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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.

WATCH: NBC to stream USWNT, every CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying game

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The CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championships kick off on Wednesday and NBC Sports will be streaming all 15 games of the tournament over the next 11 days.

Every single game will be streamed live online or on the app via NBC Sports Live Extra, in addition to up to four matches airing on NBCSN.

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The eight-team tournament takes place from Feb. 10-21 in Houston and Frisco, Texas, with the top two teams advancing to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Below is a full schedule of the games.

2016 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship Schedule

Frisco, Texas – Toyota Stadium
Houston, Texas – BBVA Compass Stadium
Times U.S. Central (U.S. Eastern in parentheses)

FIRST ROUND
Group A: USA, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Costa Rica
Group B: Canada, Guatemala, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana

Wednesday, Feb. 10 (Frisco)
Puerto Rico vs. Mexico                                   5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
USA vs. Costa Rica                                    7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.)

Thursday, Feb. 11 (Houston)
Guatemala vs. Trinidad & Tobago                  5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
Canada vs. Guyana                                           7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.)

Saturday, Feb. 13 (Frisco)
Costa Rica vs. Puerto Rico                              12:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m.)
USA vs. Mexico                                                 3 p.m. (4 p.m.) NBCSN at 9:30 p.m. ET

Sunday, Feb. 14 (Houston)
Guyana vs. Guatemala                                     12:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m.)
Trinidad vs. Canada                                          3 p.m. (4 p.m.)

Monday, Feb. 15 (Frisco)
Mexico vs. Costa Rica                                       5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
USA vs. Puerto Rico                                          7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.) LIVE on NBCSN

Tuesday, Feb. 16 (Houston)
Trinidad & Tobago vs. Guyana                         5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
Canada vs. Guatemala                                      7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.)

SEMIFINALS

Friday, Feb. 19 (Houston)
Group B winner vs. Group A runner-up          4:30 p.m. (5:30 p.m.) ***
Group A winner vs. Group B runner-up          7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.) ***

FINAL

Sunday, Feb. 21 (Houston)
Semifinal winners                                            4 p.m. (5 p.m.) NBCSN at 11 p.m.

***USA’s semifinal, should the USA advance, will air LIVE on NBCSN

Sunderland’s Adam Johnson admits child sex charge

BRADFORD, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 10:  Adam Johnson arrives with girlfriend Stacey Flounders at the Crown Court on February 10, 2016 in Bradford, England. The Sunderland FC midfielder, aged 28 and from Castle Eden, County Durham, is on trial having previously denied three counts of sexual activity with a child and one count of grooming. He has one daughter.  (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)
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Premier League winger Adam Johnson has pleaded guilty to one count of sexual activity with a child, but the Sunderland player has denied two other charges.

Johnson, 28, appeared at Bradford Crown Court in Yorkshire, England on Wednesday and admitted the sex count and another count of grooming.

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The former Middlesbrough and Manchester City winger is an England international but has denied two other charges of having sex with a girl under the age of 16.

Up until Wednesday Johnson had pleaded not guilty but following legal talks he agreed to admit to two of the charges.

[ MORE: Reports claim Mourinho to United is “done deal” ]

The trial over the charges Johnson has denied will be held this Friday and a jury has been sworn in. The initial trial date of Aug. 3, 2015 was adjourned.

Johnson was originally arrested in March 2015 over allegations he had sex with a 15-year-old girl.

He played eight times in the final months of last season after the allegations became public, plus he has made 20 appearances in all competitions for Sunderland this season.

Report: Mourinho tells friends he will be new Man United manager

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Numerous reports from the British tabloids claim former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has told close friends he will take charge of Manchester United this summer.

[ MORE: What is USMNT’s best XI? ]

Both the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror have plastered headlines such as “Mourinho: Takes it as red” and “United job is mine” across their backpages on Wednesday morning, while the Daily Mail say Mourinho believes it’s a “done deal” for him to take over at Old Trafford.

Mourinho, 53, was fired by Chelsea in December just seven months after leading the Blues to the Premier League title.

The Portuguese coach has won three PL trophies in five full seasons in England but Chelsea’s dramatic collapse this season saw them floundering towards the relegation zone rather than fighting to defend their crown.

[ MORE: Arsenal, Spurs to contend for PL title? ]

With Louis Van Gaal‘s long-time future at United in question — the veteran Dutch coach, 64, has a deal through the end of the 2016-17 season — and the Red Devils six points off the top four in the PL despite sepnding over $375 million on new players in the past 18 months, it is believed that United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward is under pressure to appoint a manager capable of returning United back to title contenders and perennial challengers in Europe.

On Tuesday it was reported that United had reached out to reps of Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino, and it certainly seems like they’re assessing their options before giving LVG even more money to spend this summer, if he’s still around.

If United decide to make a change, Mourinho fits the bill.

At least in terms of winning trophies and attracting the best players on the planet which will be increasingly necessary for United to stay in touch with crosstown rivals Manchester City who will be managed by one of Mourinho’s great managerial foes, Pep Guardiola, from next season. After winning the UEFA Champions League with FC Porto and Inter Milan, the eccentric yet brilliant coach has also won league titles in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain. Following the debacles on and off the pitch this season at Chelsea, Mourinho needs a chance to prove himself and be in charge of a rebuilding project. He wants to stay in England and after being fired by Chelsea twice in his career, you get the sense that United is the only other club befitting of his reputation that can offer him a job he deems up to his standards.

After Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, it is believed the United’s hierarchy turned down the chance to appoint Mourinho as they didn’t want the media circus and the antics which come from hiring Mourinho. Now, though, it’s all about winning and Mourinho will be United’s best chance of transitioning from the disappointing David Moyes era and the so far underwhelming spell since Van Gaal’s been in charge.

Seven unheralded stars of this Premier League season

during the Barclays Premier League match between A.F.C. Bournemouth and Tottenham Hotspur at Vitality Stadium on October 25, 2015 in Bournemouth, England.
Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images
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Look, it’s been a crazy year in the Premier League. Leicester City is top by five points, Chelsea is a bottom-half side, and not one of the league’s top three scorers hails from a team in last season’s Top Four.

So it follows that among the league’s other statistical leaders — advanced and traditional — are some surprisingly shining stars.

[ MORE: West Ham 3-2 Liverpool | Coutinho’s slick free kick ]

Or at least they aren’t mentioned a ton. We plan to rectify that here. By no means do we claim these statistical leaders without fault this season, but hats off to the good they’ve done (or, in some cases, the pain they’ve felt).

Most saves in a starring role

You wouldn’t know it from the goal totals these past few weeks, but Stoke City’s Jack Butland has been playing otherworldly between the sticks. His 87 saves lead the Premier League, and the Potters would be in the thick of a relegation battle if he hadn’t shone as brightly.

Ironman

Eleven players have played every minute of their side’s Premier League campaign this season (a 12th, Gareth Barry, has played all but one). Four of those 11 are goalkeepers, and six more are defenders. The only midfielder? Bournemouth’s South African standout Andrew Surman (above).

Top thief, too

Surman is also the league leader in interceptions with 92. The next seven players on the list, headed by Chris Smalling, are all defenders.

The most under-appreciated of the underdogs

Kante (Mark Thompson / Getty Images)

Leicester City has been fantastic, and people are quick to name Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy as big parts of the table-topping effort at King Power Stadium. Then, perhaps they’ll say something about goalkeeper Kaspar Schmeichel or defender Wes Morgan.

But how about the Premier League’s leader in tackles. Midfielder N'Golo Kante (right) has 115 tackles, 12 more than second-best Yohan Cabaye of Crystal Palace.

An all-expense paid journey to the massage parlor for…

Five players have been fouled more than 50 times this year, and you need to be around the ball a lot for that to happen. The four also-rans are Southampton’s Sadio Mane, Swansea City’s Andre Ayew, Everton’s Ross Barkley and Mahrez, but the man who deserved to skip to the head of the ice bath line is from Crystal Palace: Wilfried Zaha has been fouled 59 times. And that’s the amount of times the foulers were caught in the act.

Let Newcastle United’s captain climb in second, though; Fabricio Coloccini‘s 47 blocked shots are eight more than runners-up Neil Taylor (Swans) and Christian Fuchs (Leicester).

A man possessed

He hasn’t been heralded like a year ago, and most witnesses would tell you the midfielder’s been playing much worse. No, touches don’t equal success, but Cesc Fabregas‘ 2,027 credited touches are 74 more than the next player despite the fact that he’s the only player in the top four to have started less than 25 matches. He’s also completed 83 more passes than the closest competitor (Surman).

All-around stars

Advanced stats site Squawka uses an algorithm to generate statistics on who just might be the most complete player in the Premier League.

It’s certainly not foolproof, but the best player per-90 minutes would likely surprise you: Mousa Dembele of Spurs (Minimum 15 matches).

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As for who’s produced the most when numbers are averaged out over the entire game, one man rises to the top: Ross Barkley.

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