Major League Soccer team previews: COLUMBUS CREW

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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. MLS first kick is March 2.

No. 7 in the East is the Columbus Crew:

Significant additions and subtractions: Three important South Americans will help strengthen the Crew’s first XI. Brazilian center back Gláuber gives longtime Crew backline cop Chad Marshall a stronger partner.

New midfielders Matías Sánchez and Agustín Viana means solid roster holdovers like Tony Tchani or Danny O’Rourke are now in reserve roles rather than starting roles, which makes Columbus a stronger team.

The departures are notable not in their production around Crew Stadium, but because so much had been expected of players like midfielders Milovan Mirosevic and Dilly Duka, and forward Olman Vargas.

Duka left in a huff; he’s now with Chicago, which offered up speedy Dominic Oduro in exchange.

Rich Balchan, Julius James, Chris Birchall, Carlos Mendes and Sebastian Miranda were all starters at some point who had their options declined.  Also gone is William Hesmer, the longtime starter in Crew goal who has now retired.

Strengths: Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuaín were two of Major League Soccer’s top summer signings last year, in tandem generating 14 goals and 11 assists in 31 matches. Get that over an entire season and Columbus probably cruises into this year’s playoffs.

A new 4-2-3-1 look should give Higuain opportunity to “think” his way around the game, freer to freelance thanks to two defensive screeners behind him.

Generally, the roster is stronger, with a little less “average” spread around the field.

Under Warzycha, the team has always been well organized and tough to oppose. Arrieta and Higuain, plus underrated two-way man Eddie Gaven, provide the offense-defense balance that had been missing for some time in Ohio.

Pressure points: It’s time for manager Robert Warzycha to take a settled roster and move the team beyond makeover mode, where the Crew have hovered since 2010. The core is there to build around in Higuain, Arrieta, Marshall (still an above-average center back, now in his 10th professional season) and goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum.

Speaking of Gruenebaum, the pressure may feel a little different this year. Last year he could ride in heroically as Hesmer’s replacement. Now, everyone expects Gruenebaum to don the super hero’s cape – and that’s a whole other level of pressure.

The soft spots are at outside back, on either side. There’s some talent, but one of the lesser tested types needs to put a stranglehold on the position. Also along the back line, strong as Marshall can be, remaining healthy and available tends to be an issue.

Is the club past all the emotional undertow from popular midfielder Kirk Urso’s shocking death in 2012? Who could blame them if difficult moments still linger? The rookie from the University of North Carolina died from complications of a heart defect on Aug. 5.source: Getty Images

Difference maker: Higuain was so productive over his initial 8-10 matches upon arrival in Ohio last year that he kicked up some league Most Valuable Player chatter. (Higuain did claim league Newcomer of the Year honors.)

An injury crunched the momentum and slowed the Crew’s creator for the season’s final month, tamping down a playoff push that had looked so promising through August and September. The Argentine attacker (pictured right) has all the technical tools, all the know-how and all the desire to be a premier MLS man, and to be everything that the beloved Guillermo Barros Schelotto was for so long around Crew Stadium.

Potential breakout player: Talented young attacker Justin Meram will presumably get his chances around Crew Stadium; Arrieta figures to miss quite a few matches (and probably need resting here and there) due to Costa Rican international duty in World Cup qualifiers and in this summer’s Gold Cup.

Bottom line: You have to look at Columbus as one of the truly interesting teams in 2013, if only for the tremendous potential of the Arrieta-Higuain combo. Crew president Mark McCullers is certainly optimistic, stopping just short of predicting an Eastern Conference and the MLS Cup final being played in Ohio. Honestly, on paper, it’s really not such a stretch.

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

Three things we learned from Chelsea’s win vs. Spurs

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LONDON — Chelsea beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 on Sunday in the first-ever Premier League game at Wembley Stadium.

The reigning champs put all of their early season worries to one side to sneak out of Tottenham’s temporary home with a narrow win as Spurs squandered chances and Marcos Alonso scored twice, including a late winner.

Here’s what we learned from Wembley.


3-5-2 FOR NEW-LOOK CHELSEA?

When Chelsea’s teamsheet was passed around in the Wembley Stadium press box, there was much debate as to exactly how Antonio Conte would line his side up.

Given suspensions to Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard out injured and Diego Costa exiled in Brazil, Conte was forced into a reshuffle with David Luiz in midfield and youngster Andreas Christensen starting in a three-man defense alongside Cesar Azpilicueta and new signing Antonio Rudiger.

The 3-5-2 system worked to start with as Alvaro Morata squandered a glorious chance by heading wide, then Marcos Alonso curled home a superb free kick to give Chelsea the lead.

However Tottenham soon found space out wide with Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso asked to do more attacking than in the 3-4-3 formation and this system seemed to be more out of necessity to protect youngster Christensen and help ease in Tiemoue Bakayoko, than something which will stick around for the rest of the season. Bakayoko and Kante shut down Wanyama and Die from getting on the ball and Luiz shut down the space for Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli to work in.

Chelsea’s new signings settled in relatively well with Morata guilty of missing a gilt-edge chance early on and somewhat weak in the challenge, while Bakayoko roughed up Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele in midfield and Rudiger was solid. With Cahill, Fabregas and Hazard to return, it seems like many wrote off this Chelsea side too quickly this season following the shock defeat to Burnley on the opening weekend.

Yes, Conte will want reinforcements in the final weeks of the window, but things aren’t as bad as they seemed last week for the reigning champs.


WEMBLEY HOODOO CONTINUES FOR SPURS

Perhaps it was the confetti still on the floor from Arsenal’s Community Shield win over Chelsea two weeks ago. Perhaps it was the bigger pitch. Perhaps it was the increased expectation from a crowd of over 75,000. Perhaps it was Chelsea’s fine record against Spurs as they’ve now lost just twice in their last 18 encounters against Tottenham.

Whatever you put this defeat down to, this was the last thing Tottenham wanted to happen in their first-ever league game at Wembley Stadium.

The Wembley hoodoo remains as Harry Kane hit the post, Thibaut Courtois came up with a string of fine saves and there were some horror misses for Spurs. To top it all just when Spurs thought they had nicked a point for all of their endeavors, Alonso scored in the 88th minute after a horrible giveaway by Victor Wanyama.

Much has been made of the size of the pitch and how unfamiliar surroundings could cost Tottenham dear in 2017-18 during their one-year move as their new 61,000 capacity home at White Hart Lane is finished.

Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge home is closer to Wembley than Spurs’ White Hart Lane and the Blues looked more comfortable there from the start with Alonso’s late strike the difference.

Spurs have now won just two of their 11 games at the new Wembley, failing to win in nine of their last 10 trips to Wembley, and for five of those games they were “at home.”

Does it really make that much difference?

When it comes to the pitch size there isn’t much difference between White Hart Lane and Wembley. The pitch size at Wembley is listed as 105 x 75 yards. That makes it five yards longer and two yards wider than the pitch Spurs dominated teams on last season with Mauricio Pochetino’s high-pressing style seeing Tottenham unbeaten at home all season.

Before the season started Pochettino and Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen discussed how high Spurs push up the pitch and how the defense use Harry Kane as a reference point for the rest of their team. If Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld realize they’re too far away from Kane, they’ll push the entire team up. With an extra five yards to cover, time and time again, it makes a difference at the top. We saw that on Sunday with over half the pitch often separating Spurs’ defense with Kane, presumably because Pochettino was worried about Chelsea launching counters and his team being exposed.

With Spurs still getting used to new surroundings, their fans settling into their new matchday routine and a much different atmosphere generated compared to the cramped, hostile White Hart Lane, this will take time.

The main reason Spurs finished second last season was due to their home form. They will have to adapt to their new home quickly, amid an increased wave of negativity following this defeat, to try and remain not only as title contenders but top four challengers.

Tottenham dominated vast swathes of this game but the Wembley hoodoo remains.


DRY AUGUST FOR KANE

Harry Kane has now gone 12 Premier League games without scoring a goal in August.

Considering he is the top scorer in each of the PL’s past two seasons, that’s quite an achievement.

Kane, 24, hit the post, had shots saved and blocked on Sunday as he did everything but score. The curse of August continues for Kane.

But what can you attribute it to?

Kane is one of those strikers who has to feel the game, to feel the moment and then play on his instincts.

He has all of the raw ingredients — pace, power, aerial ability, vision — to dominate but he needs time to settle down on the pitch and get in the groove.

It is not easy to do that after getting 45 minutes here and 60 minutes there in preseason. Kane seemed a little hesitant when the ball dropped around the box to him on Sunday, waiting an extra split second or taking an extra touch.

In the 77th minute Mousa Dembele played him through after a mazy run but Kane slipped at the vital moment. Even if their stadium has changed, some things never do.

September to January is peak Kane time.

Spurs 1-2 Chelsea: Alonso leads Blues to win

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  • First PL match at Wembley
  • Bakayoko makes Chelsea debut
  • Alonso nets free kick
  • 81st min o.g. levels the score
  • Luiz, Pedro, Alonso team up for winner

Marcos Alonso scored a brace, the second snapping an 88th minute tie, as Chelsea bested Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

Alonso scored a wonderful first half free kick, and David Luiz caused a turnover to help Pedro and Alonso produce an equalizer minutes after a Michy Batshuayi own goal helped Spurs to their lone goal.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Chelsea was lively out of the gate, and Alvaro Morata missed nodding a free header into the goal following Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross.

Harry Kane‘s low strike was fumbled by Thibaut Courtois in the 10th minute, as Spurs registered their first proper chance.

Morata nearly cause Hugo Lloris an embarrassing miscue but the Spurs keeper recovered to avoid the blushes.

Mousa Dembele‘s left-footed shot was flicked over the goal by Courtois for a corner, but int came to nothing as the match put 20 minutes in the books.

Alonso spun his free kick over the wall with vigor, missing a leaping Toby Alderweireld‘s head by inches before dipping hard to beat a flying Hugo Lloris.

Harry Kane then nearly bulled his way to a goal only to see his six-yard drive blocked by Courtois. The 39th minute saw Eriksen spin a perfect free kick toward the far post with not a single Spur finding its path.

Kane cranked a shot off the far post in the 42nd minute.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Kane’s backheeled pass met an outstanding run from Eriksen to start the second half, and Spurs were nearly level. Two corners were handled by Chelsea, and the score remained 1-0 to the visitors.

The match tightened up for a spell and Willian nearly broke it open with a long dribble and pass to Morata, whose shot was deflected out for a corner by Vertonghen. Victor Moses then tore a shot off the crossbar.

Willian then hit the near post moments later.

Spurs found their way level through the own goal, as Bakayoko gave away a dangerous free kick and Batshuayi headed Eriksen’s quality offering inside his own post.

That’s when Hugo Lloris’ quick throw was forced free by Luiz, and Pedro combined with Alonso to do the rest.

Report: Ibrahimovic to sign for Man Utd this week, posts teasing video

Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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Look, at some point we may have to face the idea that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not from this planet.

The Swedish legend, 35, has healed well ahead of schedule and will reportedly sign a new contract with Manchester United this week.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Ibrahimovic was one of the best finishers in the Premier League last season, and the idea of him spelling Romelu Lukaku or Jose Mourinho putting the two beasts on the pitch at the same time will only reinforce thoughts that United can chase hardware in any tournament it enters this season.

From ESPN.co.uk:

The new contract will be announced earlier than anticipated due to the former Sweden international’s quick recovery.

The reports comes on the same day the Swedish striker posted video his spin kicking a heavy bag with both legs and asking viewers which of his pegs boasted this summer’s surgically-repaired knee.

He’s probably an alien.

VIDEO: Alonso’s artful free kick a fitting goal for Chelsea at Wembley

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Marcos Alonso‘s left-footed free kick goal is a thing of beauty.

It’ll go down as the Premier League’s first goal at Wembley Stadium, and deservedly so.

[ STREAM: Spurs-Chelsea on NBCSN ]

Alonso spun his shot over the wall with vigor, missing a leaping Toby Alderweireld‘s head by inches before dipping hard to beat a flying Hugo Lloris.

The goal gave Chelsea a 1-0 lead over hosts Tottenham Hotspur, and came after Alvaro Morata missed the match’s first best chance with a free header wide of goal.

It’s Alonso’s seventh goal for Chelsea, and could spur them away from the gloom and doom of last week’s season-opening loss to Burnley.