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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.

Ex-Leicester boss Pearson hired by Derby County

Nigel Pearson, Leicester City FC
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Nigel Pearson lives.

The combustible former manager of Southampton, Hull City and Leicester City will now lead Derby County in the hopes of Premier League promotion.

Derby has been on the edge of promotion to the Premier League for several seasons, but neither Steve McClaren and Darren Wassall could do the trick.

[ MORE: Mourinho confirmed | Speaks more ]

Enter Pearson, 52, who has been hired on a three-year deal. It’s his first stop since a roller coaster ride saw him guide Leicester into the Premier League, only to be fired in the aftermath of some players being involved in a racist sex tape incident on a tour of Thailand.

This was after a bizarre season that saw him put his hands on an opposing player’s throat, call a journalist an ostrich, and ultimately save Leicester from the drop.

From Derby County’s site:

“I am honoured to be named as the Manager of Derby County, which is one of the biggest clubs in the country, a club in excellent shape and one with strong ambitions. It is firmly focused on achieving Premier League football.

“I will give absolutely everything I have to this role and do all I can to bring exciting, entertaining and winning football which our supporters can be proud of.”

At the very least, the Rams will be interesting to watch next season.

Castillo called up to take place of injured Chandler on USMNT roster

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 29:  Edgar Castillo #23 of the United States Men's National Team controls the ball against Guatemala during the FIFA 2018  World Cup qualifier on March 29, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. The United States defeated Guatemala 4-0.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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The United States men’s national team has applied to have left back Edgar Castillo take the place of Timmy Chandler on the Copa America Centenario roster.

The Monterrey back played well in the Yanks’ 4-0 win over Guatemala in World Cup qualifying, but was passed over for Chandler and others in the 23-man roster for this summer’s tournament in the United States.

[ MORE: USMNT-Bolivia preview ]

But Chandler has picked up a quadriceps strain and Jurgen Klinsmann will add Castillo in his stead.

Perhaps this is a sign that fate is on the Yanks’ side.

USMNT-Bolivia preview: Yanks look for momentum ahead of Copa America

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 29:  Michael Bradley #4 of the United States Men's National Team controls the ball against Guatemala during the FIFA 2018  World Cup qualifier on March 29, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. The United States defeated Guatemala 4-0.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Momentum is a funny thing. Numbers don’t really back it up, claiming the better team has momentum simply by nature of being better, but many players and coaches swear by it.

And the United States men’s national team might just have a bit of it heading into next week’s Copa America Centenario if it can topple Bolivia on Saturday.

The Yanks played their best half in ages on Tuesday night, eventually getting a deserved winner against Ecuador when Darlington Nagbe rifled in his first national team goal in the 90th minute.

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

All told, the Yanks are 6-1-1 in their last eight, the lone blemish a deplorable loss to Guatemala in World Cup qualifying. That’s kinda the story of the U.S. under Jurgen Klinsmann: pretty good record despite the on-field not always matching the numbers.

Again, that changed in Tuesday’s second half. With Michael Bradley lying deep and Darlington Nagbe attacking, the U.S. had plenty going for it even with Bobby Wood’s finishing touch a bit off. Whether Klinsmann goes back to Clint Dempsey and Gyasi Zardes in the Starting XI will go a long way to see if the coach feels he learned anything (at least if Dempsey is a center forward again).

Juan Carlos Arce of Bolivia (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

Bolivia made a surprise run into the quarterfinals of last year’s Copa America, but recent history hasn’t been kind to them outside of that.

La Verde is 3-9-1 in its last 12, a pair of the wins coming against Venezuela and the other over Ecuador. That said, the losses come against far superior competition than many confederations, as CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying is an onslaught of desperate, talented teams.

Longtime Club Bolivar attacker Juan Carlos Arce is at the forefront of Bolivia’s attack, with New York Cosmos striker Yasmani Duk breaking into La Verde’s scoresheet in recent matches. Goalkeeper Romel Quinonez is also integral to a defense that can yield big chances.

The United States should pick up a win at home against Bolivia, and if they do it in style we may see an invigorated USMNT fan base heading into the Copa America. If not, unease may abound.

Atleti’s Torres ready for “game of his life” in UEFA Champions League final

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 21: Atletico de Madrid players Saul Niguez (L) and Fernando Torres (R) stretch during the training session during the Club Atletico de Madrid Open Media Day ahead of the UEFA Champions League Final match against Real Madrid CF on May 21, 2016 in Majadahonda, Spain.
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Fernando Torres has won the UEFA Champions League before, but a victory on Saturday would ring as true as ever.

Calling it the game of his life, the Atletico Madrid striker spoke about this year’s final against Real Madrid.

[ MORE: Three battles that could determined UCL final ]

A lot has changed since the 2012 victory over Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena, when Torres subbed into Chelsea’s comeback win.

His decline at Chelsea found him on loan to Milan, where he transferred before finding another loan back home to Atleti. Now 32, Torres has his most goals since 2013 and is preparing for a Madrid Derby final.

From Sky Sports:

“Tomorrow [Saturday] is the game of my life, without doubt,” said Torres. “To me it means everything. Everything you dream when you’re a kid, I have the chance tomorrow to make this dream come true.

“I’ve played for great teams, and won many things, but this one is special, it is different, it’s what I wanted when I was a kid.”

Later lauding Atleti for giving him the chance “to come back and fight for what I wanted”, Torres is clearly hungry for a bit of redemption. And if his side comes out on top, he’ll likely be a big part of it.