Major League Soccer team previews: MONTREAL IMPACT

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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. 9 in the East is the Montreal Impact:

Significant additions and subtractions: Foremost was the removal of Jesse Marsch as head coach (by mutual consent) after just one season in charge of the expansion team. The new boss is Marco Schallibaum, who is spending the preseason trying to get the team to think quicker and play quicker, with more one- and two-touch interchange.

Newcomers Blake Smith, Andrea Pisanu and Andrés Romero give the new coach plenty of options for outside midfield.

Strengths:  Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari will be a strong central defensive pairing if Nesta can avoid being isolated, one-on-one, too far from goal. Not as quick as in his salad days back in Italy, the Italian veteran can be had out there.

Patrice Bernier went from unknown figure in MLS to one of the league’s top central midfielders last year. The Impact’s MVP in 2012 is back, although questions persist about whom best to partner him in the middle of Stade Saputo. Collen Warner, Calum Mallace and the impressively versatile Hassoun Camara are among Schallibaum’s options there.

Judging by one preseason lineup, captain Davy Arnaud looks like another central option, as well. The MLS veteran has played in the middle before, back with Kansas City.

The team went 10-4-3 at home last year.

Pressure points: The organization made a bold call in not retaining Marsch. By almost any standard of measure the club’s first year in MLS was a ringing success. The expansion Impact finished ahead of three teams in the East and was among the league’s stronger sides through the summer, once settled and past some of the lesser avoidably young club blues. Yes, the separation was by mutual consent, but never mind that. If the Impact takes a step backward in its sophomore season, that’s on the organization for not reaching compromise with the man (Marsch) who over achieved as a first-time coach.

With team captain Arnaud, Justin Mapp and Sanna Nyassi already in place at Stade Saputo, now being pushed by the new additions, the coaching staff has lots of options for two flank midfield spots. They need to get that one right or team accord could be in jeopardy.source:

Preseason reports say Pisanu is already on the same page with striker Marco Di Vaio, which means that Arnaud’s spot could be in jeopardy. We sure know that Pisanu can score goals, and isn’t afraid to try the audacious. Watch this one from a preseason game.

Difference maker: That’s a little bit of a problem. It could be Bernier, but there are a lot of miles to log over an MLS season for a 33-year-old central midfielder. It could be Di Vaio, but his rate of production has to rise from last year’s modest totals (5 goals in 17 appearances).  It could be Nesta (pictured at right), whose ability to shepherd the back four is substantial, but whose vulnerability to younger, quicker type (as mentioned before) could be the rear guard’s undoing here and there.

If you have three guys who might be a difference maker, then you might not have one at all.

Potential breakout player: Pisanu, on loan from Bologna, has logged plenty of Serie A time, but is far from a known name in the new world.

Bottom line: The club is built around Bernier, Nesta and Di Vaio, all of whom are on the wrong side of 30. If they hold up, and if a new manager isn’t caught off guard by any MLS peculiarities, Montreal could possibly slip into the playoffs in its sophomore MLS season.

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

Transfer rumor roundup: Van Dijk to Chelsea, Ox to Anfield

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More and more players are being linked with Manchester United, but — believe it or not — the Red Devils aren’t the only club seeking talent.

DiMarzio is reporting that Antonio Conte is close to securing the services of Southampton center back Virgil Van Dijk, insisting the Dutch back is Conte’s top choice ahead of Juventus power house Leonardo Bonucci (which isn’t to say there isn’t room for both). The price? An eyebrow-raising $77 million.

[ MORE: Confederations Cup scenarios ]

Meanwhile, Conte is selling talented Bertrand Traore outside the Premier League. A solid season on loan at Ajax upped interest in the 21-year-old striker, and L’Equipe says it’s a $22 million move to Lyon for Traore.

How much do you think Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is worth? Liverpool may think his value is as high as $32 million, as The Independent reports that Arsenal is prepared to sell the Southampton Academy product to the attacker-heavy Reds.

Meanwhile, Serge Gnabry‘s wild journey looks to have another stop despite a purchase from Bayern Munich this summer. Gnabry was one of Germany’s heroes at the Olympics and left Arsenal for Werder Bremen last summer. He thrived, and earned a deal to Bayern, but Kicker brings quotes from a Hoffenheim player that are hopeful of a loan for this season.

Messi offers to pay $558,000 to avoid 21-month jail sentence

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi has offered to pay an additional fine of 500,000 euros ($558,000) to ensure he avoids a 21-month prison sentence for tax fraud that a judge is expected to suspend, a Spanish state prosecutor said Friday.

State prosecutor Isabel Lopez Riera told The Associated Press the fine-for-time deal was presented by Messi’s lawyers to the judge who will rule on whether to suspend Messi’s sentence – as is widely expected. Lopez Riera said she has told the judge that her office is not opposed to the deal.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

Lopez Riera said Messi’s lawyers have made a similar offer for the Barcelona player’s father, Jorge Horacio Messi. He is offering to pay 360,000 euros ($402,000) to avoid his 15-month sentence for helping his son cheat on his taxes.

In Spain, prison sentences under 24 months for first-time offenders can be suspended by a judge.

The government attorney representing Spain’s Tax Office in the case will also be able to weigh in on the proposed deal. As state prosecutor, Lopez Riera is impartial in the case as a defender of the public interest.

Last year, a court in Barcelona found Messi and his father each guilty of three counts of defrauding tax authorities of 4.1 million euros ($4.6 million) from 2007-09. The unpaid taxes were from money made through endorsement deals, not Messi’s salary paid by Barcelona.

Messi was fined 2 million euros and his father 1.5 million euros. Both were originally sentenced to 21 months, but his father’s sentence was later reduced to 15 months.

In the last two weeks, Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo and former Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho have been accused by a Madrid-based state prosecutor of having defrauded Spain’s Tax Office of millions of euros (dollars) in unpaid taxes.

Both have denied wrongdoing.

WATCH: Pair of inspiring Academy videos from Men In Blazers

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Men In Blazers produced a pair of videos on two teens from rival academies that should give all young players a sense of gratitude and inspiration for their chances in American soccer.

New York City FC Academy center back Prince Amponsah and New York Red Bulls Academy destroyer Amadeo Chapru-Tate get the mini-doc treatment from Roger Bennett.

Amponsah comes from Ghana, and his family moved to the United States where their son found his way to the youth national team.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

Chapru-Tate comes from Haiti, adopted by his parents after a three-year process. His first game saw him score an own goal, but that was not a sign of what’s to come for the 15-year-old.

Confederations Cup: Scenarios before final group matches

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Seven of eight nations remain alive for the knockout rounds after two-thirds of the group stage at the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia.

Only New Zealand has been eliminated, though the underdogs aren’t the sort of nations who will quit ahead of its group finale against Portugal.

That’s one of two Saturday matches, along with Russia versus Mexico, with two more on the docket for Sunday when Germany meets Cameroon and Chile duels with Australia.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

We’ve seen zany finishes at the Confederations Cup before, as the U.S. beat Egypt 3-0 and Brazil topped Italy 3-0 on the final day of group play in 2009 to send the Americans past Italy and into the knockout rounds despite a tournament-opening 3-1 loss to the Italians.

Group A

Draws will be enough to send Mexico and Portugal into the knockout rounds, with Mexico currently leading the group by virtue of a single goal scored (The two sides drew 2-2 in the opener).

We mentioned New Zealand’s status as a wild card, but hosts Russia will be under immense pressure against Mexico. The cynic will note that the tournament’s location could help the Russians beyond simple home-field advantage, while a bigger cynic may not that Mexico has been the beneficiary of plenty of officials’ whistles and non-whistles in recent years.

The safe bet is Portugal to win and Mexico to advance via draw or win.

Group B

No one’s safe, but Chile is feeling very good about its chances coming into Sunday’s match against Australia in Moscow. The Chileans battered Australia at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and a draw would give them a place in the next round.

The Socceroos need a two-goal win to pass Chile and assure a spot in the next round. A one-goal win could also do the trick for Australia if Germany loses and Australia outscores the Germans (who currently hold a one-goal advantage).

Germany knows it’s result-and-in for them, while Cameroon faces the longest odds. Not only do the Africans need to upset the Germans, but they need a two-goal win and help. If Cameroon won by one, it would fail to pass Germany.