More MLS salary talk: Three teams collecting bad deals

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Salary Day around Major League Soccer – let’s find a mainstream sports parallel. Because that’s how these things work, right? Some esoteric event with limited significance that winds up fans and sends them spinning on kitchen floors. The only way to convey its meaning is by looking to the big four. I know how this works.

Let see …It’s the 5×5 rotisserie draft, right? No, not quite right. The salaries are real. Fantasy leagues aren’t. How about the cover announcement for your given EA Sports franchise? Meh, way too far from the field. Really, it’s more like pitchers and catchers reporting, or final cut day for NFL rosters. It has some significance, but if we never heard one peep about it, our sporting lives would change … not at all.

Perhaps the best parallel is Schedule Day in the National Football League. Most of the information is known ahead of time – MLS’s deals either already leaked or carry over from the year before, while the NFL’s matchups are predetermined by a formula – but something about seeing all the details together sends fans buzzing like their favorite band just released another album (and since this is MLS, that album would either be Wilco’s or the dialog track from an Arrested Development rerun). The order of the games, Monday night slots, Thanksgiving assignments – they give football fans something to fill that offseason void. It’s the morning donut – fun, harmless, inconsequentially unless you overindulge.

For MLS fans, the players union’s release sparks a few hours of fervent social media analysis, where “Broncos play Cowboys on Thanksgiving” is replaced by “this sure looks different without Beckham and Marquez.” That Week 17 matchup between Green Bay and Minnesota? Where Adrian Peterson might be going for 2,105 and a playoff spot? That’s MLS fans and their value-for-money finds. “So Rafael Baca only makes $49,500 but Joel Lindpere’s still a $200,000 player?”

[MORE: Major League Soccer’s top earners]

He does, but in insolation, that’s mostly trivia. One good or bad signing isn’t going to break a salary cap, especially when the maximum most players can count against the salary cap is limited by the designated player rule. If, however, you start collecting a bunch of Baca-esque deals? They you’ve really got something. The dollar shaved here, shaved there give you the ability to take some chances, overpay for a project, or take on some players whose veteran rates no longer fit into others’ budgets. You don’t have to be Billy Beane to figure this out.

We’ll look at some of those situations later. Here I want to look at the other end of the spectrum – teams who have a number of deals which, while perhaps not bad in isolation (though there are some there), become problematic when they’re part of a greater pattern.

Some caveats here: Some of these deals might be Designated Player contracts, young designated players, Generation adidas, or another of an array of circumstances that means their full salaries may not count against the cap (or, are even being fully covered by their current team). Still, in a league were very few teams are making money, taking on even “off book” salaries can have a huge effect on a team’s ability to go out and acquire more talent.

[MORE: Some Major League Soccer bargains]

With that in mind, here are a few situations you’d like to see your team avoid:

(all salary figures reflect guaranteed compensation)

source:  Chicago Fire

  • Sherjill MacDonald, $527,125
  • Arne Friedrich, $367,500
  • Dily Duka, $273,000
  • Patrick Nyarko, $249,500
  • Joel Lindpere, $205,000
  • Logan Pause, $197,833.33

Also:

  • Alvaro Fernandez, on six-month loan in Qatar, $366,666.67

Again, in isolation, none of these deals are killers, but when you have six players making above-or-around $200,000 who aren’t giving equivalent production, that’s a symptom as much as it is a problem, especially since Duka and Lindpere were added this winter (as were Jeff Larentowicz and Maicon Santos, who combine to make just over $395,000).

Friedrich can’t stay healthy. Duka cost Chicago Dominic Oduro. Nyarko is immensely capable but has 12 goals in five-plus seasons. We have to start considering if Lindpere’s best days are permanently gone, while Pause was made redundant by the Fire’s offseason moves.

Between those six players, that’s just over $1.8 million in salaries. And Fernandez’s loan expires this summer.

source:  Colorado Rapids

  • Marvell Wynne, $285,000
  • Edson Buddle, $275,000
  • Drew Moor, $247,000
  • Pablo Mastroeni, $200,000
  • Atiba Harris, $173,275
  • Danny Mwanga, $171,250
  • Brian Mullan, $170,335

The four guys who were in Commerce City last year – Wynne, Moor, Mastroeni, and Mullan – are just kind of overpaid. Really, it’s not a big deal when you’re being shrew elsewhere. When you’re getting value lower down the list, you can be sentimental with your veterans – understood.

But Buddle? Harris? Mwanga? Colorado went out and got these guys this offseason. You can see the upside in each of them, but having combined for two goals through the Rapids’ first 10 games, you have to wonder if that $600,000 would have been better spent elsewhere.

Consider some of the other goal scorers that moved this offseason: Ryan Johnson ($144,705), Claudio Bieler ($200,000), Fabian Espindola ($150,000), Robert Earnshaw ($155,150). Buddle, Harris, and Mwanga, for similar money, were much less reliable options. Even Kenny Cooper ($342,500) could have been had for some of the money Colorado spent on their upgrades.

source:  D.C. United

  • Dejan Jakovic, $303,341
  • Rafael, $284,625
  • Brandon MacDonald, $273,250
  • Lionard Pajoy, $205,000
  • John Thorrington, $150,000
  • James Riley, $145,000

The disturbing part about this group is that they were all need signings, to one extent or another. On one hand, yeah, when a team needs somebody, of course the sign a new player, yet with this group, we see a tendency to overpay when addressing those needs. That’s a systemic problem.

A couple of years ago, D.C. United’s defense was terrible. They elected to keep an expensive Jakovic and acquire MacDonald. They now have one of the priciest central pairings in the league, even if few would call the duo one of the league’s best.

Pajoy and Rafael were brought in because D.C. United needed strikers, but each make more than Maicon Santos will earn from Chicago this year. Pajoy didn’t cut it in Philadelphia before being traded, and Rafael (a young designated player) had only scored one, circumstantially meaningless goal in Brazilian national league play (all of his production was in the quasi-competitive state league). Through 213 minutes in D.C., his only MLS tally came off a Andy Greunebaum misread.

Thorrington and Riley aren’t super expensive, but they fit the same pattern. D.C. has a need, they spend more than they probably needed to, and the upgrade isn’t obvious. Thorrington’s fitness concerns mean it’s too early to pass judgment on his acquisition, but did D.C. really need James Riley at $145,000 when they already had Chris Korb, Daniel Woolard, and Robbie Russell?

Who’s to blame? A closer look at Chelsea’s blunder late vs. Barcelona

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As our very own Joe Prince-Wright explained yesterday in the aftermath of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16, Antonio Conte could not have set his team up better for success at Stamford Bridge.

And yet, they walked away from the first leg with a disappointing result, one that could set up Barcelona with the advantage as they head to the Camp Nou in two weeks time.

So where did it all go wrong? That pass from Andreas Christensen, obviously – the one that gifted Lionel Messi a late goal. But is Christensen to blame? Or were there other culprits?

Clearly, the pass was ill-advised. Christensen sends the ball across his own box parallel to the goal mouth, which Andreas Iniesta easily pilfers and sends to Messi for his first goal against Chelsea. It was a pass they teach 7-year-olds not to make, one that even the youngest of dedicated soccer players knows to avoid.

Christensen makes an easy target, given that he is just 21 years old, has only just recently earned his way into the Blues starting lineup, and was the most obvious culprit having made the fateful pass.

However, upon closer inspection, it may not have even been meant to reach the far side of the field.

Christensen’s exasperated reaction suggests the pass was likely intended for Cesc Fabregas who sat at the top of the box under little pressure. Christensen was closed down on the far touchline with little room to operate, and his outlet to Fabregas in the middle of the field was a good option, even if the general idea of a pass in that direction is usually frowned upon. However, Christensen’s pass was just slightly behind Fabregas, and the Spaniard ultimately decided to let the ball go instead of chasing it down, leaving it for a less populated area of the field.

Unfortunately, with his back turned to the eventual destination of the pass, Fabregas was unaware that Iniesta had anticipated its flight path and was already making a run to steal the ball. When the veteran Barcelona midfielder reached the ball, he was challenged by a sliding Cesar Azpilicueta, who completely whiffed. While Christensen and Fabregas were culpable of putting the team in a dangerous situation, Azpilicueta’s tackle was an abomination. Azpilicueta actually reached the ball first, but inexplicably failed to make contact with the ball, allowing Iniesta to easily evade the slide and still take charge of the ball.

Andreas Christensen is the clear perpetrator, but Fabregas and Azpilicueta both contributed negatively to the situation, leaving Chelsea at a slight disadvantage heading into a hostile environment despite Antonio Conte’s best efforts. Sadly, Conte will be the one to shoulder the accountability at the end of the season if Chelsea goes out of the Champions League, even though he received top marks for the match, and his players let him down.

Mata seems to confirm Champions League is Man United’s priority

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With the Premier League title all but wrapped up, English top flight teams are beginning to put their true focus onto competitions they still have a realistic shot of winning.

Manchester United sits in second place in the Premier League table, but they are a full 18 points back of rivals Manchester City, as so with a Champions League match against Sevilla on Wednesday afternoon, Juan Mata all but confirmed that the Red Devils are putting their main efforts into Europe’s largest competition.

[ MORE: Messi pegs back Chelsea despite winning tactics ]

“If we had less of a gap with respect to the Premier League leaders and we had a chance to fight for it, it wouldn’t be so tough to be eliminated from the Champions League, but now our aim is to progress from every round,” Mata said to Spanish radio station Cadena Ser. “It would be a big blow to be eliminated in the last 16.”

Last season, a similar story played out. Manchester United was out of reach of a top four finish in the league, so manager Jose Mourinho publicly admitted they were putting their main focus on the Europa League due to the automatic berth the competition’s winner received into next year’s Champions League. The gamble paid off, as Manchester United won the competition and earned their spot in the Champions League this season.

Sevilla has not progressed past the Round of 16 since 1958. Manchester United, meanwhile, has not made it past the Champions League quarterfinals since their runners-up finish in 2011, when they lost to Barcelona in the finals at Wembley Stadium.

Wenger confirms Ospina will start pair while Ozil, Ramsey miss out

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Arsene Wenger confirmed in his pre-match press conference that goalkeeper Petr Cech will get an extended rest with a pair of Cup games on the horizon for Arsenal.

In his place, David Ospina will start both Thursday’s Europa League Round of 32 match against Ostersund and Sunday’s EFL Cup Final against Manchester City. Ospina is no stranger to this type of rotation, with the Colombian owning just 30 starts over the last three seasons in national and international Cup competitions compared to just seven Premier League appearances.

In addition, Wenger also confirmed that Mesut Ozil will miss out for Thursday’s match due to illness, but is expected back for Sunday’s EFL Cup final. Arsenal has a 3-0 lead over Swedish club Ostersund after the first leg, with the second leg to be played at the Emirates.

Wenger said Aaron Ramsey is back in training, and while he will not be risked in the Europa League match in his return from a groin injury that saw him miss the North London derby loss, he could be in contention to play against Manchester City. [Ramsey] is not in the squad tomorrow, he had a good training session. We will see how his evolution goes between now and Sunday. I don’t rule him out.”

Ramsey scored a hat-trick in the 5-1 win over Everton in early February, but has played just 181 minutes since picking up a hamstring injury in mid-December.

Finally, Wenger said that Danny Welbeck and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will both receive starting spots against Ostersund, as will some unnamed youth products. Welbeck has been out of Premier League action since mid-January, stuck behind Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but he received four minutes off the bench in the North London derby and will get another opportunity in the Europa League to prove his worth.

Conte admits job security speculation will always exist at Chelsea

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Antonio Conte admits that he will always face speculation about his tenure as manager while he is employed at Chelsea, but dismissed it as “no problem for me.”

There is a general acceptance that Conte will part ways with Chelsea at the end of the season given the tough times the club has seen this campaign. The Blues are hanging on to a Champions League place by a thread, and struggled through a January that included just two wins across all competitions in six matches.

“I’ve said it very clearly: I’ve got a contract until 2019 and I intend to respect this, but you know anything can happen in football,” Conte told Italian publication Mediaset. “It takes two to be happy and continue a marriage. Our work is unique because we’ve always got our suitcase in our hands.”

Conte did issue somewhat of a warning to Chelsea, however, that if he were to be fired, it could come back to haunt the club, as he would have no shortage of offers. “My intention is to respect my contract, but if something were to happen, it would open up different scenarios.” Big clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid could have job openings this summer if their lofty goals aren’t met, and those places would be attractive destinations for Conte, who won the Premier League title with Chelsea just last year.

“It’s a bit the history of Chelsea and inevitable when, in the past, in 14 years, 10 coaches have been changed,” he said. “Clearly when there is this habit, let’s say, the press play on it and as soon as there is a result or two which don’t go your way, they try to put the pressure on.

“But it’s no problem for me. I hope that this pressure doesn’t harm the players, not me, because I go looking for pressure.”