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.

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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.

Schweinsteiger waiting on visa, training in Mallorca

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Bastian Schweinsteiger is waiting on a visa to make his trip to Chicago official.

It’s a formality, albeit a bit trickier now given the political climate in the United States. The former Manchester United midfielder is training at Real Mallorca ahead of the move.

The transfer was announced one week ago, and Schweinsteiger is anxious to get back on the pitch. Set for a 1-year, $4.5 million deal, the midfielder has not missed any Chicago matches yet.

[ MORE: Under-the-radar Premier League XI ]

The Fire is 1-1-1 to start the new season under Veljko Paunovic, and has three home matches next: Montreal (Saturday), Columbus (Apr. 8), and New England (Apr. 15)

Report: Arsenal interested in Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel

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According to a report by The Sun, Arsenal is monitoring the progress of Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

The rumor does make sense. With Petr Cech at 34 years old and having a poor season in front of net and backup David Ospina failing to challenge him for the starting job, the Gunners are looking elsewhere to bring in a potential future starter.

Schmeichel has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League the past two seasons. Last season he led the Foxes to the Premier League title, organizing a stunningly good defensive line of patchwork players. This season, the defense has largely regressed and let Schmeichel down, but he has still performed well and has the metrics to remain one of the league’s top shot-stoppers.

The Danish keeper is 30 years old himself, but that puts him in his prime for a goalkeeper. He has been with Leicester City since 2011, and he will tick 250 appearances for the club with his next match. Schmeichel was rumored to be a member of the secret player delegation that worked hard to see Claudio Ranieri pushed out of the club, a sentiment which he and the other players have strongly denied.

Still, with an improbable Premier League title in hand and an appearance in the Champions League quarterfinals now on the cards, there probably isn’t much else for him at Leicester City. It’s possible Schmeichel could look to bank on his past performances and secure a move to a bigger club this summer.

Should Arsene Wenger stay with Arsenal past this season, a possibility that looks more and more likely, he could look to move on from Cech despite signing the former Chelsea goalkeeper just two summers ago.

Diego Costa injured, but will stay with Spain squad for friendly

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Chelsea striker Diego Costa pulled up in Spain training on Sunday, and with the Blues in first in the Premier League and Costa in great form, there were obvious concerns.

With Costa struggling with leg and ankle injuries, the RFEF informed Chelsea that there was an issue, and Costa was pulled from training and sent for tests. X-Rays at the local hospital in Madrid were negative, and he’s rejoined the squad.

According to the RFEF, doctors will continue to monitor the 28-year-old and he will continue with the national team for the rest of the international break. With a World Cup qualification win over Israel already in the books and just a friendly against France to go on Tuesday, it’s odd that Spain would risk Costa moving forward, but they will continue to keep him around.

Costa has scored 18 goals this season to lead the Blues, and he scored in the win over Israel. Spain takes on France in Saint-Denis on Tuesday, with both teams leading their World Cup qualification groups. Spain has a goal-differential lead on Italy with both teams miles above the rest of the Group G, and France is ahead of Sweden by three points in Group A, with the Netherlands back in fourth.

Foul or flop? Player “headbutts” referee, is sent off

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Well, there must be something in the water down in Brasilia, because things got a little weird this evening.

Flamengo drew with Vasco da Gama 2-2, but that was just the start.

In the 54th minute, with Vasco da Gama leading 1-0 at Estadio Nacional Mané Garrincha, 36-year-old Luis Fabiano was sent off for “headbutting” the referee. Headbutting is in quotes because looking at the video, it certainly appears there was little to no contact, and the referee flops.

Yes, the referee flopped. Take a look:

To be fair, Fabiano was already on a yellow, so getting in the referee’s face even without the headbutt/pelvic thrust would likely still have seen him sent to an early shower.

So the former Porto and Sevilla man was sent off, and Vasco da Gama was down to 10 men. Immediately after the red card, Flamengo took advantage, powering in a pair of goals via Willian Arao and Orlando Berrio to take the lead 2-1. But Vasco wouldn’t quit, and they earned a penalty five minutes into stoppage time, which Nene buried for the 2-2 draw.

To top things off, a player named Yago Pikachu scored the opener for Vasco da Gama, which was followed by a delay in the game seven minutes later after a power surge in the stadium. Go figure.