ChicagoFire

MLS Season Preview: Chicago Fire

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The 2014 MLS MVP is back, their coach is not.

While Mike Magee and his strike partner return for a full season to pump in the goals, there is much change behind them.

Missing out on the playoffs by a tiebreaker last season hurt for sure, but the Fire had plenty of chances to grab that postseason spot, and they just couldn’t come up with the final answers.

One thing that hurt the Fire last season was their horrendous start, with just seven points through their first 10 games.  Over that span, they were shut out six times and conceded 16 goals. But of course, they didn’t have Mike Magee.

With a reshaped defense and a few key pieces gone, new coach Frank Yallop has plenty of work to do right off the bat to get the club off to a better start.

Players in: Patrick Ianni (trade from Seattle), Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (trade from Seattle), Lovel Palmer (trade from Seattle), Kyle Reynish (transfer, NY Cosmos), Harrison Shipp (homegrown, Notre Dame), Chris Ritter (homegrown, Northwestern), Giuseppe Gentile (waiver draft, UNC Charlotte), Benji Joya (weighted lottery – loan, Santos Laguna).

Players out: Jalil Anibaba (traded to Seattle), Austin Berry (traded to Philadelphia), Daniel Paladini (traded to Columbus), Paolo Tornaghi (waived), Brendan King (waived), Kellen Gulley (waived), Shaun Francis (released), Wells Thompson (released), Arevalo Rios (option declined), Michael Videira (option declined), Maicon (option declined), Corben Bone (option declined).

LATEST 2014 MLS SEASON PREVIEWS, RIGHT HERE

Key Player: Mike Magee

Shocker! The reigning MVP is your key player! While it’s clear that Magee is by far the most valuable and important single player on the team, the success of this club depends on much more than just their main man up front.

source: AP
The ability of Mike Magee to repeat his MVP form is going to be crucial to the Fire’s success in 2014.

Magee will be again supported by Patrick Nyarko at the front, with relief coming from Juan Anangono and Chris Rolfe. The Fire also picked up Guiseppe Gentile and Benji Joya in the offseason, and the two will add to the strike options for Chicago.  While it’s not the most star-studded attack outside of Magee, it’s a deep one, and that should help offset any possible issues at the back.

Speaking of at the back, there’s a saga developing at the back in the recent weeks. With the departure of Jalil Anibaba in the trade to Seattle, the defense has been completely shaken up, and Magee will have to offset the learning curve that comes with a crowded new back line.  The team also sent Austin Berry away to Philadelphia for allocation money, seeing a total of 6,109 minutes from last season out the door.

With Anibaba and Berry gone, coming in the other direction is Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni, a pair of center-backs who will battle for playing time alongside Bacary Soumare.

For what it’s worth, the Fire conceded just a single goal in their five preseason games, and the partnership of Soumare and Hurtado picked up the starts in their two most recent matches and played 106 minutes together.

Another important name we can’t leave off the list is Jeff Larentowicz, who will man the space just in front of the new center-back pairing, whatever it happens to be.  Often last season the 30-year-old Pasadena product played alongside a DM partner, but with Daniel Paladini gone and the midfield thin, he could be roaming the defensive middle by himself behind Benji Joya and Dilly Duka.

Manager: Frank Yallop is Chicago’s man. Coming over from San Jose, the Watford-born 49-year-old has seven prior years in Major League Soccer, and as far as league experience and accolades go, he’s got it all.

source: AP
Despite inheriting a formidable squad, Frank Yallop still has to cope with chemistry issues and get his team off to a better star than last year’s opening debacle.

Unfortunately, arguably the biggest knock on Yallop’s resume is the 2007 season with the Galaxy, failing to make the playoffs due to a squad with plenty of turnover.

That will be the challenge Yallop faces this season.  Thankfully for him, the front of his formation remains mostly intact, and he takes over a squad that boasts the reigning league MVP.  The defense has plenty of question marks, but it’s still experienced and has had a very promising preseason.

Yallop’s credentials are without question, and as far as head coaching openings go the Fire one was very attractive, but there remains work to be done, and with a pretty solid squad to boast, much of it rests on the coach to make sure everyone plays at their optimal level.

Outlook: This team could surprise. If they can recreate last year’s attacking form around Mike Magee, the top of the table squads are in for a surprise when the match up against the Fire.

The biggest questions will be with the turnover in defense.  With so many minutes from last season lost, it remains to be seen how the back line will gel (Yallop said it could get “a little disjointed”).  If the preseason is any indication, and the selected starters don’t need much – if any – time to find their form, the Fire could find themselves near the top.  However, there is much to prove and they begin the season as favorites in a battle for the final playoff spots.

The start to the season is crucial for Frank Yallop. They play three of their first four fixtures on the road, and take on a spectrum of opponents.  If the Fire can get through games against Portland and New York unscathed and take advantage of last year’s basement dwellers Chivas and DC United, the Fire can set themselves up for a strong season.

FIFA candidate Prince Ali claims voting pledge from Liberia

Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, flanked by school-age soccer players in uniforms, speaks before about 300 guests during an event at a Roman amphitheater in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. The prince is running for FIFA president, saying Wednesday he will fight "deep-seated corruption and political deal-making" and make soccer's scandal-scarred governing body more transparent. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali of Jordan says the Liberia soccer federation has pledged its vote to him.

Liberia follows Egypt as the second African voter claimed by Prince Ali since the Confederation of African Football’s leadership endorsed Asian confederation president Sheikh Salman of Bahrain on Friday.

The CAF executive committee urged the 54 African voters among FIFA’s 209-strong membership to back the sheikh in the Feb. 26 election.

Prince Ali’s campaign team on Saturday published a three-page letter of endorsement signed by Liberia federation president Musa Bility.

Bility writes that Prince Ali “represents real change” while other candidates are “not even prepared to criticize” the FIFA system.

Bility was himself an applicant in the presidential contest, then failed an integrity test judged by FIFA’s election monitoring committee.

LVG says Mourinho speculation is false, calls the whole thing “nonsense”

Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho, center left, makes his way from the opposition dugout after greeting Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, centre right, during their English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Sunday Oct. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Louis Van Gaal is sick and tired of the media speculating about his employment (or potential lack thereof), as well as reports linking the presently unemployed Jose Mourinho to his job, so what we’re going to do now is speculate on those reports a bit more.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

But first, we’ll give Van Gaal the chance to tell his side of the story. Who better to explain what’s going on at Manchester United than the manager of Man United, right? OK, Louis, take it away, mate — quotes from the Guardian:

“The last two months have been very difficult for my wife, my kids, my grandchildren and my friends to cope with. For me too, but I can cope. In the Netherlands they know I am too arrogant to doubt myself, but I also know that such a nonsense is being created about me. I do not believe that there is already a relationship between José Mourinho and Manchester United.”

“It is logical when you have lost four matches in a row, people are bound to be doubting. … I criticize the media for inventing stories. I never hired security. Never ever. And I am walking on the streets without security and all the people I meet are very positive.”

OK, now that that’s out of the way, Jose Mourinho is definitely talking to Manchester United, or someone is doing so on his behalf. There’s arguably never been a more sitting-duck manager in world football than Van Gaal is right now — not only have the results been extremely “meh” for nearly two seasons now, but he’s also got less than 18 months left on his contract, which means it would cost the club considerably less to make him go away than, say, David Moyes, who still had more than five years(!!!) left on his deal when he was fired in April of his first season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Also, they were totally in for Pep Guardiola, too, and since they didn’t get him, they’ll have to respond thusly, and since Carlo Ancelotti has already been named Guardiola’s successor at Bayern Munich, Mourinho is the last “big name” out there right now. Unless, of course, they wanted to tap up Manuel Pellegrini, who’s on his way out to make room for Guardiola. Could be fun. But not as fun as Jose back in the Premier League, at Man United, in the same city with Pep. Remember the last time those two were employed on opposite sides of a heated rivalry?

As spectacular as this year’s PL season has been — and it’s bordering on the best of all time, still with 13 weeks to go — think about what that means for next season. It’s going to have be even more bonkers, so as not to seem boring by comparison. Louis van Gaal seems like a nice enough guy, but his team’s football isn’t that exciting on the field, and he offers little more off it. Mourinho isn’t the hero we deserve, but he’s certainly the one we need.

Another one: Lavezzi the latest star set for the riches of China

Paris Saint Germain's Ezequiel Lavezzi form Argentina, celebrates the opening goal during a French league one soccer match between Paris-Saint-Germain and Rennes at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Paris Saint Germain clinhed its second straight French league title on Wednesday after rival Monaco drew 1-1 against French Cup holder Guingamp. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
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The list just keeps growing; Ezequiel Lavezzi, he of Paris Saint-Germain and Argentine national team fame, is the latest star leaving Europe behind with the Chinese Super League his next stop, according to multiple reports Saturday night.

[ MORE: The latest transfer news and gossip ]

Linked with a move to Premier League side Chelsea during the recently completed January transfer window, a move away from PSG never materialized for the 30-year-old. Not on the European continent, at least.

Now, the former Napoli, San Lorenzo and Estudiantes (Argentina) attacker is set for Shanghai Shenhua, where he’ll reportedly take home something in the $11-to-15-million-per-year ballpark. When you can somehow get a raise from your current deal with a Qatar Sports Investments-owned club… well, I guess you’d be dumb not to do it.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

It was already pretty well known Lavezzi would be leaving the French capital in 2016, but when his tenure survived through much of Europe’s winter window, it seemed he would hang around until the expiration of his current contract before moving elsewhere on a free transfer.

Then came the monstrous windfall of cash into and subsequent spending by CSL clubs over the last two weeks; Lavezzi joins the likes of Ramires, Gervinho, Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixeira, Demba Ba and Fredy Guarin, among others, to move to China for massive annual salaries. At Shenhua, Lavezzi will play alongside Ba and Guarin, as well as former Everton and New York Red Bulls man Tim Cahill, who made the move to China last year.

The CSL’s transfer window doesn’t close until Feb. 26, so the spending spree may well go on a little while long.

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Atleti bounce back to keep pressure on Barca

Atletico's Jose Maria Gimenez, right, celebrates after scoring a goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico de Madrid and Eibar at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights:

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Atletico Madrid 3-1 Eibar

The race for the La Liga title isn’t over quite yet — though Barcelona are overwhelmingly favorites at the moment — and Atletico Madrid will have to keep winning, with just about no room for error, to keep it that way. On Saturday, they did just that by defending their home turf, to the tune of a 3-1 victory over Eibar.

Keko put the visitors ahead in the 46th minute, but Jose Gimenez quickly opened the scoring for Atleti and equalized on 56 minutes. Saul Niguez made it 2-1 to Atleti seven minutes later, and Fernando Torres’ 100th career goal (below video) gave Los Rojiblancos a bit of insurance in the first minute of second-half stoppage time. With the victory, Atleti are level on 51 points with Barca, but the Catalan giants have two games in hand on Madrid’s “other” team, the first of which they’ll play on Sunday.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Rayo Vallecano 2-0 Las Palmas
Athletic Bilbao 0-0 Villarreal
Sporting Gijon 1-1 Deportivo La Coruña

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Levante vs. Barcelona (6 a.m. ET)
Real Betis vs. Valencia (10 a.m. ET)
Celta Vigo vs. Sevilla (12:15 p.m. ET)
Granada vs. Real Madrid (2:30 p.m. ET)


Bologna 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina have left the door wide open for Inter Milan to re-enter the top three — and UEFA Champions League-qualifying — places with a 1-1 draw away to Bologna. The Viola finished the game with 10 men after Matias Fernandez was sent off for two yellow cards 10 minutes apart either side of halftime.

Their opening goal, which gave them the lead in the 59th minute, was beautifully worked and wonderfully taken by Federico Bernardeschi (below video). It was quickly canceled out, though, as Emanuele Giaccherini equalized four minutes later to earn a point and strengthen Bologna’s hold on 10th place in the league table.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Genoa 0-0 Lazio

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Hellas Verona vs. Inter Milan (6:30 a.m. ET)
Napoli vs. Carpi (9 a.m. ET)
Torino vs. Chievo (9 a.m. ET)
Frosinone vs. Juventus (9 a.m. ET)
Sassuolo vs. Palermo (9 a.m. ET)
AC Milan vs. Udinese (9 a.m. ET)
Atalanta vs. Empoli (12 p.m. ET)
Roma vs. Sampdoria (2:45 p.m. ET)