Major League Soccer team previews: CHICAGO FIRE

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Significant additions and subtractions: Chicago’s central midfield needed an upgrade, and by golly did the deciders around Toyota Park give it one. Joel Lindpere, under-appreciated by previous management in New York, was sent West to Chicago. He’ll partner with Jeff Larentowicz, a rugged figure with enough skill to be effective. He arrived via trade with Colorado. It’s not the best central midfield tandem in MLS, but it’s easily top half and perhaps top 6 or 7.

Pavel Pardo’s retirement sealed the deal on a need for a central midfield makeover.

Meanwhile, along the outside, Dilly Duka will now apparently be on patrol to the left.

Dominic Oduro, whose production generally failed to match the potential of all that speed, is in Columbus now. In his place (more or less) is Maicon Santos, most recently seen at D.C. United, will provide some depth but is not a first-choice striker.

Strengths: Chris Rolfe was a man on Fire (ahem … sorry) in late summer and early fall, having gotten up to speed after an injury took him away from Chicago’s spring matches. Watch him go with a full preseason.

In German veteran Arne Friedrich and 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year Austin Berry, the back line is in great hands. Gonzalo Segares along the left isn’t the same force moving forward along the outside that Fire fans knew in the last decade, but he certainly gets the job done defensively.

Third-year man Daniel Paladini can jump into the middle without much dropoff behind Larentowicz and Lindpere, and he’s useful as a second-half pace-changer.

Pressure points: Klopas has a big choice to make at right back, where incumbent Jalil Anibaba may have a hard time holding his starting assignment.  Pushing the young defender for that starting spot is converted midfielder Logan Pause and longtime EPL man Pascal Chimbonda.

Goalkeeper Sean Johnson may be only 23 years old, but he’s is about to be a fourth year. It’s time to start erasing the occasional killer mental mistake.

If MacDonald isn’t ringing the scoring bell often enough by mid-season, Klopas and Co. in upper management will need to get busy working the transfer market. Or the trade market. Or the local Polish market. Something! Because this club has had just one 10-goal scorer since 2004. That was Oduro, who had 12 goals back in 2011, a season that looks a bit of a fluke. They have to find a goal scorer for Toyota Park. Period.

source: Getty Images

Difference maker: No one should be concerned about Rolfe’s lack of preseason scoring. Rolfe (pictured right) always been a streaky type; once the first one goes in, the next big run will be on. Rolfe will not only get his goals (he had 8 in 22 games last year, mostly out of the attacking midfield position), he’ll also create off the counter attack. He’s good at that.

Potential breakout player: Imposing winger Duka looks like the starter on the left side, having made a departure from his unhappy place in Columbus. Duka seemed to have such potential but got sideways with management around Crew Stadium. Now in Illinois, and still just 23 years old, the former U.S. under-23 has a fresh shot at reestablishing himself as the hot new product.

Bottom line: Chicago’s roster is deeper this year, with guys like Pause, Paladini, Santos, Steve Kinney and Well Thompson (another newcomer) in reserve roles. If Rolfe and Friedrich can stay healthy, and if they find that scorer who has been so elusive around Toyota Park, they’ll be an Eastern contender.

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

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP
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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images
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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday

Barcelona GM: “We’re close to signing Coutinho, Dembele”

Philippe Coutinho
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images
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Barcelona did not post a magical comeback versus Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup second leg, instead losing 5-1 on aggregate after Wednesday’s 2-0 loss at the Bernabeu.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

But perhaps the celebrated La Liga club has worked some wizardry in the transfer market, with not one but two big targets “close” to the Camp Nou.

Barca general manager Josep “Pep” Segura was on television after the match, and noted Spanish football expert Sid Lowe relays his words: Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Borussia Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembele are coming to Barca, “but until it’s closed I can’t say anything.”

Well, you just said something about it, so what gives.

Now before anyone freaks out at Anfield or Westfalenstadion, this is a man speaking after a relatively embarrassing performance for one of the biggest clubs in the world. Segura could simply be treading water for new manager Ernesto Valverde after his club was simply worked over in 120 minutes versus its El Clasico rivals.