Landon Donovan of the Los Angeles Galaxy

Not-so-wayback machine: Remembering the 2013 MLS preseason – Western Conference version

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For each naive narrative we identified in the Eastern Conference, we had one to match in Major League Soccer’s West, though in our defense, the conference went through a lot of changes last winter. The league’s biggest star was leaving LA. One of the best players in league history went on walkabout. A contender from the Rockies was forced to shuffle the deck, while one of 2012’s failures was rolling the dice on a college coach. Add in the continued skepticism about whether Goonies ever die and the Western Conference was impossible read.

That didn’t stop us from making assumptions, but in a season where the Portland Timbers would go from eighth to first, most people’s prognostications were destined for failure.

That doesn’t mean we can’t look back and learn our lessons. We did the East earlier tonight. Here are Western Conference story lines we were dwelling on in the 2013 preseason:

[MORE: Not-so-wayback machine: Remembering the 2013 MLS preseason – Eastern Conference version]

1. Landon was in Cambodia;t the Galaxy was destined to replace Becks with another star – Would it be Ricardo Kaká? How about Frank Lampard? One way or another, the league’s big-ticket franchise has to replace David Beckham. It was Hollywood, after all, and with Landon Donovan off finding himself in Cambodia, getting another name on the marquee was inevitable. Come November, LA would be ready to challenge for a third straight title. What happened: Donovan came back early in the season, meaning the most significant time he’d miss would be during the summer Gold Cup. The player that eventually took Beckham’s Designated Player spot was already in-house: defender Omar Gonzalez. After finishing third in the regular season, the Galaxy’s title run came to an end in the conference semifinals.

2. Real Salt Lake was rebuilding; don’t expect very much – Jamison Olave? Gone. So were Fabian Espindola and Will Johnson. The success cycle was finally turning against Real Salt Lake, and after three attempts to defend their 2009 title, the team was forced to break up its core. RSL would take a step back in 2013. What happened: The exact opposite. Though they slipped into second at the end, RSL spent much of the season looking down on the Western Conference. Olave, Espindola and Johnson had been with the team since they claimed MLS Cup in Seattle, but having been cast off in the offseason, the true core of RSL became clear. The likes of Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers, Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales got Kreis back to the final, where the team lost in 10 rounds of penalty kicks.

3. Chivas USA was going to be an unmitigated disaster – After Robin Fraser’s team left fans in a coma, Jorge Vergara decided to take the team back to its roots. An emphasis on latino players returned, one that saw the club cast off talent at a discount rate while trying to homogenize its squad. What happened: Though the team became a running joke, some of the soccer was actually pretty good. At least, it was good compared to expectations the team would be one of the worst in MLS history. Instead, Chivas USA would win six games, claim 26 points, but still finish bottom of the Western Conference.

4. Caleb Porter? You mean the guy who couldn’t get Team USA to the Olympics? – Portland went into 2012 expecting to make the playoffs. Instead, they slipped to eighth, firing John Spencer midseason. In his place, Portland brought University of Akron head coach Caleb Porter into the professional ranks, but having failed to qualify the U.S.’s under-23s for London 2012, Porter was better known for his international failure than his collegiate success. What happened: Within months, Porter had eared all doubt. Portland went on to finish first in the West, eliminating the rival Sounders in the Western Conference semifinals. Along the way, Porter earned Coach of the Year honors, putting his name in the conversation as one of the best coaches in Major League Soccer.

5. With the rest of the West in flux, San Jose was looking pretty good – LA needed to replace Beckham. Real Salt Lake was dismantling. Seattle was about to say goodbye to Christian Tiffert (remember him?), and Vancouver had undermined their team in the middle of the 2012 season. The rest of the West’s playoff teams had significant doubts, but San Jose? For the most part, they managed to keep the band together. The Earthquakes were set for another season at the top of the Western Conference. What happened: We underestimated the loss of Simon Dawkins, whose production from wide was never replaced. Chris Wondolowski’s record-setting production regressed, as did the rest of the squad’s. With the possible exception of goalkeeper Jon Busch, every San Jose regular took a step back in 2013. The results led to Frank Yallop’s early departure.

Between our Eastern and Western Conference lists, is there anything we can learn? Probably not. Every year, we’re going to make predictions (that’s just what you do in the preseason), but our crystal balls are really cloudy. Between the parity in Major League Soccer, teams’ abilities to shake things up in the summer, and the nature of a league where making the playoffs (not winning the league) is the priority, trying to read tea leaves will always be difficult.

If anything, last February’s narratives tell us no matter what we know now, 2014’s going to be an unpredictable season.

Watford “Behind The Badge” airs third installment; Catch up on Episode 2 here

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Catch up on Watford’s look “Behind The Badge” ahead of Sunday’s third episode of the four-part glimpse into one of the Premier League’s promoted sides.

The Hornets sit 11th, currently 7 points clear of relegation danger, and are giving fans a better idea of what’s been going on at Vicarage Road.

[ MORE: Behind the Badge archive

In an exclusive series, NBC Sports followed around the Hornets in a very similar fashion to HBO’s Hard Knocks which joins the preseason camp of one NFL team each summer.

Below is the schedule for the three remaining episodes on Watford, which you can watch on NBCSN and live online via NBCSports.com in the coming weeks, plus a link to watch episode one in full from last week.


First episode: Watch full episode, here
Second episode: Embedded above
Third episode: Sunday, Dec. 11, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Fourth episode: Sunday, Dec. 18, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN

Follow @NicholasMendola

MLS Cup Final preview: Seattle, Toronto battle subzero temps for first Cup

Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley walks off the field after a training session, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016, in Toronto, for the MLS Cup soccer championship. Toronto hosts the Seattle Sounders on Saturday. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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  • First MLS Cup Final for both
  • Sounders all-time 7W-2L-2T
  • TFC joined in 2007, Seattle 2009

It’ll be in the high twenties (-1 Celsius) when Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders kick off the MLS Cup Final on Saturday night in Ontario (Kickoff is Saturday at 8 p.m. EDT).

Combine the visible breath and slight chance of snow with a BMO Field which has been relentlessly loud throughut TFC’s playoff run, and we have the makings of an all-timer.

[ MORE: PST’s MLS Cup roundtable ]

Toronto and Seattle met up at the same venue on July 2, the 1-1 draw perhaps a bit deflated by the absence of Clint Dempsey for Seattle and TFC’s American duo of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.

Seattle superstar Nicolas Lodeiro wasn’t there, either, still weeks away from arriving from Boca Juniors.

This is the second MLS Cup Final at BMO Field, after Colorado defeated FC Dallas in 2010. TFC men Drew Moor and Clint Irwin were part of the championship-winning Rapids in that one.

Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris greets fans who gathered to send off the team after MLS soccer training, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Tukwila, Wash. The Sounders were scheduled to travel to Toronto later Wednesday to prepare to face Toronto FC in the MLS Cup Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Seattle’s Jordan Morris (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

[ MORE: PST’s Michael Bradley interview ]

Toronto will bring star power to go with a challenging formation; While accolades rightly go to Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Sebastian Giovinco, the Reds’ 3-5-2 under Greg Vanney features versatile wide men in Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow.

Seattle is powered through Nicolas Lodeiro, the ex-Boca Juniors playmaker who has been nearly as effective as Giovinco (albeit with a smaller MLS sample size). Goalkeeper Stefan Frei, the ex-TFC man, has been very good at the back, but can the Sounders’ back line handle Altidore and Giovinco?

The metronomes could be the difference. Bradley’s been good for TFC, but Osvaldo Alonso gave an MLS MVP caliber performance this season.

[ MORE: PST talks with Ozzie Alonso ]

What they’re saying

Toronto FC keeper Irwin on the weather: “It’s probably the most difficult part. As a field player, you can move around. You’re warmer, more active. At this point, there’s not much we can do other than bundle up, and I’ll stay moving back there.”

Seattle forward Jordan Morris on Lodeiro“The first thing Lodeiro said to me is, ‘When I get the ball, you just run.’ I think of him like a quarterback.”

Prediction

Look to the engine rooms here. Alonso is a handful and a magnificent passer of the ball. On his day, Bradley is even better. Will it be? Neither player will shirk from pressure. We’re thinking extra time after a 1-1 match. And Toronto’s depth and home field will propel it to a 2-1 win.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Premier League Preview: Leicester City vs. Manchester City

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 29:  Bacary Sagna of Manchester City clears the ball from Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester City at The King Power Stadium on December 29, 2015 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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  • Man City leads all-time 53W-29D-28L
  • Leicester took 4 of 6 pts last season
  • MCFC won previous four

To cure what ails, Leicester City has to knock off one of the top contenders to its Premier League throne: Manchester City (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. EDT Saturday on NBC and NBCSports.com).

There are some advantages for Leicester, though, as Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero are suspended for their red cards picked up the loss to Chelsea. Pep Guardiola used Pablo Zabaleta next to Fernando in the UCL draw with Celtic, and looks set for the same come Saturday.

Leicester rested the majority of its starters in a 5-0 loss at Porto this week, following up a 2-1 setback at Sunderland that left the champs just two points ahead of the 18th and 19th placed clubs in the PL.

What they’re saying

Leicester boss Claudio Ranieri on the task at hand: “I was waiting for a period like this. Now it’s important to react with a big effort together from the team. That is my focus now. We have to be focused on these matches until Christmas Day. We have to get points. We need points and we have to fight. This part of the season is our key moment. I think every match gives us an opportunity. We have to fight. I repeat, we have to fight.”

Man City’s Pep Guardiola on Zabaleta’s positional change“But I think Pablo Zabaleta can play in the middle – he is very experienced and he can play there as he did very well against Celtic. I think in the last years of his career he’ll play more in the middle and it gives us another option.”

Prediction

As much as the injuries hurt Man City, there’s certain harm in the wounded unit that fell 3-1 to Chelsea. We believe the Foxes will strike, but Kelechi Iheanacho has proven more than a suitable fill-in for Aguero. Man City 2-1.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks – Week 15

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Week 15 of the Premier League is here.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Click play on the videos below to hear my score prediction and preview of each game.

[ VIDEO: Previews of every PL game – Week 15 ]

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Chelsea 3-0 West Brom – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Liverpool 4-1 West Ham – (Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Leicester City 1-3 Man City – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

Arsenal 2-0 Stoke City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Swansea City 2-3 Sunderland – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]

Watford 0-1 Everton – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Burnley 1-2 Bournemouth – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Southampton 1-1 Middlesbrough – (Sunday, 9:15 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Man United 1-2 Tottenham – (Sunday, 9:15 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Hull City 2-1 Crystal Palace – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]