Major League Soccer team previews: SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES

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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. 1 in the West is San Jose Earthquakes:

Significant additions and subtractions: As you might expect coming off San Jose’ 2012, the roster is relatively unchanged.

Simon Dawkins is the only major loss, but he’s a big one. There isn’t an obvious candidate to replace his eight goals.

Khari Stephenson’s gone (Real Salt Lake) as is Ike Opara (Sporting KC), but among Frank Yallop’s top 14 minutes-getters, 13 return.

The additions have all been spare parts, though some will prove valuable. Mike Fucito will get some early starts. Same for Dan Gargan at right back. Nana Attakora and Ty Harden replace Opara’s depth in defense.

Strengths: Thanks to Chris Wondolowski, goals shouldn’t be a problem, though with Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon out to start the year, San Jose’s attack won’t be the huge edge in March that it will be in October. Still, with modest production from Fucito (who has looked good in preseason), the Earthquakes should be fine.

San Jose also have a lot of tactical versatility, something that enabled last year’s last match heroics. With a few subs, a tweak to Wondolowski and Rafael Baca’s positioning, San Jose can easily shift from a two to three forward look. With Martin Chavez and Shea Salinas wide, they can go to a speed team, or they can stay more balanced by playing only one of their burners. They can play wingers or, with Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour, go narrow through the middle and rely on their fullbacks for width.

All teams can do this, but San Jose is actually good at it. It’s as if Yallop can spend 60 minutes figuring out your weaknesses before using his team’s versatility to exploit you. And other teams just don’t have this much versatility.

Pressure points: Injuries are the obvious one, with questions about Chavez and Beitashour joining a list that includes Lenhart and Gordon, but the real problem is replicating 2012. With the possible exception of goalkeeper Jon Busch, you can argue every player in Yallop’s starting XI had the best year of their career. That’s nearly impossible to replicate.

Let’s just look at the goal totals. Wondolowski had 27. He’s not going to do that again. In fact, he could score anywhere between five and 10 less, particularly when those bulldozing No. 9 strikers are hurt to start the year.

Gordon’s production will be down. Lenhart’s production will be down. And Simon Dawkins scored eight goals last season. San Jose’s losing a lot in attack.

source: Getty ImagesDifference maker: Even if Wondo merely competes for the Golden Boot, he’s going to keep contributing in other ways. Whether playing withdrawn, wide, or as an attacking midfielder, Wondolowski is the focal point of San Jose’s attack, and while he may be better be known for his scoring, his seven assists speak to his importance for others’ production.

Potential breakout player: If Shea Salinas picks up a bulk of Dawkins’ minutes, he’ll put up the best numbers of his career. The speedy Texan has seven assists in limited time last year, but he only had one goal. The assist number may be difficult to improve, but if he gets more than 1155 minutes, he’ll beat his career best for goals (two).

Bottom line: We have them at No. 1, but as we mentioned yesterday, it’s close, particularly with all the injuries. Like the rest of the West, San Jose is less concerned with where they finish in October than being ready for November. That may entail sacrificing points over the next eight months.

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

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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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

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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