Major League Soccer team previews: SPORTING KANSAS CITY

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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. 2 in the East is Sporting Kansas City:

Significant additions and subtractions: No, Kei Kamara and Roger Espinoza aren’t the biggest names ever to use MLS as a springboard to something bigger. But good heavens, it will be so very difficult to replace these two around Sporting Park. Probably more so than many casual MLS fans believe. SKC fans may have a better understanding of their fierce dedication to the serious work involved in Peter Vermes’ demanding, high pressure ways. (Which is why they are both playing in the world’s top league now, the English Premier League.

Julio Cesar is also gone, but Paulo Nagamura probably has a good hold on that spot.

The big additions started with DP striker Claudio Bieler, who didn’t have a fantastic preseason. Vermes says not to worry.

Not long after, the team added talented two-way midfielder Benny Feilhaber in a trade with New England.

Ike Opara, newly acquired from San Jose and probably in need of a career reboot, will provide center back depth.

Strengths: If there is a better all-around back line in MLS, right, left and center, someone will need to show me. Chance Myers, Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin and Seth Sinovic are all among the top seven in ProSoccerTalk’s rankings at their position. (Besler, Myers and Sinovic are all top four.) Behind them, goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen is No. 1 in our goalkeeper rankings. So, yeah, there’s a lot of “strong” in all that.

Feilhaber cannot replace Espinoza’s midfield industry or tackling, but the 2010 U.S. World Cup veteran is a superior passer and finisher.

Pressure points: SKC has looked unstoppable, if just a little short of striking power, over the last season and a half of league matches. But the playoffs have proven far more problematic; Vermes’ men fell to Houston in each of the last two years.

Speaking of missing some magic near goal, fans around Sporting Park are still trying to figure out how more than one of those chances didn’t go in as Houston clinched the home-and-away series last fall.

Bieler, who scored reliably in previous club stops in Argentina and Ecuador, needs to duplicate that proficiency. He could be the proverbial “final piece” for a club that’s stacked and packed in goal, in defense and in midfield and not bad out on the wing. (Better on the wing if Zusi is out there, even if it’s not his best spot.)

The schedule will be packed unlike it has been ever before for SKC, with CONCACAF Champions League to deal with, plus the title defense in the U.S. Open Cup.

Bobby Convey? We’ll see. He sure needs to find the next gear.

source: Getty Images

Difference maker: There’s reason to believe Graham Zusi’s career arc remains on the rise. He has seven assists two years ago and then 15 last year. If he goes any higher, Zusi could be flirting with records. His technical ability, fitness, desire and vision through the midfield are all above average. His set-piece delivery is well above average. Zusi may not be Major League Soccer’s best at any one thing, but he’s so well-rounded and so good at a lot of things, it’s no wonder he’s now a U.S. national team regular.

Potential breakout player: Can we call Feilhaber a “breakout” player? U.S. fans know so much about him already, and plenty believe he should be a larger part of Jurgen Klinsmann’s plan with the national team. But for whatever reason, chemistry issues most likely, he sometimes has trouble assimilating. Presumably, Feilhaber understands that fresh chances won’t keep coming forever.

Bottom line: Vermes’ team took a little step back with Espinoza’s move to Wigan and Kamara’s loan to Norwich City (which could easily become an outright  purchase given his early success with the Canaries). But Bieler and Feilhaber are the equalizers in terms of maintaining the collective level of talent at Sporting Park. The Eastern Conference champs could defend their title if the finishing improves. It’s really that simple.

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

Barkley ineligible to make Chelsea debut in FA Cup replay

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Ross Barkley was expected — and himself expected — to make his Chelsea debut on Wednesday, when the Blues host Championship side Norwich City in a third-round FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge.

Alas, the 24-year-old English midfielder has been ruled ineligible due to a lesser-known and -applied rules surrounding transfers and player registration.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup | Wednesday preview ]

Barkley completed his move from Everton to Chelsea, for $20 million, on Jan. 5, the day before Chelsea and Norwich drew 0-0 at Carrow Road. In order to be eligible for Wednesday’s replay, Barkley is required to have completed his transfer prior to the noon cut-off the day prior to the original tie. While the time of official approval is unknown, Barkley’s move wasn’t announced by the club until after 5 p.m. in the UK.

As such, Chelsea will attempt to set up a behind-closed-doors friendly this week, in order to provide Barkley a bit of game action as he builds fitness and sharpness ahead of a potential debut against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). Barkley hasn’t seen a single minute of first-team action this season after suffering a serious hamstring injury in the summer.

FA Cup preview: Three more PL sides face 3rd-round replays

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Three more Premier League sides, including a top-four fighter, attempt to join a dozen of their top-flight contemporaries in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Wednesday…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea and Swansea City host Championship opposition in the form of Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, respectively, while Bournemouth will make the 500-mile roundtrip to take on League One side Wigan Athletic.

The Blues, who now sit fourth in the PL after their disappointing 0-0 draw with Leicester City, could manage only a scoreless draw with the Canaries at Carrow Road earlier this month. They are winless in their last four games across all competitions — all draws — including their League Cup semifinal first-leg draw with Arsenal last week; the last three of those all finished without a single goal scored. Chelsea, who are tied with Liverpool with the fourth-most FA Cups in their history (7), lost out to Arsenal in last season’s final at Wembley Stadium.

Swansea are undoubtedly the side on highest Cupset alert, as Wolves are the runaway leaders and champions-elect in the Championship (10 points clear after 27 of 46 rounds played), thus able to devote more attention to the FA Cup than the typical second-division side. With the two sides separated by just a single place in the English footballing pyramid (Swansea, 20th in the PL; Wolves, 1st in the Championship), they appear destined to swap places by the end of May.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth’s punishment for conceding a pair of early goals to a side currently 32 places below them in the pyramid, is the long, midweek trip from the south coast to the DW Stadium in the northwest of England. It was the Premier Leaguers who needed a two second-half goals, including Steve Cook‘s 90th-minute equalizer, to draw level at home in the first meeting.

Tuesday’s FA Cup replay actionFULL ROUNDUP

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town
West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town
Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Agent: 37-year-old Ronaldinho has retired

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SAO PAULO (AP) The brother and agent of 2005 Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho announced Tuesday that the former Brazil and Barcelona playmaker has retired from football.

Roberto Assis made the announcement to Brazilian media on behalf of the 37-year-old midfielder, who played his last professional match in 2015 for Brazil’s Fluminense.

“Ronnie’s professional career is over. He wants to be a football ambassador, do charity, and work with his friends in music from now on,” Assis told The Associated Press.

Assis hopes to schedule some farewell matches for Ronaldinho after the World Cup in Russia, which ends July 15. The initial plan is to play games in Brazil, Europe and Asia and to also get Brazil’s national team involved, Assis said.

Last July, Ronaldinho said on the sidelines of a friendly in Chechnya that was he was “too old” to return to action.

The Brazilian’s decorated career also includes one World Cup title (2002), one Champions League victory (2006) and two Spanish league titles with Barcelona, and two FIFA world player of the year awards (2004 and 2005).

Ronaldinho started his professional career at Gremio in southern Brazil in 1998. He left for Paris Saint-Germain in 2001 and was signed by Barcelona two seasons later.

At the Camp Nou, he was the engine of a team that took Barca back to the limelight. However, after a series of club trophies, Ronaldinho’s career took a downturn. He was often accused by Brazilian and Spanish media of lacking professionalism, despite his mentoring of a then youthful Lionel Messi.

In 2008, with Messi then leading Barcelona, Ronaldinho left for AC Milan. Despite being part of a team that won Serie A in 2011, he failed to reach his previous heights as a player.

When returning home became a real option, Ronaldinho frustrated Gremio’s efforts to re-sign him and joined Flamengo instead.

Disappointing performances in Rio de Janeiro took him to Atletico Mineiro, a club that then was more often fighting against relegation than for titles.

Yet a more mature Ronaldinho took Atletico to a different level.

In his last great run, Ronaldinho carried Atletico with his superb passes and dazzling dribbles to second place in the 2012 Brazilian Championship.

A year later, he was the key to his club lifting its first Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club trophy, but his hopes of playing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were dashed.

Ronaldinho left to play for Mexico’s Queretaro in 2014-15, but was mostly on the bench.

He played his last seven matches as a professional for Fluminense, though his performances were a far cry from his best days in Spain.

Now living in Rio, he has appeared in advertisements all over the world since leaving Fluminense.

USL granted 2018 2nd-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer

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U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan unveiled by Liga MX side Club Leon ]

USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:

Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.

Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.

[ MORE: Donovan ready to “win championships” after ending retirement ]

MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.