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MLS Preview: Colorado Rapids

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Four months after a surprise run to the Western Conference playoffs, Colorado has morphed from 2013’s feel good story to 2014’s mystery. The cause of all the drama: What’s going on with the team’s head coaching position. Óscar Pareja, the man trusted to bring a talented generation of Rapids players into the first team, bolted for FC Dallas, but not until after a fight that cast his future into a month of limbo. Even now, two months after Pareja was allowed to leave for Frisco, Colorado has no clear plan of succession, with recently retired former Rapid Pablo Mastroeni operating as the interim boss.

Thankfully for Colorado, that interim tag — one which has become the preseason’s dominant story — has done little to diminish the talent that helped the team transcend last year’s expectations. Though Honduran international Hendry Thomas followed Pareja to Dallas, Rookie of the Year Dillon Powers remains. Jamaican international Deshorn Brown, Panamanian Designated Player Gabi Torres, and former U.S. international Edson Buddle form a deep strike force supported by a former Schalke wide man Vicente Sanchez and offseason acquisition Martín Chávez. Drew Moor, Shane O’Neill, and Chris Klute underpin a defense more likely to improve than regress, with a year’s experience in goal sure to bolster 24-year-old Clint Irwin.

LATEST 2014 MLS SEASON PREVIEWS, RIGHT HERE

Players In: John Berner (draft), Marc Burch (re-entry draft), Martín Chávez (trade, San Jose), Carlos Eloundou (free agent), Marlon Hairston (draft), Joe Nasco (free agent), Grant Van De Casteele (draft), Jared Watts (draft)

Players Out: Diego Calderón (loan expired), Tony Cascio (loan, Houston), Jaime Castrillón (out of contract), Steward Ceus (option declined), Kevin Harbottle (released), Atiba Harris (trade, San Jose), Kory Kindle (return to college), German Mera (loan expired), Jamie Smith (retired), Martín Rivero (loan expired), Hendry Thomas (trade, Dallas), Anthony Wallace (out of contract)

Key player: Gabriel Torres

Colorado only had one player score more than five goals last season, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Deshorn Brown (10 goals) take a small step back in 2014. Finding a second person to provide goals could prove crucial, and while [insert permanent coach’s name here] will have Edson Buddle at their disposal, the franchise’s first Designated Player, Gabriel Torres, will be expected to pick up the slack.

The 25-year-old Panamanian will have plenty of chances to succeed. With Chávez, Powers, and Sanchez creating opportunities, Torres should be able to continue (if not improve on) last year’s pace: three goals in 507 regular season minutes. With Brown capable of complementing him as part of a tandem or from wide, Torres won’t be the sole focus of opposing defenses.

Even if Brown does take a step back, Colorado will be able to make up the goals.

Manager: The most common reaction to Pablo Mastroeni’s plight: Why don’t they just give him the job? The recent Rapids captain, a veteran on both the MLS and international stages, is highly respect. In a world where a new generation of former players is making waves as MLS coaches, Mastroeni’s would be a defensible hire, if not an outright perfect fit. The Rapids could certainly do worse than commit to a man who is as familiar with the Rapids as anybody who will suit up March 15 in New York.

The whole situation speaks to the degree the Rapids mismanaged Pareja’s departure. While its understandable why you’d want to keep a Coach of the Year-caliber boss from a conference rival, in the soccer world, it’s also unrealistic to hold on to people who don’t want to stay with your team. Combine that naiveté with a lack of a backup plan and you end up in Colorado’s current predicament.

MLS’s is a long season. In eight months, this will look like ancient history. But in a tight Western Conference, the small hiccups can matter. Just ask San Jose, who saw a slow start to the 2013 season drop them from Supporters’ Shield to out of the playoffs.

Outlook: Talent won’t be a problem for Colorado, and with no obvious candidates for regression, a return to 2012 shouldn’t be a worry, either. The bigger issue is whether the Rapids can keep up. Both San Jose and Vancouver have the talent to reclaim their 2012 playoff spots, with Dallas also harboring hopes their early 2013 form can play out over the entire 2014 season.

If the Rapids do stumble on account of their coaching situation — if Mastroeni doesn’t make a smooth transition from field to sidelines — it may be enough to drop Colorado into the West’s have nots.

VIDEO: Jeison Murillo’s incredible bicycle from a corner kick

MILAN, ITALY - JANUARY 17:  (R-L) Jeison Murillo of FC Internazionale celebrates his first goal with Geoffrey Kondogbia during the TIM Cup match between FC Internazionale and Bologna FC at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on January 17, 2017 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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Look away now, Andy Carroll. Take a bow, Jeison Murillo.

[ VIDEOS: All in a week’s work — Messi free kick no. 1 | Messi free kick no. 2 ]

Just three days after Carroll scored the bicycle-kick goal of the year (so we thought), here comes Murillo, Inter Milan’s 24-year-old Colombian striker, to steal his thunder (below video). The fact he did it directly from a corner kick, with the ball traveling nearly 50 yards before flinging his body into the air and striking the ball so cleanly, (somehow) trumps Carroll’s accomplishment from Saturday.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings — Tight at the top… and bottom ]

Sensational goals come in twos now, apparently, as Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Olivier Giroud scored stunning scorpion-kick goals (WATCH HERE and HERE) just days apart earlier in the season.

FA Cup roundup: Burnley, Crystal Palace advance to 4th round

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 17: Christian Benteke of Crystal Palace (C) celebrates scoring his sides first goal with Andros Townsend of Crystal Palace (L) during the Emirates FA Cup third round replay between Crystal Palace and Bolton Wanderers at Selhurst Park on January 17, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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A roundup of all of Tuesday’s action in FA Cup third-round replays…

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Burnley 2-0 Sunderland

Sam Vokes and Andre Gray grabbed goals for Burnley, who opted for a largely first-choice lineup in Tuesday’s replay. Sunderland, meanwhile, went with a mix-and-match bunch and slumped to six games without a win (all competitions), meaning they can focus solely on Premier League survival from here on out. Burnley will host Championship side Bristol City in the fourth round next Saturday, Jan. 28.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

Crystal Palace 2-1 Bolton Wanderers

Sam Allardyce picked up his first win as Palace boss, courtesy of a Christian Benteke brace scored nine minutes apart in the second half, as the Eagles came from behind to beat League One side Bolton at Selhurst Park. James Henry put the visitors three minutes into the second half, but Benteke hit back in the 68th and 77th minutes to improve Allardyce’s record to one win, two draws and three losses (all competitions). Palace will host Manchester City in the fourth round next Saturday.

Tuesday’s FA Cup scoreboard

AFC Wimbledon 1-3 Sutton United
Barnsley 1-2 (AET) Blackpool
Fleetwood Town 0-1 Bristol City
Lincoln City 1-0 Ipswich Town

AFCON: Ayew propels Ghana to victory; Egypt struggle vs. Mali

FORTALEZA, BRAZIL - JUNE 21:  Andre Ayew of Ghana celebrates scoring his team's first goal during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group G match between Germany and Ghana at Castelao on June 21, 2014 in Fortaleza, Brazil.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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A roundup of all of Tuesday’s action in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations…

Ghana 1-0 Uganda

PORT-GENTIL, Gabon (AP) Andre Ayew scored a penalty as Ghana beat Uganda 1-0 on Tuesday in a lackluster opening to the four-time champions’ bid for a first African Cup of Nations title in 35 years.

Ghana took control of Group D after seven-time champion Egypt struggled in a 0-0 draw with Mali in the other group match.

Ghana has three points, Egypt and Mali one each and Uganda zero.

Ayew, a West Ham winger, netted in the 32nd minute after Asamoah Gyan was held back by Isaac Isinde in the penalty area in Port-Gentil.

Avram Grant, a former Chelsea manager, is looking to lead Ghana to a second successive final but go better than 2015 when his team lost to Ivory Coast.

Uganda has also finished runner-up in the continental championship but the trip to the final in 1978 was the last time it qualified until making the Gabon event.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

Mali 0-0 Egypt

Later, 44-year-old Egypt goalkeeper Essam El Hadary became the oldest player in tournament history when he came on for injured Ahmed El Shenawy midway through the first half.

El Hadary, who celebrated his birthday two days ago, is participating in his seventh African Cup, having picked up winners’ medals in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

Egypt’s standout forward Mohamed Salah struggled and was replaced midway through the second half.

Mali, looking to improve on its third-place finishes in 2012 and 2013, produced many more chances.

Egypt failed to qualify for the last three editions of the tournament.

Wednesday’s AFCON schedule

Gabon vs. Burkina-Faso — 11 a.m. ET
Cameroon vs. Guinea-Bissau — 2 p.m. ET

Vertonghen to miss 2 months with ankle ligament damage

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 14: Jan Vertonghen of Tottenham Hotspur receives treatment from the medical team during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion at White Hart Lane on January 14, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Jan Vertronghen is expected to miss at least two months while recovering from ankle ligament damage, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time, with Tottenham Hotspur currently second in the Premier League, seven points back of leaders Chelsea.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Vertonghen suffered the injury in the 65th minute of Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing of West Bromwich Albion, when he went full-stretch to clear the ball along the sideline before landing on the outside of his left foot, causing the ankle to roll violently. The 29-year-old Belgian international was in clear, visible agony as he sat on the field at White Hart Lane and eventually limped down the tunnel.

The Guardian described the injury as “a tear lying between grades two and three, damage which had left Vertonghen in tears as he departed the turf at White Hart Lane and would normally rule him out at the very least until mid-March.”

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings — Tight at the top… and bottom ]

In the meantime, Kevin Wimmer and Ben Davies will be tasked with filling the void for a Tottenham side which has conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League this season (14 in 21 games). (As a small aside, 19-year-old American center back Cameron Carter-Vickers is likely set for a handful of appearances as well, perhaps in the Europa League round of 32 and FA Cup fourth round, with Wimmer and Davies called upon for additional PL service.)

Wimmer filled in for Vertonghen for nearly three months last season, at the exact same point of the campaign (Jan. 20 through April 2). In Wimmer’s 10 PL starts during that stretch (Vertonghen out with knee ligament damage), Spurs conceded seven goals (seven wins and two draws). The loss of Toby Aldeweireld, for nearly two months back in October of this season, proved a far greater blow (two wins in six PL games), and Spurs should once again manage just fine for as long as Aldeweireld remains healthy alongside Eric Dier, Wimmer and Davies.