D.C. United v Seattle Sounders FC

Does Clint Dempsey’s arrival make Seattle an MLS contender?

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Clint Dempsey’s heralded arrival answers a lot of questions around CenturyLink, where the ongoing search for reliable finishers has sometimes guided the Sounders down some tricky and confounding rabbit holes.

Today’s smack-upside the head of major MLS news – easily the league’s biggest signing since David Beckham back in 2007, not to mention the most shocking since than January morning when Becks climbed loudly aboard the Good Ship MLS – also serves to stir new interest and gin up the buzz around domestic soccer’s highest tier. You can never get enough of that in Major League Soccer (especially not with all national TV deals expiring after next year).

But in the end, is it enough to make the Seattle Sounders an MLS contender? Because as of today, the Sounders aren’t even an MLS playoff team, currently in seventh place (although with games in hand on every Western Conference club.)

The problem with Seattle this year is one of “average.” Two of the game-breakers of the last two years, Fredy Montero and Mauro Rosales, are either gone (Montero) or faded (Rosales). Steve Zakuani was an emerging game-breaker back in 2010, with 10 goals, 6 assists and sufficient speed to scare the logo off every opposition right back’s cleats. Sadly, Zakuani may never be that same man again.

The defense is OK, with steady ‘keeper Michael Gspurning backstopping a line of defense that is passable, but nothing to knock on the door and tell the neighbors about. Same for a midfield that rightly revolves around the Rock of Alonso – Osvaldo Alonso, that is.

Past Alonso, the league’s top ball winner, guys like Lamar Neagle, Brad Evans, Shalrie Joseph, Rosales and others all have their plusses and minuses.

Again, there is a lot of “just OK” doing the work inside the Sounders’ teeming downtown ground.

Dempsey’s arrival can provide the “something special” that’s been missing. Sounders management thought they had it in Obafemi Martins, and his 6 goals in 13 appearances this year isn’t too shabby. But Martins doesn’t have Dempsey’s drive, nor his ability to create in a numbers of ways.

(MORE: Is it really so hard to understand Dempsey’s move?)

At four goals in 12 matches, Eddie Johnson cannot exactly stamp “difference maker” across his resume for 2013, either. That total shrinks a little further into the background when we consider how desperately Johnson wants to stay in Seattle, coveting that big, fat contract once his deal expires in a few months. That is to say, we might have expected more so far this year from “GAM.”

In Dempsey, Johnson and Martins, the Sounders have a trio of attackers that can stand with some of the best ever seen in MLS, especially if right-sided playmaker Rosales can catch the beat anew.

Last year at this time, we wondered if Landon Donovan, David Beckham and Robbie Keane represented the top attacking trio over seen in around the league?  The Dempsey-Martins-Johnson ensemble isn’t there … but it’s certainly a blue ribbon gathering.

There is a great breakdown here from Sounder at Heart on all the ways Sounders boss Sigi Schmid might use Dempsey. It underscores what is quintessentially Dempey: his useful versatility, that ability to be effective at several positions, primarily out wide where we saw him so much at Fulham or underneath a striker as we see him with the national team.

Either way, Dempsey takes someone of the “average” variety off the field, replacing him with a warrior, someone who lives and breathes for the next match, the next opportunity with the ball at his feet, the next win – and with the skill and instinct that makes it all work.

(MORE: Where Dempsey’s signing ranks in MLS Designated Player history)

Assuming good health for Dempsey and assuming Johnson sees the blockbuster move as it serves the greater good (rather than becoming a locker room distraction because this isn’t the best for him personally), Seattle will make the playoffs.

And one thing has not changed in Major League Soccer through all the years: you just have to squeeze into the post-season. It’s harder today to arrive into the final as a fourth- or fifth-place team, but the lower-ranked clubs can surely get there; Fourth-place Los Angeles and fifth-place Houston reminded us so last year.

Seattle will make the playoffs just based on Dempsey’s arrival. If the defense improves a notch – there’s still time to achieve that aim through a personnel move; Seattle suddenly has an expendable asset or two as trade bait, eh? – and if Alonso can stay healthy, which has been harder to do this year, the Sounders are an MLS Cup contender.

Because right now there is not one team standing out as a kingpin contender – just a few jostling for position to be called one.

(MORE: Steve Nicol, Dempsey’s former manager, comments on Saturday’s big move)

Brazilian midfielder Fred has doping ban extended to club, out until June

VIENNA, AUSTRIA - AUGUST 19:  Fred of Donetsk goes for a header during the UEFA Champions League: Qualifying Round Play Off First Leg match between SK Rapid Vienna and FC Shakhtar Donetsk on August 19, 2015 in Vienna, Austria.  (Photo by Christian Hofer/Getty Images)
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Shakhtar Donetsk striker Fred, a regular for the Brazilian national team, has seen his CONMEBOL doping ban extended worldwide to all competitions.

A FIFA disciplinary committee announced that Fred’s suspension now covers “all types of matches, including domestic, international, friendly and official fixtures.”

The 22-year-old tested positive for the diuretic hydrochlorothiazide during last summer’s Copa America, and has not played for the Brazilian national team since, having been banned for a year by CONMEBOL. He had been playing for his Ukranian club while FIFA was reviewing the case, making 12 appearances in league play and scoring two goals. He also played six times in the Champions League without scoring a goal.

The one-year ban is back-dated to Fred’s last international squad appearance, when he was on the bench for the Copa America quarterfinals on June 27 of last summer. That date will allow Fred to be eligible for the Rio Olympics, which start August 5.

Men In Blazers podcast: Irvine Welsh Pod Special

Men In Blazers - Sept. 22
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Rog talks with “Trainspotting” author Irvine Welsh about his new novel “A Decent Ride,” unconventional career arc, and love for West Ham United/Hibernian.

Listen to the latest pod by clicking play below.

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LA Galaxy newcomer Ashley Cole takes responsibility for previous MLS quote

CARSON, CA - FEBRUARY 5: Ashley Cole #3 of the Los Angeles Galaxy speaks after he was introduced during a news conference at StubHub Center February 5, 2016, in Carson, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Wireimage)
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During Ashley Cole‘s introductory press conference today, where the former Chelsea legend was officially unveiled by the LA Galaxy to the media alongside Belgian defender Jelle Van Damme, a predictable question came his way.

Cole was asked about comments he made a year and a half ago when he joined AS Roma, where he said he turned down offers from Major League Soccer because he didn’t want to go “relax on the beach.”

The 35-year-old took responsibility for the quote, saying, “Of course, I hold my hands up, it was said.” However, he defended himself saying he was baited into the comments by the Italian reporter.

“I’m not going to come here and try to defend myself,” Cole said. “It was said, but it was for sure taken out of content. I was talking to the reporter, and he kind of said it to me, ‘We’re glad to have you at Roma. We didn’t expect you to be here, we thought you would go and relax on the beach.'”

“Of course you have to understand, I was at a new team, I have to tell the fans at Roma I was here to fight, I was there to win things and play in the Champions League.”

Cole said he spoke to Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Robbie Keane about the league before deciding to join Major League Soccer. “I know it’s going to be hard for me for sure, but I’m happy to be here, I’m going to work as hard as I can, change a few views on me being here, and we’ll see. I’m a winner, I always want to win, I didn’t come here to sit on the beach – to rest – I’m here to play football and work hard. I’m not a diva, I’m not this egotistical guy that comes and thinks he’s bigger than anyone.”

3 key battles for USMNT against Canada

CARSON, CA - JANUARY 31:  Jozy Altidore #17 of the United States chases down a pass against Iceland during the first half at StubHub Center on January 31, 2016 in Carson, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The United States takes on Canada in the second of two matches throughout January camp to test those brought in and see who stands out.

They took out Iceland in the first match, and now the Canadians stand in the way at the Stubhub Center in Carson, CA at 10:30 on Friday night.

[ PREVIEW: Get the full look at US vs Canada ]

Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann no doubt has already run through is list of positives and negatives in the win over Iceland. While the win is nice, the overriding purpose here is to both evaluate certain players and determine the best formula for success moving forward into World Cup qualifying, the Copa America, and the Olympics.

So, with that in mind, here are three key matchups to keep an eye on as the USMNT players battle both Canada and each other for spots on the roster in future meaningful games.

1) United States attack vs Canada’s organization

The US was solid in possession against Iceland, but it came against an opponent that showed a more attacking intent and also appeared to have limited motivation. Canada would not be what you call a “defensive” team, but they are very organized under Benito Floro, and it shows. They’ve conceded 1 or 0 goals in each of their last 13 matches, losing just once across that time. Their goalscoring numbers have suffered, but it’s translated into marginal success.

To hold the ball against Iceland, the US used a slow build-up process beginning with Jermaine Jones (who stayed surprisingly composed and centralized during his time on the field) who fed Michael Bradley and Lee Nguyen further up the pitch. That tactic may not be as effective against a less erratic opponent, but it will be interesting to see how Klinsmann decides to break down the Canadian defensive unit. The wide areas may be vital.

The 0-0 scoreline has been a fixture in this matchup, finishing goalless the last two times and in four of the last eight, so the US will no doubt be looking to break that deadlock early lest they get frustrated as time progresses.

2) USMNT full-backs vs wide play

Michael Orozco and Brad Evans were sent back to their clubs, leaving the United States incredibly thin at a position the nation has already been weak at for years. Jurgen Klinsmann has been searching far and wide for an answer to this question, and with young Kellyn Acosta slightly out of his depth or potentially star-struck in his debut against Iceland, there are a few other question marks.

The options are limited. Acosta could get another shot if Klinsmann likes what he sees in training, or he could move to the likes of Brandon Vincent or Matt Polster. The latter logged 30 matches for Chicago last year as a rookie, while Vincent was just drafted by FC Dallas and has yet to even make a professional appearance. Either way, it’s likely Canada targets the wide areas as a point of weakness for the US, so whoever plays will be in the spotlight.

[ VIDEO: Bobby Wood scores skillful goal for club ]

3) Central defenders vs Akindele and Larin

Whether Floro decides to play Larin centrally by himself, or partner him with Akindele, the striker(s) will be the main target for Canada’s attack. Larin and Akindele both have not seen the scoresheet since a 4-0 win over the Dominican Republic in World Cup qualifying last June, so they will be itching to get back on board. Should one be deployed centrally, look for the lone wolf to split the central defenders and receive service from wide areas where Canada may exploit the aforementioned weaknesses along the outside of the US back line.

How do you see the US matching up against Canada, and visa-versa?