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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.

Report: Clattenburg returning to Premier League

WATFORD, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26:  Referee Mark Clattenburg during the Barclays Premier League match between Watford and Crystal Palace at Vicarage Road on December 26, 2016 in Watford, England.  (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)
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Four days later…

It has not been long since Mark Clattenburg last officiated a Premier League match, instead opting to take a job in Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps the move was a power play, because “Clatts” looks set to work his new job and return to his old stamping grounds.

The Sun’s Neil Ashton threw out this Tweet on Monday.

[ MORE: UCL Tuesday preview ]

All refs have detractors, but Clattenburg has a solid record in the PL and was awarded with spots officiating the finals of the UEFA Champions League, EURO 2016, and the FA Cup.

Maybe Riley and PGMOL didn’t expect Clattenburg to follow through with his threats to leave town, and it’s fair to presume he’s been rewarded handsomely.

Bielsa returning to French league to take charge of Lille

MARSEILLE, FRANCE - AUGUST 01:  Olympique de Marseille head coach Marcelo Bielsa watches the action during the preseason friendly match between Olympique de Marseille and Juventus FC at Stade Velodrome on August 1, 2015 in Marseille, France.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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Controversial coach Marcelo Bielsa will take charge of ambitious Lille for next season, signaling his return to French football after a chaotic end to his spell with Marseille.

Lille said in a statement on Sunday that Bielsa will replace interim coach Franck Passi on July 1 and has been given a two-year deal.

“Marcelo Bielsa is without a doubt one of the most respected and influential coaches in the world and it’s a huge satisfaction for Lille,” said Marc Ingla, a club director. “It also proves the ambition of our club.”

[ MORE: UCL Tuesday preview ]

A former Argentina manager, Bielsa is highly rated as an innovative, attack-minded leader who brings the best out of his players.

With Lille hiring Bielsa, Lyon already settled into a new stadium, Marseille recruiting aggressively under new American ownership and Monaco challenging Paris Saint-Germain strongly, next season promises to be an even more competitive one in France.

A more entertaining one, too, now that Bielsa is back and likely to give the French media plenty of headlines.

Bielsa stunned fans and the club’s directors when he quit Marseille last season, after just one game of the new campaign. The 61-year-old Argentine was taking charge of his second season and was a fan favorite when he suddenly quit.

[ MORE: Wenger treatment “unacceptable,” says Pep ]

He was out of contract but had struck a verbal agreement with the president to extend his tenure.

Then, just before putting pen to paper on his new deal, he changed his mind, alleging that Marseille officials amended the terms of the agreement at the last minute. He had previously publicly criticized Marseille’s president in a vitriolic outburst during a news conference because he was angry at the club’s transfer policy, saying it had signed players over his head.

Controversy seems to follow Bielsa, who in football circles earned the nickname “El Loco Bielsa” (Crazy Bielsa), due to his driven personality, single-mindedness, tough talking and relentless determination to do things only on his terms.

In the summer of last year, he quit as coach of Italian side Lazio – just two days after the Italian club announced it had signed him.

In football terms, Bielsa made much of his reputation more than a decade ago.

At club level, he won three Argentinian titles with Newell’s Old Boys and Velez Sarsfield – reaching the South American Copa Libertadores final with Newell’s in 2002. Later on, he also guided Athletic Bilbao to the Europa League and Spanish Cup finals in 2012.

[ MORE: Bernardo to Chelsea? Blues reportedly bid first ]

With Argentina, he won gold at the 2004 Olympic Games and led Argentina to the Copa America final the same year.

Lille’s new owner Gerard Lopez, the president of the finance group Genii Capital and former president of the Lotus Formula One team, previously spoke about Bielsa in glowing terms.

Lopez recently took over from Michel Seydoux – a French businessman and film producer who was club president since 2002 – and Lopez is keen on rebuilding Lille with talented young players in the same way Monaco has done.

Athletic Bilbao's coach Marcelo Bielsa (
(Photo credit should read RAFA RIVAS/AFP/GettyImages)

On the final day of the transfer window last month, Lille signed six players aged 23 or under. Dutch forward Anwar El Ghazi, who joined from Ajax, scored his first goal for the club on Saturday.

The club’s scouting network is also likely to be very strong in South America, with Bielsa working closely alongside Luis Campos – who is an advisor to Lopez.

Campos previously worked with Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid and then for three years as a technical director with Monaco.

The well-connected Campos oversaw the arrival of several promising young players at Monaco – including highly rated attacking midfielder Bernardo Silva – and they have blossomed so much that Monaco is top of the league and has scored more than 100 goals overall this season.

Lille is playing catch up.

Although Lille qualified six times for the Champions League during Seydoux’s tenure and clinched the league and cup double in 2011, results have dropped and the northern French club is currently in 14th place.

The club’s youth system – which produced players such as Chelsea star Eden Hazard – has not been so successful in recent years and this will also be an area for Bielsa to improve.

Guardiola: Treatment of Wenger “unacceptable”

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 18:  Arsene Wenger, Manager of Arsenal (L) and Josep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City (R) shake hands prior to kick off during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium on December 18, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Arsene Wenger has been battered by many in the wake of Arsenal’s 5-1 loss to Bayern Munich in the first leg of the sides’ UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie last week.

One guy who’s not feeling it? Pep Guardiola.

The Manchester City boss says he gets the criticism of player selection, but bristles at the extent and severity of the post-match vitriol being served up to Wenger.

[ MORE: UCL Tuesday preview ]

Guardiola was asked about making eight changes to his lineup for Man City’s draw against Huddersfield Town, which caused an FA Cup replay.

Here’s his answer, from Sky Sports:

“My friend, I take the decisions, you analyze my decisions. You have to take a decision before [the game], to the best solution. It was what I did. If you don’t agree, you can write it.

“What I hear in the last 10 days, about how people, ex-players, journalists, treat Arsene Wenger is unacceptable.”

This not a particularly kind stretch for Wenger’s Arsenal, and the Gunners do look set for a seventh-straight exit from the UCL at the Round of 16. Still, Guardiola does have a point when accounting for the fact that Jurgen Klopp, Guardiola, and Jose Mourinho have all seen poor stretches this season.

Yes, Wenger has been at Arsenal much longer than his peers in the Premier League, but the cyclical criticism of the French boss is exhausting and exhaustive. Two decades in one location provides enough data to call someone a legend or brand him a disappointment. It’s a downtime right now, and perhaps the right time to change bosses. But people seem particularly happy to burn Wenger.

Champions League Tuesday: Man City hosts Monaco; Red-hot Chicharito

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 19: Man City's Manager Pep Guardiola celebrates the teams win with Yaya Toure after the whistle during the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Manchester City at Selhurst Park on November 19, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)
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Pep Guardiola gets his next chance at European success when Monaco visits the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday in the UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16.

[ MORE: Mourinho pleased with Utd’s attitude ]

It’s one of two Tuesday first legs, with big names like Fernando Torres, Javier Hernandez, and Antoine Griezmann all set to feature in the other.

Manchester City vs. Monaco

How they got here: Man City finished second to Barcelona in Group C, winning two of six matches, while Monaco won Group E over Bayer Leverkusen, Tottenham Hotspur, and CSKA Moscow.

History: Tuesday will be the first meeting of Man City and Monaco.

The plot: Pep Guardiola’s tenure at Bayern Munich saw him bounced at the semifinals of three-straight UCL tournaments, and his last final came in 2011.

The subplot: Will Yaya Toure’s City resurgence extend into Europe? How about Radamel Falcao getting some PL revenge? And watch out for Premier League rumor mill men Fabinho, Bernardo Silva, and Joao Moutinho.


Bayer Leverkusen vs. Atletico Madrid

MADRID, SPAIN - MARCH 17: Antoine Griezmann of Atletico Madrid leaps over the challenge from Emir Spahic of Bayer Leverkusen during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Bayer 04 Leverkusen at Vicente Calderon Stadium on March 17, 2015 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Antoine Griezmann of Atletico Madrid leaps over the challenge from Emir Spahic of Bayer Leverkusen (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

How they got here: Bayer finished second to Monaco in Group E, and Atletico won five of six group stage matches in summiting Group D.

History: The clubs swapped home wins in the 2015 UCL — Atleti progressed after penalties — and drew a pair of UEL matches in 2010.

The plot: Neither side is tempting its usual spot on its domestic table, and both Diego Simeone and Roger Schmidt would be thrilled to progress in Europe.

The subplot: Simeone has won the Europa League, and is chasing his third UCL final in four seasons. … Bayer attacker Chicharito is hot again, with five goals in his last three Bundesliga matches, after waving off MLS rumors.