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)

Baroni fired by Serie A basement club Benevento

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BENEVENTO, Italy (AP) Benevento fired Marco Baroni and named Roberto De Zerbi its new coach after becoming the first squad in Serie A history to lose its first nine matches of the season.

The southern Italian club is the only team in Europe’s five major leagues without a point.

[ MORE: Ronaldo wins Best Male Player at FIFA awards ]

Benevento also announced it fired sporting director Salvatore Di Somma.

The moves on Monday came a day after a 3-0 home loss to Fiorentina.

The Gazzetta dello Sport reports that Benevento will have to pay Baroni 800,000 euros (nearly $1 million) as part of an anti-firing clause in his contract.

Baroni guided Benevento up from Serie B last season.

De Zerbi last coached Palermo nearly a year ago before being fired by the Sicilian club.

It’s the second coaching change in Serie A this season, after Diego Lopez replaced Massimo Rastelli at Cagliari last week.

MLS Cup Playoffs: Atlanta hosts Crew, Whitecaps take on Earthquakes

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34 rounds of MLS action are in the books, and now the real fun is set to begin this week.

The MLS Cup Playoffs have arrived, and 12 teams are firmly in the running to hoist a trophy in December.

[ MORE: PST talks to Justin Meram ahead of the Crew’s playoff run ]

While Toronto FC, New York City FC, the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers will each have the opportunity to watch the first round from their homes, the action all starts on Wednesday and Thursday.

Here’s a look at what to expect when the knockout round begins.

Chicago Fire vs. New York Red Bulls — Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET

The Fire were one of the most intriguing stories for much of the regular season, but Veljko Paunovic’s side enters the postseason limping. Lucky for them, the Red Bulls have been just as inconsistent throughout the course of 2017 — which already saw Jesse Marsch’s club lose in the U.S. Open Cup final.

Paunovic and Co. have lost eight of their last 15 matches, which doesn’t bode well entering the home stretch of the schedule. Meanwhile, the Red Bulls have won just two of their last 10 matches. The Harrison side should be well-rested though for Wednesday’s encounter after starting a mostly second-tier squad in Sunday’s season finale against D.C. United.

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. San Jose Earthquakes — Wednesday, 10:30 p.m. ET

The Whitecaps looked to be a sure-fire club destined for a bye in the first round, but things didn’t fall their way on Decision Day. Now, Carl Robinson’s side faces an Earthquakes side that is simply unpredictable.

The Quakes have the second-worst road record in the Western Conference when it comes to acquiring points — holding eight in points 17 matches. However, Chris Leitch has instilled a new-found belief amongst the squad that gives the California side a puncher’s chance.

Atlanta United vs. Columbus Crew — Thursday, 7 p.m. ET

These two sides haven’t met since July 1, so all bets are off about these teams knowing one another. Since that point, Atlanta and Columbus have been two of the hottest sides in MLS and the former moved into a new stadium — which has given opposing sides quite the difficult time.

In their last 10 matches combined, the clubs boast just one loss, which Atlanta suffered at home against Minnesota United. There’s no reason not to expect a great one at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting KC — Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET

Peter Vermes’ Sporting KC side enters the playoffs winless in their last five, while their counterparts are unbeaten in six. The MLS postseason is often about which team is in the best form at the right particular moment, and right now, it doesn’t look like Sporting KC has luck on their side.

It’s also hard to not pay attention to the fact that the Dynamo have lost just once at BBVA Compass Stadium in 2017, which came on September 9 against the Colorado Rapids.

Carabao Cup preview: Man City hosts Wolves, Chelsea meets Everton

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All eyes will remain on the 11 Premier League sides left in this season’s Carabao Cup, but could a potential upset(s) shake the balance of power in the competition?

Norwich City and Leeds United will be among the teams seeking an upset in the tournament as they take on Arsenal and Leicester City, respectively, on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Cristiano Ronaldo captures Best Male Player at FIFA awards ]

Meanwhile, fresh off of Ronald Koeman‘s sacking, Everton must regroup quickly when they head to Stamford Bridge to take on Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea. The Toffees have taken just eight points in their first nine PL matches, leaving the Merseyside club in the relegation zone.

The Blues are aiming for their sixth League Cup title this season, while Manchester United could also achieve the same feat with the crown.

Here’s the slate of matches for the Carabao Cup Round of 16.

Tuesday (All fixtures kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET)

Swansea City vs. Manchester United
Bournemouth vs. Middlesbrough
Bristol City vs. Crystal Palace
Leicester City vs. Leeds United
Arsenal vs. Norwich City
Manchester City vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers

Wednesday (All fixtures kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET)

Chelsea vs. Everton
Tottenham Hotspur vs. West Ham United

Report: RBNY midfielder Felipe, NYCFC’s Harrison could play for USMNT

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The U.S. Men’s National Team has seen a rise in dual nationals representing the Stars and Stripes in recent years, and that trend could continue with two of MLS’ most promising midfielders interested in enhancing their international careers.

[ MORE: PST names Best XI for the 2017 MLS season ]

According to MSG Network’s Kristian Dyer, New York Red Bulls midfielder Felipe Martins is in the midst of a finalizing his American citizenship, while New York City FC attacker Jack Harrison has spoken with U.S. Soccer about potentially representing the U.S..

Martins already has his green card — which opened up an international slot for the Red Bulls this season –but obtaining citizenship in the near future would make him eligible for selection for the USMNT ahead of the 2022 World Cup qualifying cycle.

The 27-year-old had also previously applied for permanent residency in Canada back in 2013 while Martins was with the Montreal Impact, however, his aspirations to represent the nation never transpired.

Meanwhile, Harrison recently represented the England Under-21s in October, but he too could be on track for U.S. citizenship over the next few years if he remains in MLS.

[ MORE: Justin Meram talks Crew’s good form, facing Atlanta and more ]

In Dyer’s report, he notes the rising interest in Harrison from English clubs, though, and a potential move back to the United Kingdom would hurt the former Manchester United academy member’s chances of joining the USMNT.

Harrison is only in his sophomore season with NYCFC, but the young Englishman has garnered plenty of attention after scoring 14 goals and adding 13 assists thus far for the Bronx side.