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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)

Premier League Preview: Middlesbrough vs. Hull City

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  • Teams have only met twice in PL before
  • Boro have 6 draws from 13 games
  • Hull have won just once in last 11 PL games

Middlesbrough host Hull City at the Riverside Stadium on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) in what can already be described as a six-pointer in the Premier League between two newly-promoted teams.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

Boro has won just once at home in the Premier League this season and sits on 12 points, while Hull has only won once on the road and Mike Phelan‘s side has just one victory in their last 11 games as the Tigers sit in the relegation zone on 11 points.

In team news Hull’s Sam Clucas and Ryan Mason are available but Abel Hernandez and Shaun Maloney are both struggling with injuries and striker Dieumerci Mbokani is suspended. As for Boro, Daniel Ayala could return but George Friend is still out.

What they’re saying

Aitor Karanka on Boro’s bad luck: “I think for example against Stoke we could have won and against Watford and Crystal Palace we didn’t deserve to lose. But the truth is we have 12 points and one day we will not deserve to win and we will win. When you have been working in the Championship for two and a half years and know how tough every single game is, having the opportunity to work against the best teams in the world is amazing, but we know we have to improve every single day.”

Hull boss Phelan on the story so far: “We can talk about spirit and determination but we can apply that by taking the games on and getting in front. That still requires the same sort of detail but you can see the players are grafting. They are learning and observing things. It’s possibly taken us this far to understand where we’re at and what league we’re in.”

Prediction

This will be a tight encounter and it may not be pretty. Both teams need the points to drag themselves away from an increasingly congested relegation battle. 1-o to ‘Boro.

Blatter loses appeal against six-year ban

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - JULY 20: Comedian Simon Brodkin (not pictured) throws cash at FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter during a press conference at the Extraordinary FIFA Executive Committee Meeting at the FIFA headquarters on July 20, 2015 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images)
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Sepp Blatter should get the message this time.

[ MORE: Zlatan defends kick ]

It was announced on Monday that the former president of FIFA from 1998 until 2015 has lost his appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) over a six-year ban from all soccer related activity.

After being found guilty of making an illegal payment of $1.65 million to the former head of UEFA, and close friend, Michel Platini, in 2011, the Swiss official has already had his initial eight-year ban reduced to six and Platini had his eight-year ban reduced to four years.

However, Blatter has reached the end game and at the age of 80, it is unlikely he will ever hold any position in world soccer ever again.

Plus, Blatter has the small matter of still being investigated by the Swiss authorities who are looking into FIFA’s records, and the FBI continues to arrest and charge officials within world soccer’s governing body due to allegations of widespread corruption over the past two decades.

Things could get much worse than a six-year ban for Blatter.

In a statement released by CAS, they revealed why Blatter’s appealed had been turned down:

“The appeal of Joseph S. Blatter has been dismissed. As a consequence, the decision rendered by the FIFA Appeal Committee (FIFA AC) on 16 February 2016 remains in force and Mr Blatter remains banned from taking part in any football-related activity at national and international level for six years as from 8 October 2015 and must pay a fine of 50,000 Swiss francs.

“By approving a payment of £1.3m to Mr Platini in 2011 for the balance of work carried out under the alleged oral agreement, Mr Blatter breached the FIFA Code of Ethics since the payment amounted to an undue gift as it had no contractual basis.

“The Panel further found that Mr Blatter unlawfully awarded contributions to Mr Platini under the FIFA Executive Committee retirement scheme which also amounted to an undue gift.”

Aguero banned four games, Fernandinho gets three

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The English FA have confirmed that Manchester City duo Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho will be banned for four and three games respectively after being sent off late in the 3-1 defeat against Chelsea last weekend.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Aguero, 28, lunged in on David Luiz and was shown a straight red card for the tackle (if you can even call it that) and Fernandinho, 31, was sent off in the ensuing melee as he pushed Cesc Fabregas repeatedly and grabbed him around the throat.

In the case of Aguero, he would have already been banned for three games but his punishment has been extended by an extra game due to his suspended three-game ban which he received for elbowing West Ham’s Winston Reid back in August.

As for Fernandinho, he has been handed the standard three-game ban for being sent off for violent conduct.

Pep Guardiola‘s City ended the game with nine-men against Chelsea and looked frustrated after blowing a 1-0 half time lead as they lost 3-1 against the Premier League leaders.

Without Aguero and Fernandinho, their upcoming games against Leicester, Watford and Arsenal are now looking very difficult, plus Nicolas Otamendi will be unavailable against Leicester this Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com) due to picking up his fifth yellow card of the season.

With regards to the melee at the end of Chelsea’s win at City, it is expected the FA may fine both teams for their actions and Fabregas could also be implicated as some camera angles appeared to show him striking Fernandinho in the face first.

Let’s wait and see.

As for City, injuries and suspension are adding up and they’re now four points behind leaders Chelsea, plus they’ll have to do without their leading score Aguero who has 10 of their 30 goals in the Premier League.

A chance has now arrived for City’s only other central striker as 20-year-old Kelechi Iheanacho will likely be given the opportunity to lead the line, or if not Nolito or Kevin De Bruyne may operate as the highest player in a false nine formation.

Ibrahimovic denies deliberately kicking Coleman in the head

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 04:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United tangles with Seamus Coleman of Everton as they battle for the ball during the Premier League match between Everton and Manchester United at Goodison Park on December 4, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Zlatan Ibrahimovic was involved in an incident in the second half of Manchester United’s 1-1 draw at Everton on Sunday which have raised a few eyebrows.

[ VIDEO: Rojo red card? ]

As Zlatan and Everton defender Seamus Coleman tussled for the ball, the duo fell down and the Manchester United striker eventually fell on top of Coleman.

However, as he went to get up he kicked Coleman in the head and the Toffees’ right back was later subbed out with an apparent head injury.

Speaking to MUTV after the game, Ibrahimovic was asked about the incident.

The response of the 35-year-old striker — who scored once again for the Red Devils to take his tally this season to 12 — to the incident was not exactly the perfect PR answer…

“It was a physical game, they played hard,” Ibrahimovic explained. “I heard one of the commentators say I kicked someone in the head on purpose, but it was a 50/50 duel and he pulled me down. Trust me if I want to kick someone in the head, I know how to kick someone in the head and make him fall asleep. That is the only thing I have to say.”

It is unlikely that Zlatan will be facing any further action from the FA for the kick out but I look at that incident and say he was lucky to escape with a petulant act. He knew where Coleman was and took a chance on leaving his boot in and letting the Everton defender know he was there.

Sure, it may have been accidental but anybody who has played the game knows you can get away with certain things and when a master of the “dark arts” such as Zlatan is involved, I find it tough to believe he didn’t know what he was doing.

It was unnecessary from Zlatan and the act seemed to steam from the frustration of playing up top on his own against a bruising Everton defense.