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.

Independiente and Flamengo meet for South American trophy

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SAO PAULO (AP) Independiente, relegated for the first time in its history in 2013, can complete a remarkable turnaround by winning the Copa Sudamericana at the Maracana Stadium on Wednesday.

[ MORE: LA FC selects Urena, four others in MLS Expansion Draft ]

The Argentine team will go into the second leg of the final holding a 2-1 lead over Brazilian club Flamengo from the first leg.

Independiente, which has won multiple titles in South American tournaments, will be counting on 18-year-old midfielder Ezequiel Barco, one of the best players in this year’s competition.

Flamengo is also seeking to restore some pride in Rio de Janeiro. The big-spending Brazilian club, playing in its first Copa Sudamericana final, finished its domestic championship in a disappointing sixth place.

The Rio team will be without Peru striker Paolo Guerrero, who is serving a one-year doping ban.

Instead, veteran midfielder Diego will be the key player as Flamengo looks to claim its first regional title since winning the now-defunct Copa Mercosur in 1999.

After Independiente won the first leg, the club posted on its social media channels a picture of its players celebrating at the Maracana in 1995 when the two teams played for the Supercopa.

If the Argentines lose 1-0 on Wednesday, there will be a penalty shootout to decide the winner.

Last year, Brazilian club Chapecoense was awarded the title before the final after 19 players, plus club directors and several members of staff, died in an air crash.

The Copa Sudamericana is the continent’s second most prestigious tournament after the Copa Libertadores.

Bundesliga wrap: Dortmund wins in Stoger’s managerial debut

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For the first time since late September, Borussia Dortmund has won a league match, while Leipzig’s slip up opens the door for Bayern Munich to extend its lead in Germany’s top flight.

[ MORE: Chelsea tops Huddersfield, level on points with Man United ]

Here’s a brief look at all of Tuesday’s Bundesliga action.

Mainz 0-2 Borussia Dortmund

10 points separates Dortmund from league leaders Bayern Munich, who also have a match in hand, but for the moment, the bleeding his stopped. BVB picked up a crucial win on Tuesday to end its domestic woes upon manager Peter Stoger’s debut. The side’s drought stretched over an eight-match winless period. Second-half goals from Sokratis and Shinji Kagawa moved Dortmund into the top four, while Mainz remains 15th in the league table.

 

Wolfsburg 1-1 Red Bull Leipzig

Meanwhile, RB Leipzig’s form continues to slide downward after the second-place side dropped points in its fourth straight match across all competitions. The road side’s fortunes were dampened early on when Paul Verhaegh converted from the penalty spot, however, Marcel Halstenberg did manage to pull a goal back for Leipzig in the 52nd minute. Leipzig’s misfortunes carried on in stoppage time though when Dayot Upamecano was sent off after picking up his second yellow card of the day.


The rest of Tuesday’s scores

Hamburg 1-2 Frankfurt
Freiburg 1-0 Borussia Monchengladbach

Inter beats 3rd-division Pordenone 5-4 on penalties in Cup

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan scraped into the Italian Cup quarterfinals after the Serie A leader was taken to penalties by third-division Pordenone on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Chelsea tops Huddersfield, moves level on points with Man United ]

Pordenone goalkeeper Simone Perilli pulled off several saves in regulation time to keep the game scoreless, and he almost proved to be the hero during the shootout, stopping two penalties.

But Inter prevailed 5-4, with Yuto Nagatomo tucking away the final spot kick.

Both sides hit the woodwork during the 120 minutes.

Inter coach Luciano Spalletti rang the changes, and only Milan Skriniar and Matias Vecino remained in the starting 11 from Saturday’s 0-0 draw at Juventus.

[ MORE: Burnley moves into top four after win over Stoke ]

However, he was forced by desperation to bring on Marcelo Brozovic at halftime as well as star forwards Ivan Perisic and Mauro Icardi.

Report: Cosmos coach Savarese to be named new Timbers manager

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In a time where NASL’s status moving forward is hanging in the balance, one of the league’s top managers is set to make the jump to Major League Soccer.

[ MORE: LA FC close to acquiring Red Bulls captain Sacha Kljestan ]

According to ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman, New York Cosmos head coach Giovanni Savarese is set to be named the next Portland Timbers manager.

Savarese will take over for the recently departed Caleb Porter, who stepped down from his head coaching role with the Timbers in November.

The former professional player spent five seasons in MLS during his career, including stints with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now the Red Bulls), as well as the New England Revolution and the San Jose Earthquakes.

The 46-year-old has managed the Cosmos from 2013 to present, and guided the NASL side to three Soccer Bowl titles in that span.