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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)

Report says Swansea City meet with Bob Bradley

Bob Bradley, Le Harve AC
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Former U.S. men’s national team head coach Bob Bradley has reportedly met with Swansea City chairman Huw Jenkins.

[ MORE: Atlanta hire Martino ]

Bradley, 58, is the current head coach of Le Havre in Ligue 2 in France but with current Swansea manager Francesco Guidolin under plenty of pressure following four defeats in their opening six games of the Premier League season, both Bradley and Ryan Giggs have been linked with the position.

As of yet there has been no comment from Swansea, Le Havre or anybody else in-between but the BBC is reporting that Bradley met with Jenkins at Bristol Airport in England over the past few days.

ProSoccerTalk understands that there is genuine interest in Bradley’s services from Swansea. The south wales side host Liverpool on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports) and a heavy defeat could be the end for Guidolin.

It is easy to see why the Swans would turn to New Jersey native Bradley, who has previously worked wonders in trying situations and on shoestring budgets. After leaving the U.S. national team in 2011 following five years in charge, highlighted by a Gold Cup title in 2007, runner up spot at the 2009 Confederations Cup and a Round of 16 berth at the 2010 World Cup, Bradley took the Egyptian national team to the brink of the 2014 World Cup during a time of huge turmoil in the African country which impacted all of his players heavily.

[ LONGFORM: Bradley’s journey in Norway

He returned to club management in 2014, taking tiny Norwegian side Stabaek to European qualification over two seasons and almost led Le Havre to promotion to Ligue 1 after taking charge of the French second-tier side midway through last season. Bradley has a great track record of working with youngsters and operating on a small budget, which is exactly how Swansea operate.

Bradley has been linked with several jobs in the Premier League in the past with West Brom, Aston Villa, Fulham and Hull City mentioned, but it seems with Swansea’s U.S. investors (led by Jason Levien and Steve Kaplan) now playing a pivotal role in decision making at the Liberty Stadium, Bradley has emerged as a serious contender if Guidolin is fired.

He would be the first-ever American to manage in the Premier League if this all works out.

Atlanta United name Gerardo “Tata” Martino as first-ever head coach

HOUSTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 04:  Argentina coach Gerardo Martino waits near the bench area during their International friendly match against Bolivia at BBVA Compass Stadium on September 4, 2015 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Atlanta United FC is doing it big.

On Wednesday Argentina coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino was named as the first-ever head coach of the incoming Major League Soccer franchise who will join the league for the 2017 season.

In a major coup, Martino, 53, will lead Atlanta in its inaugural MLS campaign after resigning as Argentina’s manager this summer following their second-straight defeat to Chile on penalty kicks in the final of the Copa America.

Martino has also managed the Paraguyan national team, Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina and spent one season at Barcelona in 2013-14, losing out on the La Liga title on the final day of the season to Atletico Madrid.

“I’m very happy to join Atlanta United as the first head coach in club history,” Martino said in a club statement. “This is an exciting time for MLS and I’m looking forward to the challenge of leading a team in an evolving league.  Atlanta United is a first-rate organization, and I’m very eager to get working and build one of the top clubs in MLS.”

His experience and pedigree as a coach is well documented and Tata is undoubtedly one of the biggest, if not the biggest, managerial appointment in MLS history.

Atlanta United’s owner Arthur Blank said he was “thrilled” Martino chose to head to ATL, while Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra praised the new head coach heavily.

“Gerardo’s teams have always been organized and have displayed a fast and fluid style that aligns with how we intend to play,” said Atlanta United Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra. “He’s also demonstrated a commitment to youth soccer, consistently proving his ability to enhance the progression of younger players. He’s a great fit for our club and I look forward to working with him to build a successful club.”

VIDEO: Premier League Player of the Week – Matchday 6

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This lad is a samba sensation.

Philippe Coutinho is back at the heart of the Liverpool team and he was crowned as the Player of the Week in the Premier League for Matchday 6.

Coutinho, 24, scored a sensational long-range goal, grabbed an assist and created four chances in a dominant performance during Liverpool’s 5-1 win against Hull City on Saturday. 

Watch the video above to relive a Coutinho masterclass as Jurgen Klopp‘s side continue their fine start to the PL season.

No wonder some refer to Coutinho as Liverpool’s Harry Potter.

He’s a wizard.

China aiming for increased influence on FIFA

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - NOVEMBER 26:  CFA General Secretary Zhang Jian poses with the AFC 'Inspiring' Member Association of the Year award during the 2013 AFC Annual Awards at the Mandarin Oriental on November 26, 2013 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Stanley Chou/Getty Images)
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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) The influence of China in world soccer could increase on Tuesday if high-ranking Chinese official Zhang Jian is elected onto the FIFA Council in elections to be held in Goa, India.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is holding an Extraordinary Congress to elect three representatives to FIFA’s new decision-making body which has replaced the scandal-hit Executive Committee.

The chances of Zhang, the vice-president and secretary general of the Chinese Football Association, increased on Sunday when one of the favorites, Saoud A. Aziz Al-Mohannadi of Qatar, was barred from running.

In a statement, the AFC said “FIFA has advised the AFC that, based on the report of the Investigatory Chamber of the FIFA Ethics Committee, it has decided Mr Saoud A.Aziz Al-Mohannadi (Qatar) is not eligible to stand in the elections for the FIFA Council.”

Al Mohannadi has been charged by the Ethics Committee with refusing to co-operate with an inquiry. While details of specific accusations have yet to be released, FIFA has said it is not related to Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup.

The ruling leaves Zhang running against Iran’s Ali Kafashian and Zainudin Nordin of Singapore for two of the three seats.

Zhang has played a major role in the development of Chinese soccer and planning extensive reforms that aim to make the country, a traditional underachiever in soccer, a world power by 2050.

This has come at the same time as the recent and massive surge of investment in the Chinese Super League on famous foreign players such as Hulk, Alex Teixeira and Jackson Martinez and coaches Luiz Felipe Scolari and Manuel Pellegrini.

Zhng told South Korean media earlier this month that China also aims to host the World Cup.

“Although it is a case of the sooner the better, we will aim to do so at the right time,” Zhang said. “It seems that around 2030 or 2034 will provide a good opportunity for China.”

The third seat on the FIFA Council has been reserved for female candidates. Moya Dodd, a former Australian international and member of the now-defunct FIFA Executive Committee from 2013 to 2016, is running against Han Un Gyong of North Korea and Bangladesh’s Mafuza Akhter.

“I am doing my best to persuade the 45 voting members of Asia that I can be strong and part of a united AFC team working in FIFA,” Dodd told The Associated Press. “It is important that Asia puts its strongest team forward in FIFA as there will be a lot of issues coming such as discussions about whether to expand to a 40-team World Cup.”

The three successful candidates will take their places on the 37-member FIFA Council alongside existing AFC members from Japan, Kuwait, Malaysia as well as President Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain.

Also ahead of the election, the AFC confirmed that South Korea’s Chung Mong-gyu had succeeded Zhang Jilong of China as the East Zone AFC Vice-President.

Zhang, who stepped down for health reasons, was the acting president of the AFC following the suspension of Mohammad Bin Hammam from football activities by the FIFA Ethics Committee in May 2011 as he ran for the post of FIFA President. Shaikh Salman was elected president in May 2013.