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Major League Soccer team previews: D.C. UNITED


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 East is D.C. United:

Significant additions and subtractions: The great news for D.C. United: the weight of those big salaries for DP striker Hamdi Salihi and highly paid midfielder Brank Boskovic (once a DP and still on a big salary in 2012) has been lifted. Neither came close to justifying their big numbers, so this really does represent significant addition by subtraction around RFK Stadium.

On the other hand, a lost that actually will be felt is Andy Najar, the talented, home-grown Honduran international who had added even more value with his move to right back. He was sold to Anderlecht in the off-season.

The club prudently added veteran depth (without breaking the bank on it) in guys like John Thorrington and James Riley. Neither will threaten to bust into All-Star status this year, but both carry the hard-earned scars of years in MLS and won’t miss a trick in 2013. Thorrington could be an absolute steal if he can stay healthy.

Carlos Ruiz is back in MLS. Sigh. Some of us ask: is that a good thing or a bad thing? (In the linked piece, I put the over/under on his stay at “6 months” … and was promptly informed that I had set a soft line, with everyone rushing to take the imaginary “under.”)

Strengths: The roster has a strong balance of young, old and those key glue men, the 26-28 year olds right in the middle. It’s that talented bunch of “youth” that remains most impressive and intriguing, even with Najar’s loss. Perry Kitchen keeps maturing, now a solid, third-year MLS starter at holding midfield – and he’s just 20. Nick DeLeon, full of pace, pep and promise as an outside, attacking midfielder is 22. So is goalkeeper Bill Hamid, another third-year starter.

Pressure points: You can rightly ask whether United general manager Dave Kasper did enough to reinforce a back line that simply was not good enough in 2013. (Or, did they do enough overall.) United’s defense was far more solid over the last few weeks, but that was mostly about strategic shifts following Dwayne De Rosario’s late-season injury.

Frustratingly inconsistent Lionard Pajoy and just plain frustrating Ruiz as first-choice strikers? Hmmm. Sounds iffy, at very best. (Pontius and De Rosario can also play at forward, depending on manager Ben Olsen wants it configured.)

Throwing balls at referees? Dropping points by losing your cool? Veterans caught head-butting opponents? There’s a trend here – and it’s got to stop.

Finally, you cannot talk pressure points around D.C. United without mentioning the club’s wildly unsustainable stadium situation. Historic as it is (and as festive as it can be for Major League Soccer matches) it remains a colossal financial drain on the club. Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber has said for years that solving the organization’s woeful, harmful facility situation is a league priority.

source: Getty Images

Difference maker: It really is a darn pity De Rosario (pictured) cannot be around for this weekend’s opener, nor for next week’s home opener at RFK; DCU’s hearth, soul and chief creator is suspended for the first two matches. Past this early, avoidable silliness, all looks swell. “De Ro” will be 35 in May, but the guy is a fiend for taking care of himself. If he’s losing any zip, he’s hiding it awfully well. De Rosario’s raw numbers certainly are not reflecting a decline; 7 goals and 12 assists in 2012 represent healthy output, especially considering a long dry spell last spring.

Potential breakout player: There really are some wonderful, evocative options around RFK – more or less depending on your definition of “breakout.” Pontius, so strong over his time already at RFK, has the stuff of stardom and regular U.S. national team involvement. He just needs a little luck and some help in timing to break into the upper echelon of  MLS stars. Hamid, Kitchen and DeLeon are valued youngsters with potential to rise (in 2013 or later) into Best XI conversations.  

Bottom line: It would be easier to feel great about United, which came so confoundedly close to an MLS Cup appearance in 2012 in Olsen’s second year in charge, if only the rear guard was a wee bit stronger. The back four is OK, a little less so when backed by a young goalkeeper who still has the occasional yukky blunder in him. Other than that, there’s so much to like about a young team and a young coach that is still growing into its big boy pants – and just might be all the way into them this year.

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

Serie A: Napoli go top for first time in 25 years; Inter a close 2nd

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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A quick roundup of Monday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

Napoli 2-1 Inter Milan

For the first time since the final day of the 1989-90 season, Napoli are top of Serie A all by themselves after a top-of-the-table clash with previous leaders Inter Milan.

Gonzalo Higuain bagged both goals for the Azzurri, the first of which came after just 65 seconds. His tally on 62 minutes held up as the game-winner after Adem Ljajic pulled one back for Roberto Mancini’s side in the 67 minute. The opener (below video) was a powerful finish from inside the penalty area which served as a strong reminder as to why a club like Arsenal is consistently linked to the Argentine striker.

Sassuolo 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina, who had a chance to stake their own claim to the top spot, dropped two points away to seventh-place Sassuolo earlier in the day, opening the door for Napoli to go top with their victory. After shooting out of the gates red hot (6 wins in their first 7 games), the Viola have now drawn back to back games — to Empoli and Sassuolo — and find themselves third, two points behind Napoli.

Borja Valero put Fiorentina ahead after five minutes on Monday, but Sassuolo equalized through Sergio Floccari just before halftime to keep their own dreams of European qualification alive.

Serie A table

Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

Portland Timbers FC
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We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
  • Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Crew SC announce MLS Cup sold out 15 hours after qualifying ]

Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
  • Advantage: Timbers

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Timbers midfield three (Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)

  • Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.
  • Advantage: Timbers

Crew SC announce MLS Cup 2015 sold out 15 hours after qualifying

Wil Trapp, Columbus Crew SC
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The building formerly known as Crew Stadium has hosted its fair share of famous soccer games since it opened in 1999 — dos a cero, anyone? — and Sunday’s MLS Cup 2015 looks set to rank right up there among them.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Roughly 15 hours after advancing to this year’s MLS Cup, which they will host this Sunday (4 p.m. ET), Columbus Crew SC announced on Monday that MAPFRE Stadium is officially sold out.

Crew SC president of business operations Andy Loughnane addressed the fanbase in a blog post on the club’s official site Monday afternoon and said, “As of late this morning we are sold out of the extra capacity seating that was created for MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium. While there is a small chance that additional seats could be released for purchase as a result of MLS holds being returned, we are sold out of all known available seats.”

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Crew SC, making their second MLS Cup appearance in club history (2008 champions), will host first-time MLS Cup contestants, the Portland Timbers, on Sunday.

PL clubs combined to pay out $200 million in agent fees in 2015

Liverpool Unveil New Signing Christian Benteke
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What a time to be an agent in the footballing world, eh? The rich just keep getting richer and richer and richer.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

The steady increase in transfer fees being paid for players — bad, good, great and amazing alike — has made quite a few “selling” clubs rich reach over the last decade or two, to be sure, but it’s also made another group of people obscenely rich: player agents.

As the soccer world has gone crazy with its “now, now, now” approach — managers must win now, or they’re fired; new signings must become stars now, or they’ll be sold; etc. — agents are the ones making out like bandits — no losses to be sustained on players who turn out to be flops; no future loss of wages due to taking “too long” to settle in and being labeled a flop — at the expense of clubs and, most cruelly, the players.

More than $195 million was paid out agents by Premier League clubs across the January and summer transfer windows, with Liverpool — ever the club in constant change — paying out $21.5 million in agents fees to remain top of the table for a second straight year. Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal were the four other clubs to top $15 million.

[ MORE: Premier League Payback — The Diego Costa era over at Chelsea? ]

Agents not only receive a fee when players change clubs through transfers, but can only be compensated again and again when one of their clients signs a new contract with their current club.

For instance, Wayne Rooney has signed at least four new contracts since joining Manchester United in 2004, the latest of which came barely three years after he was given a new five-year deal in Oct. 2010 upon handing in a transfer request in an attempt to force a move to Manchester City. Rooney’s current weekly wage is reported to be in the neighborhood of $450,000. His agent, Paul Stretford, will have received a sizable payday upon negotiating the deal in Feb. 2014.

At the end of the day, sports are little more than a business, and it’s the ones who play the game — the political game, that is — the best, and most ruthlessly, who are making out like bandits.