Strugglers to verge of MLS playoffs: Portland, Colorado, Philadelphia

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The 2012 MLS season was one to forget for the Portland Timbers, Colorado Rapids and the Philadelphia Union.

All three sides finished outside the playoffs and many were questioning what direction the teams were heading in.

Fast forward 12 months… and nobody is debating where all three franchises are heading. Appearances in the 2013 MLS playoffs loom, although all three still have a little way to go to cement their spot.

And after a huge rebuilding process at all three teams, it’s hard not to admire all the hard work put in place to turn their fortunes around.

So let’s take a look at where they stand right now and rate their chances of mounting a series challenge for MLS Cup.

1. PORTLAND TIMBERS

When Timbers GM Gavin Wilkinson took over the reigns following John Spencer’s departure, the Timbers were in ruins. Yet 12 months later they’re challenging for the Supporters’ Shield under Caleb Porter. Shrewd trades and transfer, plus Porter’s excellent tactical nous, has seen Portland become of the most exciting teams to watch in the league. Argentine DP Diego Valeri  and captain Will Johnson have been at the heart of everything, but Porter has got the most out of the likes of Rodney Wallace, Ryan Johnson and Darlington Nagbe.  Yet despite their regular-season dominance, the Timbers Army will want to see a good showing in the playoffs as the Rose City club aims to make the MLS playoffs for the first time since they arrived in the league back in 2011. Safe to say, that monumental goal will be reached this season. The big test will be when the playoffs arrive in PDX.

2. COLORADO RAPIDS

Oscar Pareja’s rebuilding of the Rapids has gone incredibly well this season. But last year many questioned whether or not the long-time FC Dallas assistant coach was the right man for the job. A talented core of rookies and academy prospects has been the overriding success story at Dicks Sporting Goods Park. Teenage defender Shane O’Neill, rookies Dillon Powers, Deshorn Brown and Clint Irwin are the pick of the first year MLS players. Pareja’s side gave up plenty of soft goals in 2012 but now they look solid and composed and goals are flying in from plenty of different names. Brown has seven, Harris has five and Powers has four goals. Having the experience of Edson Buddle and Drew Moor around is vital to the young guns down the stretch. The Rapids are on a roll but the playoff success could be a step too far for Pareja’s youngsters.

3. PHILADELPHIA UNION

John Hackworth’s vision for the Philadelphia Union has come to fruition this season. When he took over from Peter Nowak last year, much like Portland putting Wilkinson in charge, many questioned the ambition of the club. But Hackworth’s previous work with the US national teams at youth level helped Philly to develop their strong core of local talent. Young US players like Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo, Ray Gaddis and Sheanon Williams to name a few have all excelled for the Union, who currently sit fourth in the East, five points into the playoffs. Like the Rapids they have experience with Chris Albright, Jeff Parke, Conor Casey and Brian Carroll around. That mix will help them stay in the playoff hunt as the end of the season nears. What happens then is anybody’s guess. But the clubs future dream is to have a starting lineup made up of Philadelphia based players, and Hackworth is the right man to nurture and deliver that. The future, for all three of the mentioned franchises, is looking bright.

Barkley ineligible to make Chelsea debut in FA Cup replay

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Ross Barkley was expected — and himself expected — to make his Chelsea debut on Wednesday, when the Blues host Championship side Norwich City in a third-round FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge.

Alas, the 24-year-old English midfielder has been ruled ineligible due to a lesser-known and -applied rules surrounding transfers and player registration.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup | Wednesday preview ]

Barkley completed his move from Everton to Chelsea, for $20 million, on Jan. 5, the day before Chelsea and Norwich drew 0-0 at Carrow Road. In order to be eligible for Wednesday’s replay, Barkley is required to have completed his transfer prior to the noon cut-off the day prior to the original tie. While the time of official approval is unknown, Barkley’s move wasn’t announced by the club until after 5 p.m. in the UK.

As such, Chelsea will attempt to set up a behind-closed-doors friendly this week, in order to provide Barkley a bit of game action as he builds fitness and sharpness ahead of a potential debut against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). Barkley hasn’t seen a single minute of first-team action this season after suffering a serious hamstring injury in the summer.

FA Cup preview: Three more PL sides face 3rd-round replays

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Three more Premier League sides, including a top-four fighter, attempt to join a dozen of their top-flight contemporaries in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Wednesday…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea and Swansea City host Championship opposition in the form of Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, respectively, while Bournemouth will make the 500-mile roundtrip to take on League One side Wigan Athletic.

The Blues, who now sit fourth in the PL after their disappointing 0-0 draw with Leicester City, could manage only a scoreless draw with the Canaries at Carrow Road earlier this month. They are winless in their last four games across all competitions — all draws — including their League Cup semifinal first-leg draw with Arsenal last week; the last three of those all finished without a single goal scored. Chelsea, who are tied with Liverpool with the fourth-most FA Cups in their history (7), lost out to Arsenal in last season’s final at Wembley Stadium.

Swansea are undoubtedly the side on highest Cupset alert, as Wolves are the runaway leaders and champions-elect in the Championship (10 points clear after 27 of 46 rounds played), thus able to devote more attention to the FA Cup than the typical second-division side. With the two sides separated by just a single place in the English footballing pyramid (Swansea, 20th in the PL; Wolves, 1st in the Championship), they appear destined to swap places by the end of May.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth’s punishment for conceding a pair of early goals to a side currently 32 places below them in the pyramid, is the long, midweek trip from the south coast to the DW Stadium in the northwest of England. It was the Premier Leaguers who needed a two second-half goals, including Steve Cook‘s 90th-minute equalizer, to draw level at home in the first meeting.

Tuesday’s FA Cup replay actionFULL ROUNDUP

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town
West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town
Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Agent: 37-year-old Ronaldinho has retired

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SAO PAULO (AP) The brother and agent of 2005 Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho announced Tuesday that the former Brazil and Barcelona playmaker has retired from football.

Roberto Assis made the announcement to Brazilian media on behalf of the 37-year-old midfielder, who played his last professional match in 2015 for Brazil’s Fluminense.

“Ronnie’s professional career is over. He wants to be a football ambassador, do charity, and work with his friends in music from now on,” Assis told The Associated Press.

Assis hopes to schedule some farewell matches for Ronaldinho after the World Cup in Russia, which ends July 15. The initial plan is to play games in Brazil, Europe and Asia and to also get Brazil’s national team involved, Assis said.

Last July, Ronaldinho said on the sidelines of a friendly in Chechnya that was he was “too old” to return to action.

The Brazilian’s decorated career also includes one World Cup title (2002), one Champions League victory (2006) and two Spanish league titles with Barcelona, and two FIFA world player of the year awards (2004 and 2005).

Ronaldinho started his professional career at Gremio in southern Brazil in 1998. He left for Paris Saint-Germain in 2001 and was signed by Barcelona two seasons later.

At the Camp Nou, he was the engine of a team that took Barca back to the limelight. However, after a series of club trophies, Ronaldinho’s career took a downturn. He was often accused by Brazilian and Spanish media of lacking professionalism, despite his mentoring of a then youthful Lionel Messi.

In 2008, with Messi then leading Barcelona, Ronaldinho left for AC Milan. Despite being part of a team that won Serie A in 2011, he failed to reach his previous heights as a player.

When returning home became a real option, Ronaldinho frustrated Gremio’s efforts to re-sign him and joined Flamengo instead.

Disappointing performances in Rio de Janeiro took him to Atletico Mineiro, a club that then was more often fighting against relegation than for titles.

Yet a more mature Ronaldinho took Atletico to a different level.

In his last great run, Ronaldinho carried Atletico with his superb passes and dazzling dribbles to second place in the 2012 Brazilian Championship.

A year later, he was the key to his club lifting its first Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club trophy, but his hopes of playing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were dashed.

Ronaldinho left to play for Mexico’s Queretaro in 2014-15, but was mostly on the bench.

He played his last seven matches as a professional for Fluminense, though his performances were a far cry from his best days in Spain.

Now living in Rio, he has appeared in advertisements all over the world since leaving Fluminense.

USL granted 2018 2nd-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer

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U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan unveiled by Liga MX side Club Leon ]

USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:

Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.

Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.

[ MORE: Donovan ready to “win championships” after ending retirement ]

MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.