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MLS Season Preview: New York Red Bulls

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Whenever a team reaches new heights, the next year is defined by whether it falls back to earth. For the New York Red Bulls, 2013 featured unprecedented heights, with the club claiming its first major honor: the Supporters’ Shield. Now, with Mike Petke entering his second season on the sidelines, the question is whether the team can offset a series of indicators that hint they’ll decline.

The big one is age. Thierry Henry, who took a small step back last year, is staring at the grind of a Major League Soccer season as a 36-year-old. Tim Cahill, so crucial to the team’s surge to first in the East, is now 34. Jamison Olave, indispensable at the back, turns 33 in April. If any of these veterans slip, New York may not have enough to hold of Sporting Kansas City. If they fall flat, the Red Bulls may have to completely rethink how they approach the 2014 season.

Right now, three days away from the team’s season opener in Vancouver, a team that eschewed changes in the offseason looks primed to compete for another Shield. Spanish important Armando has joined former Toronto FC fullback Richard Eckersley as reinforcements at the back. A midfield built on the ethic of Dax McCarty, Eric Alexander, and Jonny Steele is capable of out-working most teams – effort that will create chances for Cahill and Henry.

It’s a formula that worked in 2013. Short of another contender surging past the field, it’s one that should allow New York to compete in 2014. Though another year on some worn wheels means there’s an increased chance of a blowout, the Red Bulls could also roll to another successful season.

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Players in: Armando (signed, Cordoba (Spain)), Bobby Convey (trade, Toronto), Richard Eckersley (trade, Toronto)

Players out: Brandon Barklage (option declined, San Jose), Fabian Espindola (re-entry draft, D.C. United), Markus Holgersson (contract terminated), Rafhinha (released), Amando Moreno (signed in Mexico), David Carney (signed in Australia)

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Jamison Olave will carry New York’s defense this season.

Key Player: Eckersley. Miller. Armando. On paper, New York’s defensive doesn’t seem too impressive, but if you add Jamison Olave’s name to the mix, all of a sudden the back line looks workable. With a center back capable of playing like one of the league’s best over long stretches of time, Olave is capable of raising the level of over an otherwise unspectacular group.

Henry and Cahill grab the headlines, and they are undeniably important pieces, but if Jamison Olave doesn’t give another borderline Best XI performance, it’s difficult to see this defense holding up. He is as “key” as either of his more famous teammates.

Manager: Mike Petke’s 2013 success earned him Coach of the Year votes, carving a place for him among a growing class of young, recently ex-MLS players who are making an impact on the sidelines. Relying almost exclusively a conventional 4-4-2 formation, Petke opted for simplicity over sophistication. In the process, he did what good coaches do best: Give his most influential players a platform to succeed.

Even amid a drop of in production from Henry (2012: 15 goals, 12 assists; 2013: 10 and 9), Petke produced historic results. If he can keep his team focused and humble, Petke should be able to maintain his 2013 results, even if that doesn’t necessarily mean another Supporters’ Shield.

Outlook: Given how Sporting Kansas City finished the season (raising MLS Cup), it’s difficult to call New York favorites in the East, and with Toronto FC assembling a sold (and star-studded) lineup up north, the conference looks more competitive than last season. Whereas last season saw New York and Kansas City fight it out (after a fade from Montréal), this year the Reds and Houston could also factor into the equation.

But in a managerial world where coaches prefer to focus on their own teams, Petke has is own internal obstacles. The threat of further regression from Henry is real, and with Cahill set to miss a large chunk of the season at the World Cup, the team could find itself short on scoring options. If Olave starts experiencing some of the same injury concerns that defined his last years in Salt Lake, New York suddenly looks like a candidate to collapse.

That would require a lot of ifs to fall in line; then again, when things go south, the negatives often start complementing each other (see San Jose, 2013). New York is capable of competing near the top of the East once more, but in 2014, Petke’s likely to see a new set of problems.

Report: Messi, Aguero 18 minutes from suffering Chapecoense fate

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 30: A detailed view of the Chapecoense badge during a minutes silence ahead of the EFL Cup quarter final match between Arsenal and Southampton at the Emirates Stadium on November 30, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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According to a report by Brazilian Folha de São Paulo, a flight bearing the Argentinian national team was dangerously close to crashing in the same manner that saw much of the Brazilian club team Chapecoense tragically perish just a week ago.

The report states that the national team, bearing Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, and other star players on November 11th, was traveling on the exact same plane that crashed on November 28th, and was 18 minutes from running out of fuel before landing in Buenos Aires. The British Aerospace 146 aircraft has a maximum fuel capacity for a flight of four hours and 22 minutes, and the trip from Belo Horizonte to Buenos Aires took four hours and four minutes, according to the report, citing flight logs.

Information disemminating from the November 28th crash shows the aircraft did not reach its destination due to a loss of fuel.

According to an editorial written by Airways Magazine editor in chief Enrique Perrella following the Chapecoense crash, it is a common occurrence in South America for pilots to routinely stretch the maximum flight distances for aircrafts, and to take fuel amounts dangerously close to actual flight time without much pushback. Many flight governing bodies around the world state minimum fuel requirements to be enough fuel for flight time plus distance to an alternate landing location plus an extra 45 minutes.

The Perrella editorial states, citing the flight plan for the November 28th crash, that the pilot for the plane carrying Chapeocense was also the owner of the airline, causing a conflict of interest. In the interest of saving fuel costs, he apparently registered enough fuel on his flight plan for the exact amount of flight time from Santa Cruz to Medellin – four hours and 22 minutes. When the plane was asked to sit in a holding pattern to allow another flight with mechanical problems to land, they ran out of fuel and crashed just a few miles from the destination.

Should all this information prove accurate, the not only was the accident clearly preventable, but it could have happened more than once, and clearly a change in culture is needed.

Southampton’s Charlie Austin suffers horror shoulder injury

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 08:  Josh Sims of Southampton stands over injured team mates Charlie Austin during the UEFA Europa League Group K match between Southampton FC and Hapoel Be'er-Sheva FC at St Mary's Stadium on December 8, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

Charlie Austin could be out for some time.

[ MORE: Europa League standings ]

In the first half of Southampton’s UEFA Europa League group decider against Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Thursday — the Premier League side need a win or a 0-0 draw to the make the knockout stages — Saints’ top scorer Austin fell awkwardly when sending a header wide at the back post and landed on his shoulder.

What ensued was ugly to watch.

The Englishman was screaming in agony on the floor and it looked like he had dislocated his shoulder with Saints’ physios running on to treat him.

Austin, 27, is Saints’ top scorer this season with nine goals in all competitions and if he is set for a lengthy spell on the sidelines, that’s a big problem for Saints.

The former QPR and Burnley forward has dislocated his shoulder on multiple ocassions before and had an operation on his right shoulder in 2014 when at QPR.

To succeed at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho must adapt again

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 04:  Jose Mourinho manager of Manchester United looks on fromthe bench prior to the Premier League match between Everton and Manchester United at Goodison Park on December 4, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Manchester United is not in the crisis everyone says they are.

No, they are not the ones in a crisis. Their manager, however, is a different story.

Throughout his career, Jose Mourinho has been quite adaptable. Through his wildly successful journey across four different European top flights, he’s been able to wire himself differently to fit each different league, and it’s worked. It hasn’t always made a lot of friends at each stop, but it’s worked – at least for a time, before burning to the ground. What Mourinho has not been able to do on a regular basis, however, is admit that he’s wrong.

Therein lies the identity crisis Jose Mourinho currently faces. He’s got it blatantly wrong at United, and to fix things in the short-term, he must admit his mistake, not publicly, but by making a critical change.

[ MORE: Arsene Wenger discuesses Sanches, Ozil futures ]

Through two stints at Chelsea, the 55-year-old has found a formula that works in the Premier League: find a deadly striker, grab a goal or two, and sit on it. And it’s worked. Didier Drogba and Diego Costa got him the goals, while John Terry, Gary Cahill, Petr Cech, Michael Essien, and John Obi Mikel held those leads. In their title year of 2004/05, 17 of Chelsea’s 29 wins came while scoring two goals or less. The next year, they won the league again with 19 of 29 wins coming with two goals or less. In their last title season of 2014/15, 16 of Chelsea’s 26 wins came while scoring two goals or less. It was a seemingly simple formula, and with the right players he executed it to deadly perfection.

That, unfortunately, is what Manchester United doesn’t currently have, and it has Mourinho baffled. The right players.

You can see why Zlatan Ibrahimovic was attractive to Mourinho’s tactics. He is meant to be United’s Drogba. He is their Costa. And it’s working, to the tune of eight goals so far. What United doesn’t have is the lockdown defense Mourinho relies on, yet he continues to try and rely on it.

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In the nine matches Manchester United has dropped points in, they conceded first inside the opening 35 minutes four times (twice in the opening two minutes), and in three they’ve conceded in the final five minutes. The other two were 0-0 draws.

Mourinho has consistently blamed circumstance for United’s poor start. He’s partly right; United has been on the wrong side of crucial refereeing decisions, bad bounces, and a host of games where shot after shot after shot refuses to find the back of the net. Unfortunately, this is glossing over the real reason Mourinho’s bunch has failed to put up results indicative of their performances.

Manchester United’s defense just won’t cut it. Chris Smalling has served the club valiantly since coming over from Fulham at a young age, but at 27 years old he has failed to improve for a number of seasons, and will not find himself among any awards lists in the near future. Marcos Rojo has a horrific disciplinary record and can’t get out of his own way. Eric Bailly has looked a solid piece but has been injured, only just returning. Daley Blind is a versatile piece but still has not found his best position, and thus has found the bench instead. Phil Jones, still just 24, can’t be trusted. Luke Shaw can’t stay on the field. Matteo Darmian has been pressed into action and has yet to prove his worth.

[ VIDEO: Top 5 players in the Premier League ]

That’s not a bad defensive unit, but it’s certainly not a title-winning one. It’s a whole lotta “meh.”

Mourinho’s insistance on leaving Henrikh Mkhitaryan is a microcosm of the larger issue. Only just starting the $45 million signing for the first time in league play last time out, Mourinho has preferred the more possessive Jesse Lingard, despite Mkhitaryan’s ruthless attacking presence he proved last year with Borussia Dortmund, creating 82 chances in Bundesliga play, more than twice anyone else on the squad (hey look! he scored in the Europa League today because he’s actually getting time!).

[ VIDEO: Mkhitaryan scores in Europa League play ]

This team needs to attack, and they need to do it soon. If United can prove more ruthless at the front end, this team can pick up steam at a rapid pace. But for that to happen, Mourinho needs to adapt from his old ways and instead play to the squad he has. United can up the defensive unit in January and even next summer, but until that happens, this club will continue to suffer with the status quo.

VIDEO: Henrikh Mkhitaryan scores beauty for Man United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 30: Henrikh Mkhitaryan of Manchester United controls the ball under pressure from Aaron Cresswell of West Ham United during the EFL Cup quarter final match between Manchester United and West Ham United at Old Trafford on November 30, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Here he comes.

When Henrikh Mkhitaryan signed for Manchester United in the summer big things were expected.

It’s taken him a while to settle but now the Armenian playmaker has scored his first goal for United with a stunning superb solo effort against Zorya Luhansk on Thursday in the UEFA Europa League.

Watch the video below to see Mkhitaryan put United 1-0 up.

What a goal.