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.

Top 5 Premier League storylines in Week 9

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Manchester City continues to dominate its opposition at the top of the Premier League, but there are plenty of other details to watch for this weekend around England’s top flight.

The 2017/18 PL campaign has seen several of the league’s top sides struggle through eight matches, while surprises Watford and Burnley attempt to stake their claim as legitimate title contenders.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Below, PST takes a look at the top 5 storylines around Week 9 of PL action.

Blues hope to end recent woes against surprise Hornets

Chelsea vs. Watford — Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN

What’s going on with Chelsea? The Blues nearly gave away all three points against Roma in Wednesday’s Champions League clash. That was after Antonio Conte‘s suffered back-to-back league defeats against Manchester City and bottom side Crystal Palace.

Injuries have certainly played a role in some of the club’s shortcomings recently, but there is still plenty of positive squad talent for Chelsea to pick up its performances. N'Golo Kante‘s absence in the midfield is notable because of his high work rate, but the Blues will have to make due in the mean time without the Frenchman.

Eden Hazard‘s brace against Roma is a good sign though for Chelsea, who will need their most dangerous player to influence the attack in addition to Alvaro Morata’s strong early return since joining from Real Madrid.

Clarets look to spoil City’s perfect start

Manchester City vs. Burnley — Saturday, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN

The Clarets proved last season that they could be one of the most dangerous home sides in the PL, but 2017 has shown that Sean Dyche‘s men could present a real threat in England’s top flight.

Burnley is unbeaten in seven of its first eight matches, with its lone defeat coming to West Brom. Although that match proved to be a bit of an anomaly given the team’s win over Chelsea on opening day and subsequent results against Tottenham and Liverpool on the road.

The Citizens will present a different threat given the club’s highly-potent attack, but Burnley’s back line has been a revelation thus far by allowing just six goals. That ranks fourth in the PL behind only Man City, Man United and Spurs.

[ MORE: PST ranks the top 20 players in the latest PL power rankings ]

Kane presents challenge for Reds’ defensive unit

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Liverpool — Sunday, 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN

Prior to Wednesday’s 7-0 thrashing of Maribor in the UCL, Liverpool had drawn three straight matches in all competitions. It doesn’t really have to be stated, but Tottenham is not Maribor… they’re a lot better.

In fact, Harry Kane is budding into one of — if not the best — strikers in the world at the moment. The Englishman has already scored 11 goals in as many matches across all competitions, which poses a massive threat to a Reds defense that has struggled mightily.

Liverpool has conceded 12 goals in eight PL matches, which is only one fewer than Watford for the most allowed out of the top 14 sides in England’s top flight. Jurgen Klopp‘s group has surely built something special up front with the likes of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah threatening opposing back lines, but that is all for not if they cannot establish a solid unit defensively.

Can the Toffees stop the bleeding at the Emirates?

Arsenal vs. Everton — Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN

Two wins in their first eight is far from the expectations that anyone around Everton would have hoped for this season. The departure of Romelu Lukaku was an undoubted blow, but the Toffees have looked in shambles on both sides of the ball through the first eight weeks of play.

Everton is tied for the fourth-most goals conceded thus far in the PL (13), while only managing five finishes up front. Ronald Koeman has a lot of work to do with his side, who sit just two points above the relegation zone. That’s nowhere near the top 6/7, where the club has been accustomed to finishing in recent years.

[ MORE: The biggest surprises, disappointments in UCL so far ]

New-look Hammers head to Old Trafford

Swansea City vs. Leicester City — Saturday, 10 a.m. ET online

It’s still hard to pinpoint Leicester’s problems, but another manager has gone by the wayside and the club is running out of excuses for the team’s poor play. We saw a similar struggle from the Foxes last season, after having had won the PL in 2015/16, but the team just looks less desirable at the moment.

The Foxes currently sit in 18th place through eight matches, this despite still having Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and Kasper Schmeichel — each of whom are widely-regarded as some of the best players at their position in the PL

For the Swans, goals have been hard to come by through the first weeks of the season. The loss of Gylfi Sigurdsson prior to the new campaign beginning was a massive blow, but the club has still managed eight points thus far.

TFC’s Giovinco says Toronto FC would “avoid relegation” in Serie A

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Toronto FC won’t be leaving Major League Soccer for Serie A any time soon — or probably ever — but wouldn’t it be fun if they had the chance to?

[ MORE: Landon Donovan considering U.S. Soccer presidency run ]

Star striker Sebastian Giovinco brought up the hypothetical in a recent interview, and the former Italian international believes that his current TFC side is good enough to avoid relegation in Italy’s top flight.

“There’s no doubt that [MLS] has improved,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “It’s still not on the same level as the elite European leagues, but it all depends on the desire and the effort you put out there. Big names keep arriving and there are a lot of top quality South Americans.

“[If Toronto were in Serie A] we would avoid relegation easily, maybe finishing in mid-table.”

The comments were prompted by the Atomic Ant after Italy manager manager Gian Piero Ventura openly expressed concerns with Giovinco playing in MLS instead of one of Europe’s top leagues. The same could be said about Ventura’s predecessor and current Chelsea boss Antonio Conte.

It’s difficult to equate MLS directly to Serie A, or any other league for that matter, but one thing has been clear throughout Giovinco’s tenure in Toronto. He’s really good.

Giovinco has scored 54 regular season goals for TFC since joining the Canadian side in 2015, while adding 37 assists. Additionally, during last season’s playoff run — which saw Toronto advanced all the way to MLS Cup — Giovinco had four goals and as many assists.

Europa League roundup: Lyon tops Everton, Giroud guides Arsenal

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It was a wild and crazy Thursday full of UEFA Europa League action, and while one Premier League side lucked out, another continued its fall from grace.

Arsenal picked up a 1-0 win over Red Star Belgrade on the road after Olivier Giroud’s 85th-minute overhead kick give the Gunners three points and complete command of Group H.

[ MORE: Dusan Tadic tells his story of his move to Southampton ]

Meanwhile, Everton fell 2-1 to Lyon on the day, as the Toffees remain at the bottom of Group E with one point in three Europa League matches. Toffees defender Ashley Williams was very lucky not to earn himself a straight red card after a terrible challenge on Lyon keeper Anthony Lopes.

The challenge came four minutes prior to Williams netted the equalizer for Everton. However, Bertrand Traore scored the winner for Lyon with a quarter hour remaining in the match.

Elsewhere, Real Sociedad scored six goals en route to a comfortable win over Vardar, while AC Milan had to settle for a scoreless draw against AEK Athens.

Here are all of Thursday’s results from around the Europa League.

Astana 4-0 Maccabi Tel-Aviv
BATE 1-0 Cologne
Hapoel Beer Sheva 1-2 Steaua
Konyaspor 2-0 Red Bull Salzburg
Lugano 3-2 Viktoria
Marseille 2-1 Guimaraes
Nice 1-3 Lazio
Ostersunds FK 2-2 Athletic Bilbao
Red Star Belgrade 0-1 Arsenal
Vardar 0-6 Real Sociedad
Zenit 3-1 Rosenborg
Zorya 2-1 Hertha Berlin
Zulte-Waregem 1-1 Vitesse
AC Milan 0-0 AEK Athens
Atalanta 3-1 Apollon Limassol
Austria Vienna 1-3 Rijeka
Dynamo Kyiv 2-2 Young Boys
Everton 1-2 Lyon
Fastav Zlin 1-1 Copenhagen
SC Braga 0-2 Ludogorets
Sheriff 1-1 Lokomotiv Moscow
Skenderbeu 0-0 Partizan
TSG Hoffenheim 3-1 Istanbul Basaksehir
Villarreal 2-2 Slavia Prague

Video: Giroud gives Arsenal three points with superb overhead finish

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Red Star Belgrade posed a big test to Arsenal on Thursday, but it was Olivier Giroud that had the last laugh for the Gunners.

[ MORE: Atlanta’s Gressel is emerging as a legitimate MLS ROTY candidate ]

The Frenchman delivered in spectacular fashion five minutes from time when Giroud scored a makeshift-bicycle kick following Theo Walcott‘s headed pass inside the penalty area.

Arsenal went on to win the match, 1-0, and currently sits atop Group H in the UEFA Europa League on nine points through three matches.

Giroud, who went the full 90 minutes for the Gunners, has had a knack for scoring some fine goals in an Arsenal kit over the years. That includes last year’s tremendous scorpion-kick goal against Crystal Palace in Premier League play (watch below).