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Premier League preview: Manchester City

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Each day from now until the beginning of the Premier League season, we will preview two teams from England’s top flight. You can view them all here at PST Preview central. Don’t forget, the 2013-14 PL season begins on August 17th, and for the first-time ever you can watch every game live on NBC Sports.

Manchester City came blasting onto the top-of-the-table scene in 2009.  Having been purchased by the oil-rich Abu Dhabi United Group – owned mainly by the Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi Royal Family and high up in the U.A.E. government – the club went on an unprecedented spending spree to blast them up the table from seasons of mid-table obscurity to fifth place in 2010, third place in 2011, and the Premier League title in 2012. The run also included winning the 2011 F.A. Cup, their first major trophy since 1976.

The Citizens now remain a force at the top of the table, although last season was a disappointment in relation to the previous three years of growth.  They finished second in the Premier League, which on its own sounds like a success (hey, you can’t win ’em all), but the kicker is that bitter rivals Manchester United dominated the league, winning the title by 11 points over City. That margin of defeat, plus defeat to Wigan in the FA Cup final and City’s enormously disappointing exit from the Champions League in the group stage – they finished last in their “group of death” along with Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid, and Ajax – cost former manager Roberto Mancini his job.

Transfers In: M Fernandinho (Shakhtar Donetsk, Ukraine), M Jesus Navas (Sevilla, Spain), F Stevan Jovetic (Fiorentina, Italy), F Alvaro Negredo (Sevilla, Spain)

Transfers Out: D Wayne Bridge (Reading, England), D Kolo Toure (Liverpool, England), D Jeremy Helan (Sheffield Wednesday, England), F Carlos Tevez (Juventus, Italy), F Roque Santa Cruz (Malaga, Spain)

source: Getty ImagesKey Player: Looking at Manchester City’s squad, it has some serious star power. Despite the losses of strikers Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez – both tabloid-favorites – in the last year, there still remains some big names.  Englishman Joe Hart is one of the best goalkeepers in the world.  Sergio Aguero scored gobs of goals in their title-winning season two years ago, and remains vital in the attack.  Midfielder Yaya Toure is world-renowned for his vision and strength.  Defenders Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta had excellent seasons last year. However, with the sale of Tevez, new manager Manuel Pellegrini has moved the attacking spotlight directly onto previously underrated Edin Dzeko (pictured). More than ever, Dzeko will carry the load on his shoulders up front, with Aguero most likely stepping back into a supporting striker role.

It’s not to say he can’t handle it.  The Bosnian superstar has had one of the best goal-per-minute numbers in the entire Premier League the past few seasons, despite most of his duties coming off the bench behind Tevez and Aguero.  The 27-year-old scored 14 goals in 32 Premier League appearances, but only half those appearances were starts.  That gave him a goal every 130 minutes last season.  The year before that when City won the title? A spectacular 107 minutes per goal.  And it’s not just the Premier League he’s lit up either – in the 2-1/2 Bundesliga seasons with Wolfsburg prior to moving to City, he scored a goal every 123 minutes.

Dzeko has the numbers and the pedigree for the full-time job at City.  Now, he’s getting his chance.

Manager: Roberto Mancini was well-liked by Manchester City fans, but was unfortunately a victim of his own success.  His title-winning season proved to the front office that the job could be done, and therefore the next season’s results – despite what would have been a smashing success a few years ago – were considered a severe disappointment.  With rumors flying of his sacking the entire second half of last year, he began to alienate players and burn bridges, leading to his sacking following the season.

Chilean Manuel Pellegrini was hired in his stead, and the club is looking forwards.  Pellegrini has a few big names on his managerial resume, but none for very long, and experience is where he lacks.  He managed throughout South America for 15 years of his career, finally seeing major success with Argentinian giants River Plate which led to his hiring at La Liga’s Villareal.  In Spain, Pellegrini saw smashing Champions League success at Villareal, Malaga, and Real Madrid, although his time at Madrid was short, losing his job to “The Special One” – something which Pellegrini has publicly expressed his regret, wishing he’d been given a chance to build a squad.

Last year, Pellegrini brought Malaga deeper into the Champions League than the club ever has been before, winning Group C with an unbeaten run of six matches against AC Milan, Zenit, and Anderlecht.  They defeated Porto in the first knockout round, and missed out on a place in the semi-finals by losing to Borussia Dortmund in heartbreaking fashion, conceding two stoppage time goals with victory in their clutches.  Despite the finish, his smashing success at Malaga in the Champions League – something that still eludes Manchester City – led him to be selected for the job.

Outlook: Manchester City has changed a lot since the end of last season.  With a new manager, plus a relatively new target man up front, they will look to push towards more trophies.  City goes as Edin Dzeko goes this year.  They can manage marginal success without him, but they’ll need him to fire in goals at a high pace to bring home the silverware.  New boys Stevan Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo were brought in with big money moves for both support and depth, and Sergio Aguero remains key. But at the moment, it all runs through Dzeko.

Bradley lauds “fearless” teammates after heart-wrenching MLS Cup loss

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Michael Bradley paused to collect himself, several times actually, before apologizing to Toronto FC’s supporters.

The game of football, with its soaring highs and gutting lows, was the latter now. TFC had dominated Seattle over a lackluster 120 minutes, Bradley engineered several big interventions and some delightful balls that didn’t have an end product.

[ MLS CUP: Seattle wins in PKs | 3 things ]

Much of that won’t be remembered, though, because Bradley passed his penalty kick right into the path of a waiting Stefan Frei. Surrounded by reporters in the TFC locker room, Bradley chose his words carefully.

“When you put everything you have into something, when you come in every day ready to pour your heart and soul into something, the highs are amazing and emotional and incredible in a positive ways,” Bradley said. “And the setbacks… hit you hard. Every guy here is going to have to take the time to get over this one, to let it hurt, let it frustrate you, let it anger you.

“It’s not for the weak, and you see that on nights like tonight.”

[ MORE: Altidore, Frei on that save ]

Bradley was one of the final men to emerge from the showers at BMO Field, and he answered every question with brutal honesty.

“On behalf of the team, we can only thank every person in this city for their support and for the passion and the emotion and the energy that they put into this, together with us,” he said. “I’m sick to my stomach that we couldn’t reward them with the biggest trophy tonight.”

In defeat, it was easy to see why TFC’s locker room is drawn to its captain. Bradley shirked nothing, answering the tough questions and humoring those who would lob softballs about his family.

Among the former was this response, one of those quotes that moves a team into formation.

“The margins are so small, and on nights like this you have no choice but to go for it,” he said. “We talked about having a group of guy who were gonna, on the biggest of nights, be fearless and go after things in an aggressive way. And we did that. We were strong, brave, and went after the game in a really, really hard away from the first minute right up until the 120th minute.”

That Bradley missed a PK will howl to the moon in Toronto to the wee hours of this Sunday morning, and his critics will be happy to join in. But as the 29-year-old prepares for a winter that could see him head across an ocean before returning for World Cup qualifying and another MLS season, Toronto can be happy to put its faith — and its backbone — in No. 4.

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Altidore, Frei react to “that save” after Sounders claim MLS Cup

TORONTO, ONTARIO - DECEMBER 10:  Stefan Frei #24 of the Seattle Sounders stops Michael Bradley #4 of the Toronto FC during the penalty kick phase during the 2016 MLS Cup at BMO Field on December 10, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Seattle defeated Toronto in the 6th round of extra time penalty kicks. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images
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When it comes down to it, Jozy Altidore and Toronto FC were inches away from becoming MLS Cup champions.

The man who walked away with MLS Cup MVP was the reason they didn’t.

[ WATCH: Frei’s big save ]

Deep in extra time, Altidore leapt high to loft a header toward the far post. Frei adjusted his body for one dramatic lunge, just slapping the ball toward Roman Torres for a clear.

“(Altidore) does the right thing because he goes against the way that I’m coming from, and that point you just move your feet as quick as you can see what’s possible,” Frei said.

Altidore thought it was in.

“I thought so,” he said. “It was a tough ball to begin with. … It was a hell of a save. At the end of the day you’ve got to pull off something special.”

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Three things we learned from Seattle Sounders’ MLS Cup triumph

Seattle Sounders players chase defender Roman Torres (29) after he scored the game-winning shootout goal to defeat the Toronto FC during shoot out MLS Cup soccer final action in Toronto on Saturday, December 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP)
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP
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MLS Cup 2016 was the most well-played game of soccer all year — far from it, in fact — but the Seattle Sounders are MLS champions for the first time in their eight-year history anyway.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS Cup coverage ]

Three thoughts on a poorly-played, but thoroughly intense 2016 finale…

A cup final, it most certainly was

The numbers of cup finals which feature brilliant, composed attacking play is hugely outweighed by the number of cup finals featuring a total lack thereof. Whether it was down to nerves, the frigid conditions in which the game was played, or a combination of the two, Saturday’s final at BMO Field was yet another example of the latter.

The telling stats: 40 fouls between the two sides (just three yellow cards shown); zero first-half shots attempted by the Sounders, and just three shots in total over 120 minutes (zero on target).

The only moment of true quality came in the 108th minute, when Stefan Frei made the best save you’ve seen all year to deny Jozy Altidore and keep the Sounders on level terms (WATCH HERE).

Michael Bradley, man of the match (until his PK)

As we’ve come to expect, Bradley was anywhere and everywhere on the field for TFC, at all the right times. With Osvaldo Alonso playing the part of warrior in the Sounders midfield, and Jonathan Osorio’s attacking prowess preferred to the defensive chops of Will Johnson alonside Bradley, it was up to the U.S. national team captain to singlehandedly track and mark Nicolas Lodeiro out of the game. He did just that, and so much more.

Then, came his penalty kick, TFC’s second, which was hit with so little pace and no more than three feet to Frei’s left for the easiest save he’d make all night.

The greatest comeback in MLS history

You’ve heard it all by now, but it doesn’t make what the Sounders did from August to December any less remarkable — from ninth place on the day Sigi Schmid was fired (two days before Lodeiro arrived), to the MLS summit in four and a half months. No team in MLS history had ever overcome a points gap that large (10) that late in the season to even qualify for the playoffs, let alone advance in said playoffs, reach MLS Cup, and lift the trophy.

Brian Schmetzer, a Seattle native and member of the Sounders family since his own playing days beginning in 1980, replaced Schmid with (presumably) the idea that he’d see out the lost season as interim head coach before making way for a big-name hire this winter. He won eight of his first 14 games as a head coach instead, led the Sounders to the four-seed in the Western Conference, and delivered to his hometown the ultimate prize on Saturday.

Watching the Portland Timbers lift MLS Cup 2015 was undoubtedly the toughest pill to swallow for anyone in Rave Green, but to end their Cascaida Cup rivals’ reign as defending champions by winning that very piece of silverware themselves … that’s a one-up that’ll last a lifetime.

Frei leads Sounders to first MLS Cup title in penalty kicks

Members of the Seattle Sounders celebrate after winning the MLS Cup soccer final over Toronto FC in Toronto, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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TORONTO — With tackles that matched the bitter temperature, Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders had little trouble providing intensity.

Goals were another story.

[ MORE: Three things we learned ]

In a game only its champion could love, the Sounders defeated TFC in penalty kicks at BMO Field on Saturday after 120 minutes of 0-0 play with precious few threats on goal.

After the teams traded goals to start PKs, Michael Bradley flubbed his shot right to Stefan Frei. But Clint Irwin stopped Alvaro Fernandez’s shot, Seattle’s third attempt, to keep things 2-2.

It went to bonus kicks, and Justin Morrow hit the bar to set the table for Roman Torres. Yes, the big man, and he nailed it.

The first chance belonged to Altidore, who took a classy ball from Giovinco and had his far post shot deflected off Roman Torres for a corner.

Giovinco had trouble with his service in the cold, and a fifth minute offering was returned by Joevin Jones on a long counter which finished in the hands of Clint Irwin.

Seattle gained its footing and held the ball deep in Toronto’s end, but wasn’t able to trouble Irwin. Jonathan Osorio was next to trouble a keeper, though ex-Reds backstop Frei collected his effort.

[ MORE: Frei makes the most amazing, unbelievable save in ET ]

A scary moment arrived in the 27th minute, as Giovinco ripped a left-footed effort into Roman Torres’ face just inside the 18. The Sounders defender fell hard (and surely the 25 degree weather didn’t help the impact).

Justin Morrow then supplied a lofted cross from the left fringe that Altidore headed down to a sliding Frei. Still 0-0, 30′

Service left a lot to be desired on set pieces, and Giovinco earned a free kick before firing it off the wall in the 39th minute.

Giovinco teed one up right after the break, but hit it off the outside of the net with the outside of his boot and it remained scoreless.

Though the chances remained scarce, the hosts had a few. Bradley picked out Giovinco with a diagonal ball that the Italian slid square for Altidore. The striker was held from getting to the ball, but no call came and Toronto won a corner that came to nothing.

The chippy play continued, and the chances remained few. Seattle called upon Andreas Ivanschitz  and Toronto turned to Will Johnson and ECF hero Benoit Cheyrou. Extra time seemed predestined, and so it came to pass.

Cheyrou won a corner with a left-footed shot just after play resumed. Giovinco teed him up for a similar chance three minutes later, but Frei collected the low offering. That was about it for the first 15 of ET.

Toronto’s third sub was Tosaint Ricketts, and he took a ball out of the air from 15 yards only to miss wide of the right post. Kicks were looming. Ricketts then picked out Altidore in the center of the box, but Frei flew to palm the headed ball off the line (WATCH HERE).

Seattle nearly went on top via a deep throw-in, as Lodeiro spied Torres at the back post and Beitashour whiffed on his attempted clearance. Irwin grabbed the loose ball first.

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