clashes have been set up as Sweden and Italy will lock horns and Croatia and Greece will do battle.

A spot at the World Cup in Russia next summer is the prize for the four winners of these home and away playoffs.

The Republic of Ireland seem to have got the better draw, especially as they will play at home in the second leg in Dublin. Northern Ireland will also be okay with having Switzerland but are slightly hampered by playing the first leg in Belfast. Italy against Sweden will be a tight game and one neither nation will relish, and the same can be said for Croatia vs. Greece with their intense local rivalry.

First leg matches will take place on November 9-11, while the second leg will take place on November 12-14.

Below is the full schedule for the two playoff games.


UEFA playoff schedule

First leg

Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland
Croatia vs. Greece
Denmark vs. Republic of Ireland
Sweden vs. Italy

Second leg

Switzerland vs. Northern Ireland
Greece vs. Croatia
Republic of Ireland vs. Denmark
Italy vs. Sweden