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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.

“Overweight” Costa comes to Mourinho’s defense

Diego Costa, Chelsea FC
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Diego Costa says he and his Chelsea teammates are to blame for Chelsea’s horrid start to the 2015-16 Premier League season.

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Speaking Thursday, during a bit of downtime over the current international break (Costa was left out of Vicente del Bosque’s squad for Spain’s final two EURO 2016 qualifiers this week), Costa placed the majority of blame at the feet of the entire team, but went on to most harshly critique himself for coming into the season unfocused and “overweight.”

Costa, on his lack of fitness and form to begin the season — quotes from the Guardian:

“We know we’re not in the form we were supposed to be at the beginning of the season. We need to blame the players because we came back from holiday very confident, thinking we could go back into how it was last season, and then realized the team was already in a bad situation.

“I’m going to be very honest: maybe a few weeks ago, five or six weeks ago, I was not on top of my game. At least physically. We talk within the players and we know that, maybe at the beginning, we were not 100 percent as we were supposed to be when we got here. I got injured at the end of last season and then I went on holiday. Maybe I got out of my diet and, when I came back, I was not the way I was supposed to be. I was a little bit overweight. That affected my game. You can be selfish and blame it on the manager but I’m not going to do that. I’m responsible 100%, and so are the other guys.

Given that Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said on Thursday he doesn’t quite know what’s wrong with the defending Premier League champions, hearing someone — anyone — speak up and explain the club’s worst start to a season in 37 years will surely be a welcome sound to any Blues supporter’s ears.

[ MORE: Liverpool appoint Klopp as manager | Allardyce to Sunderland? ]

Costa, who is eligible to return from suspension next weekend when Aston Villa visit Stamford Bridge, has scored just one goal in league play this season (six appearances) after scoring 20 in 26 games last season.

Sam Allardyce to open talks with Sunderland

Sam Allardyce, West Ham United FC
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Now that Liverpool have selected and named their new manager, it appears Sunderland are finally ready to move forward with their own managerial search. (That’s clearly a joke, because it implies Liverpool and Sunderland ever duke it out for the same managerial candidate.)

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Anyway, the Black Cats will have to hire someone to replace the recently-departed Dick Advocaat at some point. We all knew that, despite the fact he’s probably earned a shot at that level, Bob Bradley was never really going to be considered for the job. With that in mind, if you’re not going to endear yourself to the entire United States of America with this hire, you might as well go for the best unemployed manager who’ll actually consider your approach.

That’s what Sunderland chairman Ellis Short appears to have done, as it was reported Thursday that despite an initial reluctance from Sam Allardyce — let’s be honest, he actually was holding out hope for the Liverpool job — the 60-year-old most recently in charge of West Ham United was willing and ready to enter into negotiations with the northeastern club.

One of the major sticking points during Sunderland’s courting of Allardyce is expected to be his demand for autonomy in the transfer market as well as a sizable transfer budget to sign his own players during the January window.

[ MORE: Advocaat: Sunderland squad too thin, chairman to blame ]

Allardyce seems like the no. 1 guy you’d like to bring in to steady a capsized ship — cough Sunderland cough — in any situation. Not only does he have a successful track record in the Premier League, but he’s the kind of no-nonsense leader a club like Sunderland so desperately needs as they find themselves in yet another relegation battle just eight games into the new season.

Short hopes to have Allardyce signed, sealed and delivered when the Premier League returns to action next weekend. In that event, Allardyce’s first game in charge of Sunderland would be a trip to West Bromwich Albion. His first home fixture? Home to Tyne-Wear derby rivals Newcastle United, a club whose boisterous fanbase still holds a great deal of disdain for Big Sam. Sometimes the football gods really are looking out for us.