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Building preseason knowledge: Columbus Crew downs Toronto FC

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Columbus and Toronto FC are among the mystery teams in Major League Soccer’s ongoing preseason. We’ll define “mystery teams” loosely as clubs with significant roster turnover, several holes to fill or stocked with intriguing players and plans still in evolution.

Here’s what we can cull from Saturday’s match in the 2013 Disney Pro Classic at the ESPN Wide World of Sports. Columbus prevailed in the first match of the two-week preseason tournament, 1-0.

Obviously, coaches use preseason matches for experimentation and to study combinations in tandem and in groups. But it’s still fodder for conversation.

  • Brazilian center back Gláuber, new to Columbus from Romania’s Rapid Bucuresti, made his first appearance, partnering with longtime Crew Stadium incumbent Chad Marshall.
  • Dominic Oduro played along the right. In previous MLS stops, Oduro has more often been stationed closer to opposition goal as a striker, but he has lined up at different times as a flank midfielder.
  • Danny O’Rourke, a utility knife for Robert Warzycha through the years, took over at center back for the second half.
  • Debuting Crew midfielder Matias Sanchez got 58 minutes as a center midfielder (ahead of Tony Tchani, who played the final 32 minutes).
  • For Toronto and new manager Ryan Nelsen, Jeremy Hall lined up as a central midfielder, an interesting choice for a guy who has always been on the outside. (He started ahead of Torsten Frings; that clearly won’t last, surely just a choice to best reflect preseason conditioning and such.)
  • Heralded rookie Kyle Bekker, a Canadian international and the third player picked in last month’s MLS draft, played the final 26 minutes at forward.

The Starting lineups looked like this:

Columbus: Andy Gruenebaum; Josh Williams, Chad Marshall, Gláuber, Tyson Wahl; Dominic Oduro, Agustín Viana, Matías Sánchez, Ben Speas; Federico Higuaín, Ryan Finley.

Toronto FC: Stefan Frei; Richard Eckersley, Gale Agbossoumonde, Darren O’Dea, Ashtone Morgan; Reggie Lambe, Jonathan Osorio, Jeremy Hall, Emery Welshman; Luis Silva, Justin Braun.

Chinese group buy 13 percent stake in Man City for $400 million

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It turns out Manchester City is valued at $3 billion.

[ MORE: Costa’s time at Chelsea up? ]

On Tuesday it was announced that after six months of talks a 13 percent stake in the City Football Group (CFG), owned by Abu Dhabi based Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, was sold to investors from China for $400 million.

CFG comprises of the jewel in its crown, Man City, plus New York City FC in Major League Soccer, Melbourne City FC in Australia’s A-league and a stake in the Yokohama Marinos in Japan.

This huge investment from a Chinese consortium — made up of China Media Capital Holdings and CITIC Capital — comes less than a month after China’s President  Xi Jinping visited City’s training ground during a tour of Britain.

Why are Chinese investors pumping millions of dollars into the already wealthy club?

The chairman of China Media Capital — a state-backed media firm — Ruigang Li believes that the consortium’s investment can help the growth of soccer in China.

“We and our consortium partner CITIC Capital also see this investment as a prime opportunity for furthering the contribution of China to the global football family,” Li said.

As for City, they aim to make the most of this link up with China with chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak hopeful of the extra growth opportunities this deal will provide.

“Our belief is that we now have an unrivaled platform to grow CFG, our clubs and companies both in China and internationally,” Al Mubarak said. “We will be working hard with our new partners to realize the potential that this deal creates.”

[ MORE:  Who is favorite for MLS Cup 2015? ]

Perhaps more important than this investment from China is the fact that the company which owns Man City is now valued at $3 billion on the New York Stock Exchange. Their close neighbors Manchester United are currently valued at $3.05 billion on the NYSE. United seeing their so called “noisy neighbors” not only succeed on the pitch but now challenge their financial dominance off the pitch, the Red Devils will be wary of City’s rise to the upper echelons of English and European soccer, and now way beyond that with their ventures overseas and particularly in China after this huge influx of cash.

If, as seems to be the case, it’s a matter of if and not when the sport of soccer explodes into mainstream society in China, City being owned by companies with close links to the Chinese state will certainly help them generate more fans, revenue and business from the country with the largest population on planet earth. Tapping into that potential — other teams like Real Madrid, Liverpool and United have a strong and loyal fanbase in East Asia — seems like a savvy move for a club who have invested billions of dollars in building themselves into a world superpower.

Serie A: Napoli go top for first time in 25 years; Inter a close 2nd

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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A quick roundup of Monday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

Napoli 2-1 Inter Milan

For the first time since the final day of the 1989-90 season, Napoli are top of Serie A all by themselves after a top-of-the-table clash with previous leaders Inter Milan.

Gonzalo Higuain bagged both goals for the Azzurri, the first of which came after just 65 seconds. His tally on 62 minutes held up as the game-winner after Adem Ljajic pulled one back for Roberto Mancini’s side in the 67 minute. The opener (below video) was a powerful finish from inside the penalty area which served as a strong reminder as to why a club like Arsenal is consistently linked to the Argentine striker.

Sassuolo 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina, who had a chance to stake their own claim to the top spot, dropped two points away to seventh-place Sassuolo earlier in the day, opening the door for Napoli to go top with their victory. After shooting out of the gates red hot (6 wins in their first 7 games), the Viola have now drawn back to back games — to Empoli and Sassuolo — and find themselves third, two points behind Napoli.

Borja Valero put Fiorentina ahead after five minutes on Monday, but Sassuolo equalized through Sergio Floccari just before halftime to keep their own dreams of European qualification alive.

Serie A table

Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

Portland Timbers FC
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We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
  • Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Crew SC announce MLS Cup sold out 15 hours after qualifying ]

Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
  • Advantage: Timbers

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Timbers midfield three (Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)

  • Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.
  • Advantage: Timbers

Crew SC announce MLS Cup 2015 sold out 15 hours after qualifying

Wil Trapp, Columbus Crew SC
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The building formerly known as Crew Stadium has hosted its fair share of famous soccer games since it opened in 1999 — dos a cero, anyone? — and Sunday’s MLS Cup 2015 looks set to rank right up there among them.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Roughly 15 hours after advancing to this year’s MLS Cup, which they will host this Sunday (4 p.m. ET), Columbus Crew SC announced on Monday that MAPFRE Stadium is officially sold out.

Crew SC president of business operations Andy Loughnane addressed the fanbase in a blog post on the club’s official site Monday afternoon and said, “As of late this morning we are sold out of the extra capacity seating that was created for MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium. While there is a small chance that additional seats could be released for purchase as a result of MLS holds being returned, we are sold out of all known available seats.”

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Crew SC, making their second MLS Cup appearance in club history (2008 champions), will host first-time MLS Cup contestants, the Portland Timbers, on Sunday.