Major League Soccer team previews: COLORADO RAPIDS

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Each day from now until the beginning of Major League Soccer’s 18th season, we will preview one Eastern Conference team and one from the West. First kick is March 2.

No. 8 in the West are the Colorado Rapids:

Significant additions and subtractions: Jeff Larentowicz, a midfield fixture in recent years around DSG Park, is now doing his ginger thing in Chicago.

Edson Buddle has moved over from the Galaxy, attempting to jump-start a career that hit the skids last year in Los Angeles. Given the departures of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings, among the league’s most lethal strike combos not so far back, expectations are piled up fairly high on Buddle, who continues to operate at the outer markers of the U.S. national team pool.

Nick LaBrocca is back for a second Rapids run. He joins fellow MLS vets Atiba Harris and the versatile Nathan Sturgis in new roles outside Denver.

Strangely enough, Pablo Mastroeni can almost be counted as “new” considering the longtime midfield enforcer missed all but 150 minutes of 2012 with concussion related issues. Everyone around Denver is excited to have the captain back.

Speaking of new-not really new: Colorado may also have a “new” right back. His name is Brian Mullan, and he speaks of the potential change here. Interesting.

Strengths:  First-year manager Oscar Pareja had a vision for how he wanted to play in 2012, but late arrival on the scene at DSG Park reduced the Colombian coach to hammering round pegs into square holes. With a roster more to his liking this season — technical expertise added, a little muscle-and-tussle subtracted — 2012 should offer a fairer test of his ability. It also presents an improved platform for a possible second run at more dynamic, fluid 4-3-3 soccer.

Expect center backs Marvell Wynne and Drew Moor to perk up after a so-so 2012 with the savvy and defensive-minded Mastroeni back to do the midfield screening. They have to; 50 goals allowed won’t cut it.

Pressure points: This is certainly not how Pareja wanted to begin what is probably a make-or-break year for him personally. Injuries will take his two premier attackers off the field to begin the season. A knee injury will keep do-all attacker Jaime Castrillon out until May at the earliest. The double whammy is that 2012 assist leader was already out; Martin Rivero broke his foot in a preseason contest and not expected back until mid-March, at least. That’s not as long as Castrillon, but still … Yikes!

Even when they come back, Pareja can forge his side into the best possession outfit this side of Barcelona FC, but if the Rapids’ finishing cannot improve over 2012, it won’t matter.source:

Difference maker: Mastroeni, a veteran of two World Cups with the United States, is such a leader that his presence is more than the sum of his passing and tackling parts. That club record tying six-game losing streak last year? It’s harder to see something like that happening with Mastroeni (pictured right) around to inspire something greater from everyone individually and collectively. 

Potential breakout player: Tony Cascio looked like an MLS Rookie of the Year candidate at times in 2012. At other times during an impressive sum of 29 appearances last year he looked like any other ol’ mid-first round draft pick. The thing about Cascio, who can play on the flank or as a forward, is that everything looks so instinctive and unforced. He has tremendous upside. 

Bottom line: It may be difficult for Rapids fans to hear that success or failure in 2013 is reduced to providence, but this is where we are with the Rapids, league champs as recently as 2010. If Mastroeni can hold out – far from a guarantee considering how close the head injury concerns came to forcing his retirement last year – and if Castrillon and Rivero return to timely good health, this is a pretty interesting team. If not, they could struggle again.

(MORE: the entire roster of ProSoccerTalk’s Major League Soccer previews and predictions)

Liga MX wrap: Pachuca earns first win, Leon stays unbeaten

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All of Saturday’s action from around Mexico’s top flight…

Pachuca 3-1 Lobos BUAP

A strong first-half push from the hosts was all Pachuca needed on Saturday night to earn their first victory of the 2018 Clausura season. Angel Sagal brought the home side in front after just 10 minutes off of a near-post header, before Pachuca’s lead soon doubled 14 minutes later from the penalty spot when strike Franco Jara converted on the dead-ball attempt.

Just prior to halftime, Pachuca was out to a 3-0 advantage when 20-year-old outside back Erick Aguirre tallied his first goal for the club.

Last-place side Lobos got on the board three minutes into the second stanza via a finish from Heriberto Olvera, however, it wasn’t enough to provide anything more than a consolation for the visiting side.

Necaxa 1-3 Chivas Guadalajara

Mexican international Alan Pulido made it a dream start for the visitors from Guadalajara at the Estadio Victoria, however, that lead was cancelled out in first-half stoppage time after Carlos Gonzalez leveled the match up at 1-1.

The difference proved to be with 25 minutes left to play, when a goalkeeping error by Marcelo Barovero allowed Chivas to regain possession inside the Necaxa penalty area, before Ronaldo Cisneros tapped home the winner.

Then, a third goal came just prior to the end of regulation when Edwin Hernandez killed the game off for Matias Almeyda’s men, who also earned their first victory of the Clausura season.

Rest of Saturday’s Liga MX action

Cruz Azul 0-0 Club Leon
Queretaro 0-0 Tigres UANL
Monterrey 0-0 Club Tijuana

Sunday’s matches

UNAM vs. Club America — 1 p.m. ET
Santos Laguna vs. Morelia — 7 p.m. ET

The 2 Robbies: Alexis/Mkhitaryan transfer saga and more

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Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle recap all the key stories from the latest Premier League Saturday fixtures including Manchester City’s 3-1 win over Newcastle (0:20), Chelsea’s 4-0 victory at Brighton (10:15) and the latest on the Alexis Sanchez/Henrikh Mkhitaryan saga after wins for Arsenal and Manchester United (19:00). Plus, a closer look at the bottom of the table and thoughts go out to James McCarthy after his serious injury against West Brom (29:00).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

Video: Stoke’s Imbula scores stunner on loan at Toulouse

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Stoke City supporters know the name Giannelli Imbula, and perhaps they’ll be clamoring for the Frenchman to return to the bet365 Stadium if he can score more goals like this.

[ MORE: PL Roundup — Top three all victorious; Gunners thrash Palace ]

The holding midfielder is currently on loan with Ligue 1 outfit Toulouse, and for the first time this season, Imbula opened his goalscoring account in some fashion.

Right on half-hour mark, Imbula unleashed a left-footed strike from nearly 40 yards out to give Toulouse the lead over Montpellier (below).

Imbula joined Stoke during the 2015/16 PL season, and has made 26 appearances for the Potters in his time with the club, prior to his loan to France.

Willian proves he’s Chelsea’s x-factor against Brighton

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There’s a considerable difference when watching a Chelsea team that plays with and without one of its Brazilian influences in the attacking part of the field.

Willian — who first debuted for the Blues back in 2013 — hasn’t always managed to be a regular starter for Chelsea, whether it was Jose Mourinho, Guus Hiddink or current manager Antonio Conte at the helm, though.

[ SOURCES: Jack Harrison expected to join Stoke City this winter ]

The 29-year-old plays with considerable flair, something that certainly isn’t uncommon amongst many players that have grown up in Brazil.

At times Willian’s overconfidence is a significant blessing, and at others it can be considered a curse, however, the former Corinthians player’s presence is something that Chelsea needs now more than ever.

That was on display on Saturday during the side’s 4-0 win at Brighton, a match in which Chelsea dominated from start to finish with Willian on the pitch. While the performance cannot solely be attributed to the attacking midfielder’s showing, it’s easy to argue that the Blues midfielder is becoming the club’s biggest x factor — one that can determine the outcome of a match.

Just look six minutes into the match, when the Blues put together one of the best team goals you’ll see in a match this year (or any year for that matter), which of course, was started and finished by none other than Willian.

What stands out about the play isn’t the brilliant slicing shot into the near post corner by the veteran playmaker, but instead the confidence that Willian exudes and brings to a Chelsea lineup that has plenty of talent to be considered one of the best teams in England and all of Europe.

After all, Conte’s group is just a season removed from winning the Premier League and still sits inside the top three in the world’s top league.

Then, there’s the Blues’ third goal against Brighton, which was set up by a smart, and instinctive, through ball played into the path of Eden Hazard by Willian (below).

Even though Hazard ends up with a ton of time on the ball to make his next decision, which was ultimately to cut inside on his preferred right foot, the run by Willian towards the end line dragged a defender away from the Belgian international — allowing the sequence to progress.

Arguing Willian’s importance isn’t a knock on Hazard — a world-class player in his own right — or Alvaro Morata, who has had the intolerable task of replacing a key player like Diego Costa.

Instead, it simply shows that Chelsea has a plethora of talent, and that some of the club’s attacking struggles throughout the 2017/18 season can be chalked up to Willian being left out of the starting XI on a regular basis.

[ MORE: Sergio Aguero continues to display brilliance for Man City ]

The Brazilian international has scored eight goals and added seven assists this season in all competitions for the Blues, despite only starting 19 matches.

The mind of manager Conte is an ever-changing one, so maybe Willian still doesn’t get the starting nod on an every week basis, but just by watching the team’s performance at the Amex Stadium it’s quite hard to argue against the player being on the field as much as possible.