MLS Season Preview: Toronto FC

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How will Toronto FC follow-up the shiniest offseason in Major League Soccer since David Beckham signed with Los Angeles?

That’s the major question ahead of the Reds as their now-star-studded roster prepares for a playoff push in 2014 with their sights higher, at within reason, than ever before.

If you missed what went down this winter — there’s a solid documentary on the web — the club managed to add arguably the United States national team’s most important player (Michael Bradley), a prolific Premier League striker (Jermain Defoe) and a former UEFA Club Goalkeeper of the Year (Julio Cesar).

And yes, we’ve made it this far without mentioning the return of franchise leading scorer and Canada’s most famous player, Dwayne De Rosario.

Wow.

LATEST MLS 2014 SEASON PREVIEWS, HERE

source: AP
A new era is being ushered in at TFC, Bradley is delighted to be part of it.

Players in: Bradley (signed from AS Roma), Defoe (signed from Tottenham Hotspur), Cesar (loan from QPR), De Rosario (re-entry draft), Bradley Orr (loan from Blackburn Rovers), Gilberto (signed from Internacional), Jackson (trade with FC Dallas), Justin Morrow (trade with San Jose).

Players out: Stefan Frei (rights traded to Seattle), Matias Laba (loan to Vancouver), Danny Koeverman (out of contract), Robert Earnshaw (option declined), Jonas Elmer (released), Richard Eckersley (traded to NYRB), Bobby Convey (traded to NYRB), Darel Russell (option declined), Michael Thomas (option declined), Justin Braun (out of contract)

Key player: Michael Bradley

I’d like to apologize to all the other writers on staff who had a more difficult task in choosing a key player, as TFC’s massive money man will unquestionably be the key to its success in 2014. Frankly, it would be shocking if the bulldog of a midfielder isn’t immediately a Top Five player in the league, regardless of any perceived adjustment period.

He’ll have weapons at his disposal and Bradley won’t even turn 27 until after this summer’s World Cup in Brazil (By the way, TFC is reasonably equipped to deal with his absence for the Earth’s biggest tournament).

source:  Manager: Ryan Nelsen enters his second year in charge of the Reds after a tough 7W-11D-18L campaign, and the roster turnover isn’t shocking for anyone paying attention to the way he ran his ship in 2013. There were plenty of whispers that Nelsen had to rearrange the club’s entire on-field ethos and training habits, almost like a college coach taking over and needing to “get back to basics.” This will be a year to actually judge the New Zealand legend and he certainly shouldn’t mind that the massive influx of talent will shift the expectations to his managerial skill.

OutlookBright, even with the season-ending injury to depth forward Dike. As TFC prepares to take BMO Field to the next level, their team should be there in plenty of time for the enhanced facility’s completion. In terms of team selection, the Reds have plenty of choices and the addition of Orr shores up one of their biggest holes. They’ll have Cesar and Joe Bendik battling it out for net time and Steven Caldwell anchoring the back line while Bradley orchestrates the attacking, spraying the ball to any number of options.

Keep in mind the Miami Heat corollary — it could take some time for so many stars from so many backgrounds to find their role — but by the time TFC is rolling along, a playoff spot will be certain… and CN Tower beware, because the sky is the limit.

Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho saga

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In a time of heightening player control in a rapidly expanding transfer market, one club sticks out as grasping a clear understanding of the shifting business landscape and how to retain its grip on its most valuable assets.

Following the sudden departure of superstar playmaker Neymar, Barcelona is trying desperately to pry Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool. On Friday, numerous reports in England claimed that Barcelona had gone in with a third bid, one even more ridiculous than the previous two. But they’re fighting a losing battle.

For a number of reasons, the Reds hold complete control over Philippe Coutinho’s transfer saga, a saga that will likely end with no transfer having been completed.

First and foremost, Coutinho just recently signed a contract extension in January that runs through 2022. As far as we know, there is no release clause in the deal, meaning at the most basic of levels, Liverpool maintains contractual control. However, as we’ve seen the past few years, that alone hasn’t stopped a number of players forcing their way out.

Yet this time, Liverpool finds itself in an advantageous position outside of just the contract. With the 2018 World Cup right around the corner, the Reds know that should they force Coutinho to stay, he is obligated to play at his best, knowing that any less would see him miss out on a spot in the packed Brazil roster, or at the least a starting position. Thus, Liverpool can be sure that even if their denial of his departure renders him despondent, he will likely remain the quality player he has proven to be.

The money Barcelona is offering – a whopping $151 million according to the most recent reports – is indeed a ludicrous amount for a player who, while quality, does not have nearly the marketability of his countrymate now residing in Paris. On talent alone, Coutinho likely isn’t worth that total, meaning Liverpool should sell. And yet, even with that cash in hand, in this hyper-inflated market where more is less, could it really do justice in replacing his impact in the club? This late in the transfer window, there’s no chance they could replace the 25-year-old, meaning they’d likely be torpedoing their entire season – Champions League included – to feel the warmth of $151 million burning a hole in their pocket until January, or even next summer.

Liverpool has built its entire roster around Coutinho. The arrival of Salah, the use of Firmino, the wide deployment of Mane, the makeup of the midfield. He’s good enough and young enough to be considered a “franchise player.” In two games without Coutinho this season, they’ve scored five goals, but that is a poor metric to describe the 180 wild minutes. The money alone isn’t worth the cost of his departure.

It’s quite possible that Barcelona’s stubbornness, brought on by the sudden loss of a beloved player and the meteoric rise of their rivals to all-time greatness, could see the Catalans come back with an even more preposterous bid. It’s true every player has a value, and at some point, should Barcelona’s blind rage see them flail wildly into the transfer window, the Reds should sell, and will. But with Fenway Sports Group not in dire need of cash and in an advantageous position, in all likelihood they won’t. Barcelona can throw all the Neymar money at Liverpool their heart desires, but nothing will force the Reds to budge.

Top 25 moments in Premier League history: 19-21

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To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Premier League we thought it would be great to count down our top 25 moments from a quarter of a century of action.

[ VIDEO: Top 25 moments in PL history ]

Each week we will release our best moments and you can keep track of the full list here.

Below are numbers 19-21 to as we continue our list.

(more…)

Premier League Preview: Stoke City vs. Arsenal

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  • Shkodran Mustafi, Francis Coquelin, Per Mertesacker all in line for season debuts.
  • The game will likely come too soon for Alexis Sanchez, who is still working to get to match fitness.
  • Stoke City have lost only one of their last seven home matches against Arsenal (W3 D3 L1).
  • Stoke City forward Jese Rodriguez could make his debut following his season-long loan move from Paris Saint-Germain.
  • Alexandre Lacazette could become the first Arsenal player to score in both of his opening two PL appearances for the club.

Coming off an exciting 4-3 comeback victory at home against Leicester City, Arsenal travel to what’s been in the past a house of horrors, visiting the bet365 Stadium to face Stoke City. (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. ET Friday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

[ MORE: Premier League stats ]

Three months ago, Arsenal ended some of the bad voodoo on them in Stoke with a 4-1 win on the road. This time around, the Gunners have even more firepower, with Alexandre Lacazette off to a strong start in the Premier League.

Stoke City, like Arsenal, are still getting comfortable in the in-vogue 3-4-3 formation, as well as getting used to life without Marko Arnautovic. Spanish forward Jese, a Real Madrid academy graduate, could make his season debut for Stoke on Saturday and summer signings Kurt Zouma, Bruno Martins Indi and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting will push American Geoff Cameron for a place in the team each week.

What they’re saying

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger on last year’s win at Stoke: “We were well-organized, efficient and under pressure to win the game. We were on a strong run as well. We had a convincing win there and that should inspire us. Traditionally it’s always been a difficult place to go for everybody, but of course we continue in a strong way our start to the season.

“I don’t believe in bogey teams too much. What is important is the performance on the day. We had a good performance last season and we have to focus on that, just to deal with the same performance. Stoke have a good record at home against many teams and I’m convinced that if we play our game, we have a good chance of winning.”

Stoke City manager Mark Hughes on this season’s new signings: “We are hoping to involve all the guys we have signed this summer, some will be on the bench, others won’t. We are very excited by the group that we are assembling to be honest.”

“We always aim to be stronger at the end of the window than we were at the beginning, and I would argue that of all the players that have left only one would have been considered as a regular starter. We have replaced those guys with players who I see as potential regular starters.”

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Prediction

Arsenal are clearly still a work in progress, but offensively they’re improved from a year ago. Stoke City on the other hand fell by a slim margin to Everton last week but have greatly improved defensively. We think it will be another defensive struggle, ending in a draw. Stoke City 1-1 Arsenal

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Crystal Palace

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  • Liverpool will still be without Philippe Coutinho due to a back injury.
  • Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne also miss out, but Daniel Sturridge is fit.
  • Crystal Palace has won three-straight games against Liverpool in the Premier League.
  • Both teams have scored in each of the last 10 meetings in all competitions between Liverpool and Crystal Palace, averaging 3.9 goals per match.

For the second-consecutive week, Liverpool will have to play without Philippe Coutinho, who is still missing with a back injury.

However, that didn’t seem to be an issue last week against Watford as Liverpool scored three goals, but it was the leaky defense that allowed Watford to score three goals themselves. (Watch live at 10:00 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Crystal Palace meanwhile also allowed three goals last week but couldn’t score any of its own as it was humbled, 3-0 to Huddersfield. Crystal Palace’s squad is still struggling to adjust to manager Frank De Boer‘s free-flowing style of play and Wilfried Zaha will miss Saturday’s encounter.

But working in Crystal Palace’s favor is Christian Benteke and the club’s three straight wins over Liverpool. It will surely be an open and exciting match at Anfield.

What they’re saying

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp on Crystal Palace: “We played Crystal Palace a few weeks ago. I’m not 100 per cent sure about the line-ups in that game, but Phil and Zaha were on the pitch and they will not be [this weekend]. I’m not sure if Adam played in this game, but that’s how it is…The only thing we know is it’s a tough game, probably both teams were not overly happy – we were not really disappointed about our first game, but it was how a first game can be, there are things to improve and it’s always like this, but even then we could’ve won which I think everybody knows.”

Crystal Palace manager Frank De Boer on his system of play: “I am not a manager who suddenly after a defeat decides to change things around and as I say I did see some very positive points so I am not going to change the system. We don’t need to use adapting to a change in style of our play as an excuse, it’s not so difficult and quite easy to play. The Premier League is so competitive that you have to work hard as a team to get a result because if you don’t you get punished. The players don’t want to use the new system as an excuse and I think everybody understands what we want but we have to execute it better.”

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Prediction

Liverpool’s centerback pair of Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren looked better midweek in the UEFA Champions League against Hoffenheim, but it’s another challenge to face Benteke and a motivated Crystal Palace team. Still, the speed of thought and pace on the field of Mo Salah and Sadio Mane should prove to be the difference. Liverpool 3-2 Crystal Palace