MLS Preview: LA Galaxy at Philadelphia Union

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It’s not just that the Galaxy have lost their last two games. If you want to start worrying about the defending champions (which, you shouldn’t), you can start with LA’s March 30 visit to Toronto. Beginning with that match, a 2-2 draw at BMO, Bruce Arena’s side has only two wins in eight games (counting CONCACAF Champions League). While their two victories were impressive – mauling Sporting Kansas City before a 2-0 victory at Rio Tinto – super team skeptics have given enough fodder to pick from.

But beyond the precedent of last year, when Los Angeles did a spring face plant before retaining their MLS Cup, there’s another reason we should refrain from judging LA took harshly. And thankfully, that reason gives us a great excuse to keep tuning into these uneven performances, even as stars like Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, and Todd Dunivant are either out or rounding into form.

During these early, low leverage, regular season games, Bruce Arena is testing out the fruits of LA’s development system. Be it from home grown hype of youth national team contributions, they’re players we’ve been hearing about for some time, but as Arena tries them out over the season’s first two months, we’ll see which prospects can have an impact on LA’s question for a third-straight title:

  • Twenty-two year old Greg Cohchrane has been getting Dunivant’s starts at left back, and while early returns have been mixed (he struggled this weekend in Vancouver), that’s what this process is all about. Arena gets to see who will and won’t be part of the puzzle come August.
  • Jack McBean, who doesn’t turn 19 until December, is out with a broken (and since, repaired) clavicle. When he returns, he looks set to have some role in Arena’s attack. In seven appearances (370 minutes), the home grown product has a goal and two assists.
  • Jose Villarreal, a key to the U.S> qualifying for this summer’s U-20 World Cup, is getting playing time at 19, posted a goal and an assist in 348 minutes.
  • Midfielder Hector Jimenez has been given two starts, highly-touted Gyasi Zardes is back from injury, while rookie Charlie Rugg already has his first MLS goal.

Beyond the production, the important thing about this group is there mere playing time. Whether they’ll see as many minutes at the end of the year – after the Galaxy get fully healthy, acquire a third Designated Player, and potentially shop for another Christian Wilhelmsson – remains to be seen, but tonight in Philadelphia, you’ll likely see a number of the Galaxy kids on display.

For all those prospects, the trip to Chester presents an intriguing test. It’s a very winnable game, particularly with Omar Gonzalez fully capable of neutralizing Jack McInerney. The Union, a weak attack even when Jack Man’s on form, have only six non-McInerney goals in 15 games. Gonzalez may have his hands full with Conor Casey, but with McInerney already on seven goals, the Galaxy will be sure to have the league’s best defender keep an eye on the ascending poacher.

If Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza can limit McInerney, then Landon Donovan, Mike Magee, and that strong midfield duo should be able to take full points at PPL Park. If any of the kids chip in, they’ll improve their odds of playing a part when Arena’s team truly comes together.

Celtic’s Griffiths tears into Rangers chairman after “gulf” comments

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Celtic star Leigh Griffiths took the Old Firm bait and promptly swallowed the fisherman.

If you missed it, Rangers chairman Dave King said Celtic should’ve been even further ahead of their rivals given the setbacks handed to Rangers, who finally climbed back to the Scottish Premiership this season.

Celtic went unbeaten, drawing just four of 38 matches and finished 39 points ahead of Rangers on the table.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

If Celtic won all 38, they could’ve finished 47 points clear of Rangers. So, we guess the gulf could be bigger.

Here’s what Griffiths had to say:

“What was the gulf? 30-odd points. How does he expect that to be bigger? They were touting at the start of last season that they were going to win the league and this and that.

Joey Barton was coming up and saying he was going to be the best player in Scotland – he lasted a few months. In the first [Old Firm] game, they got hammered 5-1 and they got hammered 5-1 at the end of the season. So, the gulf couldn’t be any bigger. This season, they’ll be trying to bridge the gap.

“Ultimately it’s about what we do and if we are at our best nobody in Scotland can live with us.”

It was absurd talk from King, who doesn’t need to amp up one of the world’s best rivalries and also doesn’t have a leg to stand on considering the dominant season from the Bhoys. Wow.

San Jose adds Designated Player from Legia Warsaw

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Valeri ‘Vako’ Qazaishvili is the latest MLS Designated Player, as the Georgian will hit the pitch for San Jose this season provided his visa and ITC go through.

Qazaishvili comes from Legia Warsaw after five seasons with Vitesse in the Eredivisie. The 24-year-old attacking midfielder has been capped 24 times, and scored in Georgia’s 2-2 draw with Moldova earlier this month in World Cup qualifying.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

Equally adept at right or left wing, Qazaishvili posted a goal and two assists for Legia following his transfer from Vitesse. He scored 28 goals and added 13 assists in 121 matches for the Dutch side.

From SJEarthquakes.com:

“We were looking for a player, a younger, offensive player, that really excites the fans and has the possibility to stay with us for a long period of time. That’s what we found with Vako,” said Earthquakes general manager Jesse Fioranelli. “We wanted a player that knows how to take on a defender one-on-one, that sees the goal and that also wants to bring a spark to our game.”

San Jose sits seventh in the Western Conference table, and only two teams — Colorado and DC — have scored fewer goals in MLS. Jahmir Hyka and Cordell Cato have been fine, but San Jose needed a better chance creator.

Qazaishvili, in theory, fits the bill. If he has half the impact of fellow Legia export Nemanja Nikolic, San Jose is cooking with gas.

Transfer rumor roundup: Van Dijk to Chelsea, Ox to Anfield

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More and more players are being linked with Manchester United, but — believe it or not — the Red Devils aren’t the only club seeking talent.

DiMarzio is reporting that Antonio Conte is close to securing the services of Southampton center back Virgil Van Dijk, insisting the Dutch back is Conte’s top choice ahead of Juventus power house Leonardo Bonucci (which isn’t to say there isn’t room for both). The price? An eyebrow-raising $77 million.

[ MORE: Confederations Cup scenarios ]

Meanwhile, Conte is selling talented Bertrand Traore outside the Premier League. A solid season on loan at Ajax upped interest in the 21-year-old striker, and L’Equipe says it’s a $22 million move to Lyon for Traore.

How much do you think Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is worth? Liverpool may think his value is as high as $32 million, as The Independent reports that Arsenal is prepared to sell the Southampton Academy product to the attacker-heavy Reds.

Meanwhile, Serge Gnabry‘s wild journey looks to have another stop despite a purchase from Bayern Munich this summer. Gnabry was one of Germany’s heroes at the Olympics and left Arsenal for Werder Bremen last summer. He thrived, and earned a deal to Bayern, but Kicker brings quotes from a Hoffenheim player that are hopeful of a loan for this season.

Messi offers to pay $558,000 to avoid 21-month jail sentence

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi has offered to pay an additional fine of 500,000 euros ($558,000) to ensure he avoids a 21-month prison sentence for tax fraud that a judge is expected to suspend, a Spanish state prosecutor said Friday.

State prosecutor Isabel Lopez Riera told The Associated Press the fine-for-time deal was presented by Messi’s lawyers to the judge who will rule on whether to suspend Messi’s sentence – as is widely expected. Lopez Riera said she has told the judge that her office is not opposed to the deal.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

Lopez Riera said Messi’s lawyers have made a similar offer for the Barcelona player’s father, Jorge Horacio Messi. He is offering to pay 360,000 euros ($402,000) to avoid his 15-month sentence for helping his son cheat on his taxes.

In Spain, prison sentences under 24 months for first-time offenders can be suspended by a judge.

The government attorney representing Spain’s Tax Office in the case will also be able to weigh in on the proposed deal. As state prosecutor, Lopez Riera is impartial in the case as a defender of the public interest.

Last year, a court in Barcelona found Messi and his father each guilty of three counts of defrauding tax authorities of 4.1 million euros ($4.6 million) from 2007-09. The unpaid taxes were from money made through endorsement deals, not Messi’s salary paid by Barcelona.

Messi was fined 2 million euros and his father 1.5 million euros. Both were originally sentenced to 21 months, but his father’s sentence was later reduced to 15 months.

In the last two weeks, Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo and former Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho have been accused by a Madrid-based state prosecutor of having defrauded Spain’s Tax Office of millions of euros (dollars) in unpaid taxes.

Both have denied wrongdoing.