MLS Starting 11: Ten-plus story lines to follow this season

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Major League Soccer’s 18th season is full of the usual plot and subplot. Here are the top stories to follow as the games begin today – with all teams pointed toward a spot in MLS Cup in December.

11. Top newcomers – There’s no David Beckham in this year’s crop of foreign MLS imports, but there are plenty of second-tier namey names, such as Portland Timbers center back Mikaël Silvestre, the former French international who spent so many good years at Manchester United. Nigel Reo-Coker, new to Vancouver, put in the EPL years, too. Claudio Bieler wants to be the prolific striker sorely missed in Kansas City lately. Argentine playmaker Diego Valeri has Portland abuzz. Longtime Tottenham man Carlo Cudicini is guarding goal for the champs in Los Angeles.  And we’re all waiting to see if Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins will arrive into Seattle, as now expected.

10. Portland Timbers and Caleb Porter – No club will look more different stylistically than the men from Jeld-Wen Field, where the teeming Timbers Army (pictured) will see a bunch that plays nothing like last year’s direct-attack pack under Scotsman John Spencer. Caleb Porter, one of the bright, young minds of U.S. coaching, will have the ball on the ground and, according to plan, an attacking mindset. Truly, watching what Porter can make of this team – with a roster that’s been rebuilt, now armed with more technical proficiency and a little less “getting stuck in-ness” – will be one of the truly intriguing, ongoing narratives.

9. Andrew Farrell and other rookies – We love rookies because they are the future. And the league’s top draft pick, New England defender Andrew Farrell has “future” stamped all over him. Along with generally following his progress, the subplot here is watching where Revs coach Jay Heaps plays the versatile University of Louisville man on the field.

8. World Cup qualifying – Strung throughout most of the regular season will be international biggies in World Cup qualifying and in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. That means two things: occasional interruptions in the league goings-on for some players, and; individual performance in league matches will be assessed in part with an eye toward getting the international call-ups.

7. Chivas USA – What to make of this club, which once tried to become a tool of development for the Chivas mother club back in Mexico, based around cultivating Latin players. It was a disaster, and Chivas USA adjusted. Now under new management, Chivas USA will once again … wait for it … attempt to become a tool of development for the Chivas mother club back in Mexico, based around cultivating Latin players. Yes, this will be absolutely fascinating. With a roster full of players that few in our parts know much about, even the savviest, most observant MLS executives will tell you privately they have zero idea what to expect from Chivas USA. It could be a train wreck. Or Chivas could take the league by storm. Or it could land at any point in between.

6. Kansas City’s final push: No club has won more regular season matches over the past season and a half than Sporting KC, and no MLS club plays a more high-pressure system, which makes Peter Vermes’ side a cracker to watch. But a smidge of pressure has crept into the SKC effort after crashing out of the playoffs two years running to Houston. Can Vermes’ side concoct a final push past the sticking point?

(MORE: full roster of ProSoccerTalk’s MLS preseason previews and predictions)

5. Attendance and TV numbers – Gone are the days when this was critical, akin to cautiously watching the readouts on hospital room monitoring equipment. We’re past that … but not “there” yet. At 18,807 fans a game in 2012, average MLS attendance is up 17 percent over the last three years. TV numbers are climbing steadily, although still nothing to sing and dance about.  It’s soccer. In this country.  Which means there is always work ahead. And it’s always a story worth covering.

source: Getty Images

4. “Wonder Wondo,” on the hunt for another 27 – Doubt this guy at your own peril at this point. Reigning Golden Boot holder Chris Wondolowski (pictured right) keeps proving everyone wrong, following up on a great two years of scoring with a league record-tying 27 goals last year. The preseason was wrought with injuries for the 2012 Supporters Shield winners, so a slow start could potentially stall momentum on another record chase.

3. The 2013 rebuilds – Toronto FC’s latest makeover (in an alarming series of them) is starting slower than anyone around BMO Field would like. Philadelphia has a wonderful cast of young talent still under construction (although minus Freddy Adu). New England and Montreal are somewhere between “there” and “getting there.” So is Colorado, another one not quite in rebuilding mode but not far from it. Even trusty old Western Conference work horse Real Salt Lake went through a rare mini-makeover. (Portland’s high-profile re-set was discussed above.)

2. Landon Donovan: The LA Galaxy and U.S. national team leading scorer will be back in late March and (presumably) back on the field by mid- to late-April. He’ll be fit – because Donovan has always been fit, and mostly injury free – but we’ll have to see if the Galaxy’s dynamic attacker brings the full backpack of motivation. That’s certainly not guaranteed.

1. Galaxy quest for three-peat – No club has won three in a row. Manager Bruce Arena has the league’s top center back (Omar Gonzalez) and perhaps the best striker (Robbie Keane). They’ll have one of the league’s top midfielders if Donovan returns at “Full Donovan.” Plus, given the aggressive ownership, we can all be sure that another name brand Designated Player will be en route to the Home Depot Center by this summer, replacing David Beckham’s spot now that his cultured right foot is spraying the passes at Paris Saint-Germain.

Alex Morgan named CONCACAF Female POY, Navas wins Male POY

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CONCACAF awarded some of its finest players and coaches on Sunday night, and two familiar faces took home the evening’s most notable awards.

[ MORE: Making sense of table in Man City’s world ]

U.S. Women’s National Team forward Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride) and Keylor Navas of Costa Rica and Real Madrid each earned Female and Male Player of the Year honors, after boasting tremendous 2017 seasons.

Morgan who primarily plays for Orlando in the NWSL, was also a member of Lyon, who went on to win the Women’s Champions League this past season.

Navas, on the other hand, played a key role in Real Madrid’s UEFA Champions League run, as well as Los Blancos’ La Liga title.

For Morgan, the award is her third since CONCACAF began handing out its annual awards in 2013. Meanwhile, Navas has now won Male Player of the Year on two occasions.

Leon Bailey stars but Bayer Leverkusen held 4-4 by Hannover

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BERLIN (AP) Jamaica striker Leon Bailey scored twice after coming on as a substitute but Bayer Leverkusen failed to hang on as Hannover grabbed a 4-4 draw in the Bundesliga on Sunday.

[ MORE: Liverpool smashes Bournemouth to move fourth ]

Bailey, who came on at the break, needed only two minutes to equalize after Hannover had gone 3-2 ahead, and he scored again 20 minutes later to put Leverkusen 4-3 in front.

But the 20-year-old missed another chance to complete a hat trick and Julian Korb scored late for Hannover to draw.

“I had a third chance, and I just know if I had taken that chance it would have been over for them. It’s just unlucky. But that’s football,” said Bailey. “A wise man learns from his mistakes. But a wiser man learns from others’ mistakes.”

Both teams traded goals on an afternoon to forget for the goalkeepers.

“It was worth the entrance price for the spectators,” Korb said.

Julian Brandt fired Leverkusen into an early lead with a brilliant volley but Ihlas Bebou replied straight away with a header for Hannover.

Niclas Fuellkrug put the home side ahead with a penalty, only for Admir Mehmedi to equalize four minutes later for Leverkusen.

Hannover went ahead again after Fuellkrug set up Felix Klaus with his heel before the break, when Leverkusen coach Heiko Herrlich reacted with two substitutions.

One of them was Bailey, who raced forward to reach Kai Havertz’s through ball and kept his cool to beat Hannover `keeper Philipp Tschauner.

Bailey claimed his sixth goal of the season after the game’s longest stretch without a goal when Mehmedi played him through on a counterattack after a Hannover corner.

But there was further drama to come as Bebou eluded three Leverkusen defenders to set up Korb for Hannover’s equalizer with seven minutes remaining.

Leipzig, level on points with Leverkusen, had the chance to go second again with a win at home against Hertha Berlin later Sunday.

The 2 Robbies podcast: Liverpool dominates, selling Coutinho discussed

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe start off today’s show by discussing Man United’s win at The Hawthorns as Lukaku scores for the second straight match with Juan Mata impressing with his link up play. The guys also look at Alan Pardew’s influence on the Baggies. Liverpool net four in a dominating victory over Bournemouth and with Mo Salah continuing to dominate, the Robbies ask: can Liverpool now afford to sell Coutinho? And finally, the guys discuss Bournemouth’s recent struggles.

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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Listen to the latest pod by clicking play below.

Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

Report: PSV likely to land Man City, USMNT’s Palmer-Brown on loan

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A number of well-known American players have completed moves to Europe over the years, and a former Sporting KC defender is about to embark on his own journey abroad.

[ MORE: Liverpool smashes Bournemouth to go fourth ]

U.S. youth national team centerback Erik Palmer-Brown is headed to Premier League side Manchester City, who currently leads the English top flight, after signing a pre-contract with the club back in September.

It is now believed though that the young player will go on loan once he arrives with the English side.

Metro is reporting is that Palmer-Brown is likely to complete a move to Dutch Eredivisie club PSV Eindhoven on loan.

Palmer-Brown helped the U.S. Under-20 national team reach the quarterfinals at this year’s U-20 World Cup in South Korea, after previously representing several other U.S. youth national teams.