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)

Clement says Rashford “deceived the referee” for penalty

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According to Swansea City manager Paul Clement, Manchester United attacker Marcus Rashford earned the game’s opening goal by “deceiving the referee.”

“My players clearly thought it wasn’t a penalty, and seeing the replay the player [Rashford] has deceived the referee,” Clement said. “It’s clear. There’s no other way to look at it. The ref seemed to have some doubts because there was a big delay and I spoke to him afterwards and he said he was only receiving confirmation from his assistants. It was a mistake. He went down way before there was contact.”

[ RECAP: Sigurdsson free-kick earns Swansea draw with Manchester United ]

Clement’s words are chosen well, as they do not question the refereeing decision, but are instead pointed at Rashford for his ability to earn the penalty, therefore doing his best to avoid any disciplinary action.

Watching the replay, it’s hard to argue with the Swansea boss. Rashford looks to not only reach his leg out to invite contact as Lukasz Fabianski pulls out of the challenge, but also goes to ground before the contact comes.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

“Lukasz was furious,” Clement said. “He’s said: ‘I’ve gone down to get hands on the ball, I can see I can’t get it, I’ve come away from it, and he’s gone down before the contact.’”

Clement, however, refused to go any further with regards to the 20-year-old Rashford. “No I’m not saying cheat. I’m saying deceived. It’s the word I’ve chosen. I would use cheat another time. On this occasion I’m saying he deceived him.”

Wayne Rooney would score from the spot, putting Manchester United in front on the stroke of halftime. The lead would not hold as a Gylfi Sigurdsson free-kick leveled the score.

Stream Live: Massive North London Derby as Arsenal visits Spurs

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Tottenham can confirm its first finish above rival Arsenal since 1995 as the final North London derby at White Hart Lane begins at 11:30 a.m. ET live on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

The game is important to both sides for more than just the rivalry as well. With a win for Chelsea earlier, Spurs will be focused on the title race as well, needing three points to keep pace. For Arsenal, draws earlier in the day for both Manchester clubs have suddenly opened the door to make a go at the final Champions League place, and a win would leave them just two points adrift.

[ WATCH LIVE: Tottenham vs. Arsenal live online at NBCSports.com ]

Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino has left midfield rock Moussa Dembele on the bench due to an ankle injury in last week’s win over Crystal Palace. Danny Rose misses out with a knee injury, leaving Kieran Trippier to start at left-back. Kyle Walker is also left on the bench, leaving Spurs without both first-choice full-backs as Ben Davies starts on the right.

Arsenal gets a boost as Laurent Koscielny is fit to start despite a knee injury picked up against Leicester City last weekend. That’s big as Shkodran Mustafi misses out, leaving Nacho Monreal to play as a member of the back three, with Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin on the bench. The lineup is attacking in nature, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, and Olivier Giroud all on the field to start the game.

The Gunners have won just once in its last eight visits to White Hart Lane in Premier League play, and come into today against a Spurs side that have won twelve straight home games and sit as the only unbeaten Premier League side at home this season.

LINEUPS

Tottenham: Lloris, Trippier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Davies, Dier, Wanyama, Son, Eriksen, Dele, Kane.
Subs: Vorm, Walker, Wimmer, Dembele, Sissoko, Nkoudou, Janssen.

Arsenal: Cech, Gabriel, Koscielny, Monreal, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey, Xhaka, Gibbs, Ozil, Sanchez, Giroud.
Subs: Ospina, Holding, Bellerin, Coquelin, Iwobi, Walcott, Welbeck.

Middlesbrough 2-2 Man City: Jesus stuns bright Boro

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Middlesbrough, feeling hard done by a harsh refereeing decision, felt justice had been done when Calum Chambers bungled the ball into the back of the net with 13 minutes to go. What a result it would be in the relegation battle.

It was not to be. Gabriel Jesus, on his return from injury, scored a thumping header with five minutes remaining to peg back Boro for the second time, leaving the home side with a valuable point but a bitter taste in their mouths.

City had its first good effort on net after eight minutes as Sergio Aguero shifted to his left and looked for the top corner but the ball curled just over the bar.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The game had little on net as it progressed past the half-hour mark, until Middlesbrough had a few half-chances. Marten De Roon put one over the bar under heavy pressure inside the penalty area, and then Stewart Downing also missed the target moments later.

With the home side impressing throughout the first half, matching City step for step, they managed to find a way in front. A Kevin De Bruyne cross was cut out by George Friend and it sparked a vicious break. Downing’s cross from the left was too far behind Friend, but it fell to Alvaro Negredo who fell as he shot, but managed to get the left-footed effort off the left post and into the back of the net as the home fans erupted. Negredo’s goal against his former club was only the beginning of his fantastic performance.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

After the break, Pep Guardiola kept the starting lineup out there momentarily, but quickly made a double change just four minutes in as he yanked off Aleix Garcia and Gael Clichy in favor of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling. They immediately made an impact as Sterling’s effort on net was only blocked last-ditch by Calum Chambers.

City began to attack with more vicious intent, and Sterling again had a shot blocked by Chambers’ face on 57 minutes. Their pressure bore fruit as Sane went down in the box under pressure from De Roon, and referee Kevin Friend pointed to the spot. The Middlesbrough players absolutely lost their minds, with both De Roon and Fabio earning yellow cards for dissent after the decision. At first glance of the replay there was a clear foul, but upon closer inspection it appeared Sane leaned heavily into the contact to draw the whistle.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Aguero blasted the penalty in to leave little doubt as the score leveled at 1-1, with the home fans and players still incensed. Middlesbrough looked for a way back into the lead by bringing on Adama Traore, who immediately drew a yellow on Nicolas Otamendi for a foul on a breakaway.

Middlesbrough would eventually get justice for the penalty, as they went back in front with 13 minutes remaining. A free-kick was only parried awkwardly by Willy Caballero, and somehow City failed to clear with the ball pinging all over the box. Negredo somehow kept it alive with a back-heel, and eventually his shot was turned in clumsily by Chambers who wheeled away in delight.

Again though, the lead would not hold. Fabio fouled Sane on the left flank, and Aguero delivered a cross into the box, and only Jesus judged it correctly, cracking the header past Brad Guzan. That leveled things at 2-2, ripping the collective hearts out of Riverside Stadium. City pushed for a winner down the stretch in tense final minutes, but could not find the right formula. Aguero had to come off late with what looked to be a slight knock, a slight concern for City at the end.

The point for Middlesbrough sees them climb within four of Swansea City, who also drew a Manchester club earlier on Sunday. They still remain six points adrift of safety with Hull City well above, leaving the draw feeling like a brutal loss. For City, they keep pace with Manchester United, but cannot build any lead above their single point.

Everton 0-3 Chelsea: Pedro stunner downs sleepy Everton

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Neither side looked up for the game, until Pedro was.

This game was billed as potentially Chelsea’s toughest test left as they march towards the title. With both teams struggling to produce anything on goal, the Spaniard stepped up in the 66th minute and ripped a fantastic strike past Maarten Stekelenburg and into the top-left corner to put Chelsea through at Goodison Park.

Everton was off to a flyer as 20-year-old Dominic Calvert-Lewin cut into the box and fired off a shot from a tight angle that wrong-footed Thibaut Courtois and cannoned off the post. The Blues also missed a good chance as Eden Hazard got around Maarten Stekelenburg to his right, but despite the open net to shoot at, the extremely tight angle forced Hazard into the side-netting.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

That was it though, as the first 45 minutes devolved into a brutal midfield battle, with neither side truly asserting its dominance. One of the only good efforts on net for either side in the first half came in the 23rd minute as Romelu Lukaku chested down a long ball and rifled a low shot on net from a long way out, and with Courtois just off line, the ball skittered agonizingly wide.

Everton looked to foul Hazard every time he got on the ball, so Chelsea hoped to work through the middle with Diego Costa and Pedro, but they did not produce a good chance before the halftime whistle.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

The second half began where the first half left off, with little in the game. Diego Costa was eventually given his customary booking for a studs-up challenge on Stekelenburg as the ball came through and the Everton goalkeeper went to boot it away.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Finally, the moment of the game arrived as Pedro cut to his left outside the top of the box and lashed a shot that scorched into the top corner and put Chelsea through.

Everton had no response, and the Blues would double the lead with 11 minutes left as a free-kick came off Romelu Lukaku and fell to Gary Cahill at point-blank range, turned in for a 2-0 lead. There was a moment of concern for Chelsea fans down the stretch as David Luiz sat on the pitch multiple times seemingly massaging his groin, replaced eventually by Nathan Ake.

It all fell apart for the Toffees, as Chelsea added a third with minutes remaining. Diego Costa released substitute Cesc Fabregas, and his cutback to fellow sub Willian near the six-yard box left the Brazilian with a clean finish.

The three points for the Blues see them seven points clear at the top of the table, while Everton remains in seventh, with no danger below them but failing to take the chance to jump Arsenal before the North London derby.