MLS Season Preview: San Jose Earthquakes

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Injuries, a shaky defense and some plain bad luck sent the San Jose Earthquakes crashing down in 2013, sliding down from the team that won the Supporters’ Shield in 2012 to a team that couldn’t even make the playoffs last season. But, provided the team hasn’t actually been cursed, it’s highly unlikely 2014 will be as disappointing for Quakes fans.

Why? They’ve got their new head coach locked down for the season. The side is healthy. Sensible, strong acquisitions were made since the start of the 2013 season. The defensive holes have been mended. And really, just how much bad luck can one team attract?

After scoring 27 goals in 2012, Chris Wondolowski scored just 11 last season, primarily due to playing most of the year with a broken toe. He’s back to health, as are Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon, so the goals should be coming more freely – particularly if Lenhart has learned to control his temper.

On the other end, bringing in Clarence Goodson midway through last season proved to be one of San Jose’s smartest moves, strengthening the defense to the point where the Quakes conceded just 10 times in their last 14 games. And with Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi now on board, Sam Cronin doesn’t need to spend quite as much time covering for the disappointing Rafael Baca, and can be more effective in his role as defensive midfielder.

LATEST MLS 2014 SEASON PREVIEWS, HERE

Players In: Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi (Discovery); Atiba Harris (Trade with Colorado); Billy Schuler (Weighted lottery); Tommy Thompson ( Homegrown); Bryan Meredith (Free); J.J. Koval (SuperDraft); Shaun Francis, Brandon Barklage (Re-Entry Stage 2)

Players Out: Ramiro Corrales (Retired); Nana Attakora, Dan Gargan, Marcus Tracy, Evan Newton, Peter McGlynn, Cesar Diaz Pizzaro (Option declined); Mehdi Ballouchy (Out of contract); Jaime Alas (Loan expired); Rafael Baca (Transfer to Cruz Azul); Justin Morrow (Trade to Toronto); Marvin Chávez (Trade to Colorado); Steven Beitashour (Trade to Vancouver); David Bingham, Sam Garza (Loan to San Antonio)

Key Player: Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi

source: AP
Can Pierazzi provide the missing link for San Jose?

Yes, it would be easy to put Wondolowski here. But we know what he can bring to a side when fully fit: goals, goals, and more goals. He will bother defenders and even create chances. But he, alone, cannot pull the Quakes out of the mire.

Enter Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi. The central midfielder, about at his prime at age 28, began his professional career with AC Ajaccio in 2006 and has been with the French club ever since. He’s not going to be a goalscorer (he’s had just two goals in his career) but Pierazzi is the man that San Jose are hoping can help with ball distribution in the center of the field. If he’s as good as they hope at winning the ball and getting it out wide to spark an attack, then calling him “key” is no exaggeration.

Manager: Mark Watson, who took over the reins as interim manager when Frank Yallop departed last June, was appointed as the Quakes head coach in October. He’s been with the team since 2010, when he came on as assistant coach. Watson earned his promotion by righting the sinking ship, patching up the defense to go unbeaten in the last seven games of the season. Plus, he must get some credit – and some adoration from the fans – for steering his side to a comeback win over the LA Galaxy, just a few weeks after taking over as head coach.

Outlook: If luck is on San Jose’s side, they’ll certainly have a much brighter season in 2014. The midfield’s been strengthened, the defense sorted out, and if Wondo can stay healthy, there’s no reason to think the Quakes won’t make an impression in the West. It may not be another Supporters’ Shield season, but they should easily make the playoffs.

Club World Cup wrap: Gremio reaches final, Urawa takes fifth place

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One half of this year’s FIFA Club World Cup final was decided on Tuesday as Brazilian side Gremio topped Liga MX champions Pachuca.

Second-half substitute Everton proved to be the difference for the Brazilians, with the attacker scoring in extra time to lift Gremio.

[ MORE: LA FC selects Urena, four others in MLS Expansion Draft ]

Pachuca’s chances of completing a comeback were extinguished with 10 minutes remaining in extra time, as Víctor Guzman was sent off upon picking up his second yellow card of the semifinal.

Meanwhile, Japanese side Urawa Red Diamonds captured fifth place in the tournament after narrowly topping Wydad Casablanca, 3-2.

Despite going behind early, Urawa responded almost immediately in the first half, before building its lead to 3-1 at the hour mark.

A late penalty kick from Reda Hajhouj gave Casablanca a glimmer of hope in the dying moments, however, the Moroccan-based club couldn’t find a way to equalize.

Gremio will await either La Liga giants Real Madrid or Al Jazira in the Club World Cup final, which will be played on Saturday. The loser of that match will take on Pachuca in the third-place game.

Below are the scores from Tuesday’s FIFA Club World Cup matches.

Gremio 1-0 Pachuca (after extra time)

Wydad Casablanca 2-3 Urawa Red Diamonds — Fifth-place match

LAFC selects Urena, 4 others in MLS Expansion Draft

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Los Angeles FC selected five players in the MLS Expansion Draft, including Costa Rican national team star Marco Urena.

Whether they’ll make their way to the City of Angels is another story.

The first pick from general manager John Thorrington was goalkeeper Tyler Miller from Seattle Sounders.

[ MORE: Benitez on NUFC struggles ]

Going next was Latif Blessing from Sporting KC, an electric attacker who netted thrice with an assist last season.

Next was Urena from San Jose and the Costa Rican national team, a huge addition, and then Columbus left back Jukka Raitala before closing up the draft with Raheem Edwards from Toronto FC.

LAFC has already announced the signings or acquisitions of Carlos Vela, Walker Zimmerman, Carlos Alvarez, Monday Etim, and Guillermo Vizcarra.

The club will also loan Omar Gaber from Basel and Rodrigo Pacheco from Lanus.

WATCH LIVE: Three Premier League matches

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Chelsea visits the John Smith’s Stadium to face Huddersfield Town in one of three Premier League fixtures this chilly Tuesday in December (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The Blues are now 14 points back of Manchester City, and three points clear of fifth place.

Meanwhile there are a pair of matches on NBC Sports Gold: Burnley looks to keep pace with its Top Four ambitions when it hosts struggling Stoke City, while in-form Crystal Palace seeks a home win that would move it out of the drop zone. In its way? Dangerous, attack-minded Watford.

Burnley vs. Stoke City — 2:45 p.m. ET [ STREAM ]

Huddersfield Town vs. Chelsea — 3 p.m. ET [ STREAM ]

Crystal Palace vs. Watford — 3 p.m. ET [ STREAM ]

FIFA bans Colombia midfielder Cardona 5 games for gesture

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ZURICH (AP) FIFA has banned Colombia midfielder Edwin Cardona for five matches for making a discriminatory gesture with his eyes toward a South Korean opponent.

FIFA will allow Cardona to serve the ban in friendly games, so he should be available for Colombia’s World Cup opener against Japan on June 19.

[ MORE: Pep on post-derby celebrations ]

Cardona has also been fined 20,000 Swiss francs ($20,150) because of the incident last month in a friendly in Seoul.

Cardona apologized at the time, saying he “didn’t mean to disrespect anyone, a country or a race, but if anyone felt offended, or interpreted it in that way, I am sorry.”