MLS Season Preview: Columbus Crew

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Two straight playoff-less seasons have the Columbus Crew staring at a repeat of their worst stretch in franchise history, the three seasons from 2005-07 that saw them out of the postseason. Yet attendance was up in 2013 and there’s a new boss in town in Gregg Berhalter.

There have been rumors of a three-man back line for Berhalter, who will be running a club that features some familiarity with the return of dynamic attackers Dominic Oduro and Federico Higuain. But there’s also significant turnover with fixtures like Chad Marshall skipping town and Eddie Gaven retiring.

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Higuain

Players in: Michael Parkhurst (FC Augsburg), Daniel Paladini (trade with Chicago), Matt Wiet (Homegrown player), Waylon Francis (Herediano), Brad Stuyver (unattached), Steve Clark (Honefoss BK), Hector Jimenez (Los Angeles), Giancarlo Gonzalez (Valerenga).

Players out: Chad Marshall (trade to Seattle), Andy Gruenebaum (trade to Sporting KC), Glauber (option declined), Eddie Gaven (retired), Danny O’Rourke (option declined), Konrad Warzycha (option declined)

Key player: Waylon Francis

Who? Well, firstly, let me admit that the easy answers were Higuain, Oduro and Parkhurst… but there’s something very interesting about Francis, the left back from Costa Rica comes to Columbus from CONCACAF Champions League side Herediano. At age 23, he has plenty of experience and should add a dynamic aspect to the left side of the Crew’s attack. Will he adapt instantly and show the form that got him noticed in the States?

source: APManager: Berhalter comes to Columbus with the lofty distinction of being among the first Americans to manage a European club, Hammarby IF in Sweden’s second flight. His record there was a modest 18W-12L-16T as he engineered a rise to 4th place in the second flight Superettan but was fired in July 2013 for a lack of firepower.

He’s already managed to ruffle some feathers with willingness to be quite open with at least one personnel issue, and time will tell whether this was a blip on the radar or a significant issue.

Outlook: Lot of questions here that extend beyond the Crew’s new manager. Will Francis be as dynamic in MLS as Costa Rica? Was Parkhurst’s lack of playing time in Germany a matter of coaching or form? Is Clark’s transfer from Norway’s top flight, where he started for two seasons, the answer to their goalkeeping quandary, or will it be another Crew member to steady the ship? There’s a lot to answer here, and plenty of excitement that comes along with the hiring of Berhalter. Can the Crew make the playoffs in 2014? I wouldn’t bet on it, but if the team gels quickly and they hit on their personnel moves, they may just squeak in.

Manchester derby “the game of the season”

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Whatever way you slice it up, Thursday’s Manchester derby is huge.

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Manchester City host Manchester United (Watch, 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at the Etihad Stadium with Pep Guardiola‘s side just one point ahead of United in the Premier League table.

City currently occupy fourth spot and the final UEFA Champions League qualification berth but are coming off the back of a damaging FA Cup semifinal defeat to Arsenal after extra time.

United and Jose Mourinho haven’t lost in 23 Premier League games, the longest current unbeaten streak across Europe’s top five leagues, and are in the UEFA Europa League semifinals as their banged up squad have stood tall in the final months of the campaign.

Speaking ahead of the derby, one of United’s stars this season believes everything comes down to this one game.

“It is going to be the game of the season,” Ander Herrera said. “We are one point behind them. If we win we have the chance to finish in the top four, if they win it is going to be very difficult. It is the game of the season.

“Make or break? Probably. Both teams are in a good moment so if one of us wins the game we are not going to lose a lot of games, or make mistakes after that. Us or them. It is going to be key. I don’t know the ‘winner takes all’ expression but it is going to be a massive game. We are in a very good moment, a very good run and we respect them but we are doing a lot of good things and we have to show it on Thursday.”

Herrera’s comments say it all.

It is fair to say that both Manchester clubs have flattered to deceive for much of this season with Guardiola’s tactics yet to flourish in England and Mourinho’s rebuild hampered by injuries and a lack of goals at crucial moments.

On Thursday there will be a raucous atmosphere at the Etihad as both teams are aware of what is at stake.

More of the pressure may well be on City who now have just a place in the top four to focus on and with many previously giving United no chance of finishing in the top four, a win at City would take them above their “noisy neighbors” and into the UCL spots.

Former Czech Republic defender Rajtoral kills himself

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PRAGUE (AP) Former Czech Republic defender Frantisek Rajtoral, who won the domestic league title four times before joining Turkish club Gaziantepspor, died on Sunday. He was 31.

[ MORE: Bayern scouted Kyle Walker, Alex Sanchez this weekend ]

The Czech football federation said in a statement that Rajtoral had “committed suicide in Turkey.”

His agent Pavel Zika confirmed the player’s death, describing it as a “huge tragedy.”

Gaziantepspor announced Rajtoral’s death in a brief statement on its website.

Rajtoral played 14 international matches for the Czech Republic.

In the top Czech league, he won four titles with Viktoria Plzen and played in the group stage of the Champions League twice for the club. He moved to Hannover in the Bundesliga in 2014 for half of the season, on loan.

He left Viktoria Plzen last year to move to Turkey.

Bellerin wants to represent Spain U21s despite Wenger’s wishes

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Arsene Wenger has made it clear about Hector Bellerin representing Spain this summer but the Arsenal defender is prepared to go against his manager’s wishes if he is selected.

[ MORE: Bayern scouted Kyle Walker, Alexis Sanchez over the weekend ]

The 22-year-old has said he hopes to play for Spain’s Under-21 side this summer during the 2017 European U-21 Championship but Wenger has been weary of Bellerin’s injury status and wants his fullback to maintain a clean bill of health throughout the offseason.

“I really want to play,” Bellerin told IBTimes. “Representing Spain is very important. If [Albert] Celades gives me the chance I’ll be there.

“Those are opinions of the managers. I have to keep working. The truth is that I had a difficult injury but I think that I am at 100% now and I’ll try to prove it when I get the chance.”

Bellerin signed a six-and-a-half year deal with the Gunners in November, where he has resided since coming up in the club’s academy. He has made 102 appearances for Wenger’s team in that span over all competitions.

Roma boosts bid for 2nd in Serie A by beating Pescara 4-1

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PESCARA, Italy (AP) Roma boosted its bid for second place in Serie A and automatic entry into the Champions League with a 4-1 win at Pescara, which was mathematically relegated on Monday.

[ MORE: Newcastle joins Brighton in promotion to Premier League ]

Roma moved four points clear of third-placed Napoli, which drew against Sassuolo 2-2 on Sunday. Third place in Serie A receives a Champions League playoff.

Pescara remained 15 points behind Empoli. There are only five matches left and Empoli has the better head-to-head record, which is the deciding factor if two teams finish level on points.

There were 48 goals in total in the 33rd round, matching the record set in October 1992.

Roma took control shortly before halftime, with Kevin Strootman breaking the deadlock after Stephan El Shaarawy unselfishly rolled the ball across the area.

Radja Nainggolan, who earlier hit the bar, doubled Roma’s lead two minutes later.

Mohamed Salah extended Roma’s advantage three minutes after the break and the winger doubled his tally on the hour following a swift counterattack.

Ahmad Benali got a consolation for Pescara and a Cristiano Biraghi free kick also hit the post for the home side.