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Major League Soccer team previews: D.C. UNITED

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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 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)

EFL Cup Final preview: Saints aim to deny Manchester United, Mourinho

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 28:  Vincent Kompany of Manchester City and team mate Pablo Zabaleta celebrate victory with the trophy after the Capital One Cup Final match between Liverpool and Manchester City at Wembley Stadium on February 28, 2016 in London, England. Manchester City win 3-1 on penalties.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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With the Community Shield in tow, Jose Mourinho aims for his first full tournament trophy as Manchester United boss when his Red Devils meet Southampton at 11:30 a.m. EDT Sunday.

Wembley Stadium is the venue for the EFL Cup Final, a trophy United has claimed four times. The last one came in 2010, as the Red Devils clinched their third League Cup in five seasons.

[ JPW: Southampton comes full circle ]

Sunday marks Southampton’s first final since 1979, when Saints fell 3-2 to Nottingham Forest.

Saints continue to make due without Virgil Van Dijk and Charlie Austin, but newcomers Manolo Gabbiadini, Sofiane Boufal, and Martin Caceres could all feature on Friday.

Gabbiadini almost certainly will, and he’s been a difference maker for Saints since arriving from Napoli. The 25-year-old has three goals in two Premier League matches.

[ MORE: Projected lineups for EFL Cup final ] 

United will not have Henrikh Mkhitaryan back after the Armenian midfielder limped off the pitch midweek, but fellow walking wounded star Michael Carrick will be back for the Red Devils. Wayne Rooney, Ander Herrera, and Eric Bailly will be available.

The Red Devils won the FA Cup last season and the league in 2012-13. Mourinho has three League Cups from his time at Chelsea.

But Antonio Valencia says that United has to act like this is a chance for a new era. From ManUtd.com:

“We have to forget about the fact that we might have won there three, four or five times,” he added. “We have to put that to one side. This is another final, and a totally different story. We cannot afford to make one single mistake, this is a final and we cannot lose our concentration for even one minute.”

Saints will be underdogs for this one, but this trophy isn’t alien to avoiding the hands of the big boys as we’ve seen with Birmingham City, Middlesbrough, and Swansea City since the turn of the century.

Claudio Ranieri issues classy goodbye to Leicester City

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Claudio Ranieri has issued a statement on his somewhat surprising firing from Leicester City, less than 10 months after winning the Premier League title.

[ MORE: Chelsea-Swans preview ]

The Italian manager with a knack of word play pulls on the heart-strings in discussing his exit from Leicester, a club he did not plan to leave any time soon.

From the Leicester Mercury:

Yesterday my dream died.

After the euphoria of last season and being crowned Premier League champions all I dreamed of was staying with Leicester city, the club I love, for always.

Sadly, this was not to be.

He went on to thank his family, Leicester City, saving the kindest words for the Foxes’ supporters.

No one can ever take away what we together have achieved, and I hope you think about it and smile every day the way I always will.

It has been a pleasure and an honour to be a champion with all of you.

No surprise to read class from Claudio. Read the full statement here.

Premier League Preview: Chelsea vs. Swansea City

SWANSEA, WALES - SEPTEMBER 11:  Chelsea manager Antonio Conte battles to get the ball back with Cesar Apilicueta (r) from Swansea forward Modou Barrow during the Premier League match between Swansea City and Chelsea at Liberty Stadium on September 11, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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  • Chelsea leads all-time 14W-11D-7L
  • Sides drew 2-2 in September
  • Swans unbeaten vs Blues since Jan ’15

Premier League leaders Chelsea face a resurgent Swansea City side which has given it fits (Watch live at 10 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The Blues have dropped points in two of their last three Premier League matches, and also have two draws and a loss to Swans in the past three match-ups.

Swansea has won three of four in Premier League play, the lone setback a 2-1 loss to Manchester City. New manager Paul Clement has led Swans from deep in the relegation zone to four points clear of the drop zone.

To succeed, Swans will have to avoid conceding often and early. According to Chelsea’s club statistician:

Conte’s players have scored the opening goal more times than any other Premier League team this season (19) and have yet to lose (16 wins, three draws).

What they’re saying

Antonio Conte on former Chelsea assistant Clement“He has had a great impact on the team. Also, with the transfer window, they reinforced the team, and we must pay great attention. If you watch their games against Liverpool, against Man City, you understand the difficulty of the game. I am sure my players understand this. They have worked very well to face them in the right way.”

Clement on staring down Chelsea“I have said to the players that yes we have put ourselves in a good position, but how hard are we willing to work to make sure we continue to improve? How much do we want to avoid suffering at the end of the season? Because unless we keep winning games and progressing up the table, we are going to find ourselves in a position where we need, say, four points from the last two games of the season.”

Prediction

Stamford Bridge will be the difference here, as Chelsea keeps it tight against Swans. 2-0.

PREVIEW: Tottenham Hotspur’s “To Dare Is To Do”

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The latest Premier League Download makes its debut on Sunday, as we dive deep into Tottenham Hotspur.

With a brand new stadium under construction and a solid look at perennial top-end pushes, Spurs are among the more intriguing stories in the Premier League.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League Picks ]

Spurs host Stoke City on Sunday at 8:30 a.m. EDT on NBCSN, and “Tottenham Hotspur: To Dare Is To Do” debuts at 11 a.m. EDT, right after the match.