2014 Season Preview: Welcome to the last year of MLS 2.0

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This World Cup business is awfully inconvenient. Here’s Major League Soccer, turning its wallet inside out, embarking on its first major spending push since the 1990s, and FIFA has to throw this huge party in Brazil – in the middle of the MLS season! Then they go and invite all of the league’s best players, some of whom MLS just paid big bucks to bring back? World Cup, your timing couldn’t be worse.

Entering its 19th season, Major League Soccer is starting to transcend mere stability. Under commissioner Don Garber, the league now has a national footprint of viable teams, one that’s allowed it to become ambitious. Those days of contracting teams in Florida? Dead, gone, irrelevant.

With signings like Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley and Seattle Sounders attacker Clint Dempsey, MLS is reaching out to the casual fans, I really only watch the national team follower and saying “then watch your national team with us.” Dear mainstream sports fan: Drop on by; hang out; beers are on us.

But for the first three months of the 2014 season, those casual and mainstream fans are going to be all about the World Cup. The U.S. plays an exhibition against Mexico on April 2. They’ll call their preliminary roster into camp mid-May. Then the send-off tour begins. Even before festivities in Brazil kick-off in mid-June, the national team pops onto the radar just enough to keep MLS’s breakout season in the shadows.

At least, this is supposed to be MLS’s breakout season, what with all the Bradley-ness and Dempsey-ness happening. Former Tottenham striker Jermain Defoe’s in Toronto, Philadelphia brought Maurice Edu back from Stoke, and and teams’ new ability to use “retention funds” have kept the likes of Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, and Diego Fagundez in the league. If Garber’s goal is to make MLS a “league of choice,” recent choices say Major League Soccer’s climbing the ladder.

source: Reuters
New York City FC is on the horizon. Along with Orlando City they’ll help usher in a new era of Major League Soccer. (Photo: Reuters.)

The real breakout, however, won’t happen until next year. That’s when New York City FC comes in. Along with Orlando City SC, the Manchester City venture will push the league to 21 teams, starting an era that’s sure to see even more spending. With a new collective bargaining agreement on the horizon, the league will have a new set of rules meant to cultivate its new, dramatic growth.

2014 will be the end of an era, albeit a short one. Starting with Seattle’s move to MLS in 2009, the league welcomed a new identity, one that embraced the virtues of their new, ready-to-go markets. Major League Soccer was no longer picking spots on a map and hoping things work. Portland, Vancouver, Philadelphia, and Montréal were all to go from day one.

Their effects could even be seen on last year’s champions. The story of Sporting Kansas City’s success goes beyond the maturation of Zusi, Besler, and head coach Peter Vermes. It’s about a brand whose success has hinged on creating an exciting product that could capture imaginations in a competitive market. Part of that was a new name. Part of that was a new look. A great stadium had something to do with that, too. When the team claimed their second MLS title last December, that whole new, MLS 2.0 package came together.

(MORE: An alternate view of the 2014 Major League Soccer season.)

That’s where we stand, one day ahead of 2.0’s last season. This time next year, we’ll have fully embarked on a new, more ambitious era of Major League Soccer – a period that will couple ambition’s excitement with endeavor’s risk. Whereas the last five years have been defined by stability new teams brought, MLS 3.0 will see the league try to claim the ‘major’ status it’s sought for so long.

Enjoy 2.0’s farewell.

(MORE: LATEST 2014 MLS PREVIEWS, RIGHT HERE)

source: Getty Images
Peter Vermes and Sporting Kansas City broke through last season, claiming the club’s second MLS title. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Outlook: Eastern Conference

Sporting Kansas City finished second in last year’s regular season but went on to claim the title. If they falter before playoffs this year, it will be because Zusi and Besler will be gone for the World Cup.

New York is coming off their first major honor, having won the Supporters’ Shield. As a result, they’ve elected to roll with the team that worked, bringing in only two new starters.

Contrast that with D.C. United, who have completely made over a team that set an MLS record for fewest wins in a season (three). Toronto FC also engaged in an overhaul, albeit a more expensive one. With Bradley, Defoe, and Brazilian attacker Gilberto, Ryan Nelsen has a new set of Designated Players in a team that’s expected to make its first postseason.

Juan Agudelo’s gone, but New England remains young and talented; Columbus lost Chad Marshall but still has the criminally overlooked Federico Higuaín; Chicago needs Mike Magee to continue to be an MVP to replicate last year’s mid-table performance; Houston will be looking to move past a season of chronic absences and sporadic scoring; Philadelphia’s hopes rest on Conor Casey and Jack McInerney producing a viable attack; while Montréal looks in flux, with Plan A on the verge of becoming plan AARP.

Favorites: Sporting KC, New York
Contenders: Toronto FC, Houston
Playoff hopefuls: Everybody else
No chance: I’m being nice here

MORE, Team-by-Team previews: Chicago | Columbus | D.C. United | Houston | Montréal | New England | New York | Philadelphia | Sporting KC | Toronto

source: Getty Images
Will Johnson’s first season in Portland helped the Timbers climb from eighth to first, with the former Real Salt Lake midfielder garnering MVP consideration for his contributions. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Outlook: Western Conference

Portland and Real Salt Lake, last year’s top two finishers, look as strong, but whereas the Timbers have brought in Argentines Norberto Paparatto (defense) and Gastón Fernández (attack), last year’s conference champions lost head coach Jason Kreis.

Dallas also has a new coach, with former Rapids boss Óscar Pareja eventually bring Honduran destroyer Hendry Thomas to Frisco with him. Colorado replaced Pareja with nobody (yet) but still offers Major League Soccer’s best core of young talent (Deshorn Brown, Dillon Powers, Shane O’Neill, Chris Klute, Clint Irwin).

Vancouver also switched coaches, swapping the youth and promise of Martin Rennie for the youth and MLS experience of Carl Robinson. A full year of Jay DeMerit and the acquisition of Matías Laba make then playoff contenders. San Jose is in that category, too, with Mark Watson hoping his first full year on the sidelines returns the Earthquakes to there 2012 selves.

LA Galaxy retained Omar Gonzalez with last year’s Designated Player deal and have added significant depth in attack and midfield. Their StubHub Center co-tenants, Chivas USA, were bought by the league in February and are set for another year of transition.

And then there’s Seattle, the league’s ultimate wild cards. Among MLS’s most talented teams, the Sounders face-planted at the finish line in 2013, sparking an offseason mark over. Still among the league’s most talented, they’ll start 2014 with the same problem that killed them last fall: A lack of familiarity with each other.

Favorites: Portland, Real Salt Lake, LA Galaxy
Contenders: Seattle
Playoff hopefuls: San Jose, Vancouver, Colorado, FC …
No chance: … Dallas (this conference is tough), Chivas USA

MORE, Team-by-Team previews: Chivas USA | Colorado | Dallas | LA Galaxy | Portland | Real Salt Lake | San Jose | Seattle | Vancouver

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The United States’ all-time leading scorer will secure the same status in MLS early in 2014.
  • Landon Donovan, LA Galaxy – It may happen on Saturday, or we may have to wait until spring. At some point, the Galaxy legend is going to score his 135th career goal, leaving him alone at the top of MLS’s all-time scoring list. It you can’t love that, even for a moment, this list is not for you.
  • Michael Bradley, Toronto FC – Major League Soccer has no shortage of talented midfielders, but there are very few guys that can command games from box-to-box. Welcome back, Michael Bradley. Take this thing over.
  • Diego Valeri, Portland Timbers – One of a slew of talented playmakers in MLS, Valeri is a man of action. Whereas other trequaristas can be pensive, thoughtful on the ball, Portland’s Argentine import is the most decisive playmaker in the league, a quality that makes him easy to love.
  • Diego Fagundez, New England Revolution – The best young player in Major League Soccer and arguably the best 19-year-old to ever play in the league, Fagundez is coming off a 13-goal, seven-assist season … as an 18-year-old! Often a step ahead of the game, imagine what the Uruguayan-born attacker can do once he really hones his talents.
  • Aurélien Collin, Sporting Kansas City – When he’s on, he’s the league’s best defender, but he does so behind a mask that means he’s often the heel. Collin led the league in yellow cards last year, but watch what he does when he’s not drawing cards. You’ll come to love the duality.
  • DeAndre Yedlin, Seattle Sounders – If Fagundez is the best young player in the league,  Yedlin is the best young defender. Only 20, even Yedlin’s faults are endearing. Ambitious going forward while still growing into his game in defense, Yedlin has already drawn the attention of the U.S. national team.
  • Jay DeMerit, Vancouver Whitecaps – DeMerit missed most of 2013 recovering from an Achilles injury. Back, healthy, and looking as good as he did during his 2012 All-Star season, the former U.S. international can be one of the league’s best defenders. Welcome back.
  • Federico Higuaín, Columbus Crew – Don’t love him for his game breaking skill or a command of play that makes every moment of Columbus transition into must see TV. Love Higuaín because, despite his famous name and a year-and-a-half in the league, he’s still overlooked. Love Higuaín’s game because you can still get in on the ground floor. When people finally start seriously talking about All-Star and Best XI spots, you can say you were there all along.
  • Deshorn Brown, Colorado Rapids – The second year pro out of Central Florida is a handful, so much so that the Jamican national team has already brought him into the fold. Be it through the middle or out wide, Brown can tear you up with the ball or blow past you without it. If he wasn’t also 6’2″, his game might have a weakness.
  • Amobi Okugo, Philadelphia Union – This is his time. A natural midfielder, Okugo has been fully converted to central defense, a place where his intelligence and skill can thrive. Entering his second full season at the position, the 22-year-old is poised for a break through. Couple that with one of the more endearing personalities in the league, and Okugo’s game becomes easy to love.

MORE: Top 10 Rookies | Goalkeepers | Defenders | Midfielders | Forwards

What now?

You know the teams. You know the stars. Now, watch. The league season of Major League Soccer 2.0 kicks off Saturday, with Seattle hosting Sporting Kansas City, with coverage available on NBCSN and NBC Live Extra beginning at 3:00 p.m. ET.

Three things from Everton’s 1-1 draw at Manchester City (video)

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Manchester City had 10 men for almost 45 minutes, but you could hardly tell as the Etihad Stadium club came back to draw Everton 1-1 on Monday.

[ RECAP: Man City 1-1 Everton ]

An entertaining affair had a bit for everyone, as Wayne Rooney made Premier League history and Everton teammate Morgan Schneiderlin joined City’s Kyle Walker as players to earn iffy second yellow cards.

All that and more, below:

Bittersweet draw for Koeman

Most teams will be quite pleased to take a point at Manchester City.

Most teams don’t have the aspirations of the financial outlay of 2017-18 Everton.

And most teams won’t have played almost a full half with one more man than City, only to manage maybe one more moment of danger against Pep Guardiola‘s men.

So, yes, this Toffees draw feels a bit like a loss. Wayne Rooney had sent Everton into a moment of historical hysteria with a quality first half marker, his 200th Premier League goal off a feed from continuously impressing youngster Dominic Calvert-Lewin.

And when Kyle Walker was given a rather cheap second yellow card in the 44th minute, the Toffees would’ve felt good money for an away win in their quest to join the Premier League’s Top Four contenders.

But City controlled the rest of the match, and it could be argued that a lesser keeper than Jordan Pickford would’ve conceded an equalizer much earlier in the match. Man City was humming.

“Even with one less player on the pitch, they have that high quality on the ball and they can make it difficult. We had a tactical good game, unlucky, the goal. They didn’t create a lot of open chances, but still had the domination of the game and in the counter attack we had some opportunities, but finally it’s a good point and we worked hard for that result.”

The Toffees have loads of promise, and their resilience in holding firm for most of the match is laudable (Mason Holgate‘s clearance into the path of Raheem Sterling is unlucky). Yet three points to start a vicious run of fixtures would’ve been much preferred to the lone marker that made it to the table.

Off day + 10 men = Still a point for City

On a day when Sergio Aguero struggled to find his feet and Walker got his dicey sending-off, Man City was still the better of the two teams and that has to make Pep Guardiola a pleased man.

David Silva remains an important part of City’s attack, and Kevin De Bruyne was pretty good in the draw, but plenty of the hosts’ men didn’t have their A-games.

Aguero had a soft header cleared off the line and wasted a gorgeous first half chance by taking an extra touch. When he was on, like his silky outside of the boot pass to David Silva, the receiver hit the post. Bernardo Silva and Danilo also missed chances that would’ve been fine goals on another day.

Without the “City: Down to 10 men (Walker 44′)” graphic atop the screen, an unknowing viewer would have been stunned upon counting less than 11 City players.

Don’t sleep on Rooney’s day (or Calvert-Lewin moving forward)

Wayne Rooney is one of the best players in the history of English football, and he rightfully joins Alan Shearer as the only players to score 200 goals in the Premier League era.

“To join Alan Shearer with that amount of goals, it’s obviously a big moment and hopefully (there’s) a lot to come,” Rooney said after the game.

While his simple finish through Ederson’s legs lacks the glory of some of his goals (for a reminder, watch below), it’s surprising how many people have absolutely written off England’s all-time scoring leader as a gimmicky signing.

Rooney has two goals in two games, and he linked up well with Calvert-Lewin again on Monday. Koeman was impressed.

“I’m not surprised,” said the Everton manager. “I know the player. I know how eager he was to come back to Everton. Dominic Calvert-Lewin did well. He ran a lot and made it difficult for the Manchester City defenders. Then you can come out of your box and control.”

Perhaps it’s Manchester United overload, or England’s often over-celebrated national team, but Rooney isn’t the sort of player you see every day. Congrats to him on a big day.

Man City 1-1 Everton: Pep’s 10 men tarnish Rooney’s day

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  • Rooney scores 200th (video)
  • Pickford stands tall
  • Walker sent off for MCFC
  • Sterling scores

Wayne Rooney scored his 200th career Premier League goal, but Everton could not hold on to beat 10-man Man City in a 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium on Monday.

Raheem Sterling scored a deserved equalizer for Man City in the draw as both the Toffees and Citizens scooped up their fourth points of the season.

The Toffees went down to 10 men late, as Morgan Schneiderlin joined Kyle Walker in earning a rather soft sending-off.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Dominic Calvert-Lewin dragged a long shot across goal for Everton’s first real chance, while Kevin De Bruyne‘s deflected free kick was collected by Jordan Pickford as Man City tempted goal.

A long feeling-out period followed, but the match sprang to life when Pickford parried a Nicolas Otamendi chance to Sergio Aguero. The striker’s popped header was cleared off the line by Phil Jagielka.

Aguero wasted a gorgeous pass from De Bruyne with superfluous touches in the 33rd minute. The Argentine made up for it with a inch-perfect pass that David Silva cranked off the left post a minute later.

That’s when Everton scored, with Calvert-Lewin squaring for Rooney’s clinical finish through the legs of Ederson.

Gabriel Jesus chested an Aguero trap into shooting position, but Pickford collected the shot.

Kyle Walker took two yellow cards in four minutes to earn a red card from Bobby Madley, and City was down a goal and two men. The second was especially questionable.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Man City had the better of the early second half play, with Morgan Schneiderlin blocking a De Bruyne free kick and Jagielka racing out to stop the rebound.

That’s when Ronald Koeman readied new Everton signing Gylfi Sigurdsson.

Ederson made an outstanding 80-yard pass to a streaking Aguero, and Man City set up a play that ended with Bernardo Silva bouncing a shot wide of the Everton goal.

Pickford made another strong save when Danilo stepped into the right of the 18 with about 15 minutes to play. An Everton free kick saw Ederson collect a Rooney header moments later.

Sterling gave City its equalizer when Mason Holgate was occupied with David Silva and headed his clearance to the top of the 18 for a near point blank finish.

Schneiderlin made it 10 men a piece in the 88th minute when he collected his second yellow card.

Wayne Rooney’s 200th PL goal puts Everton ahead of Man City (video)

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Wayne Rooney‘s first half goal against old rivals Manchester City made the Everton man just the second player in Premier League history to score 200 goals.

The 31-year-old Rooney now sits 60 goals behind Newcastle legend Alan Shearer on the all-time list.

[ STREAM: Man City-Everton / Full match replays ]

Rooney scored 183 of his PL goals for Manchester United, netting 15 before moving to Old Trafford and now two since his return to Goodison Park.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin had been lively all game and squared for Rooney, who blasted into the box and into a yard of space given by John Stones to side-foot a class finish between Ederson’s legs.

Man City’s Kyle Walker took a pair of quick yellow cards late in the half to further Man City’s plight.

Shearer is happy to have company:

Newcastle to pry $15 million Praet away from Sampdoria

Photo by Paolo Rattini/Getty Images
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Reports in Italy say Newcastle’s nightmarish start to the season may get a prime reinforcement in former Anderlecht midfielder Dennis Praet, now of Sampdoria.

Praet, 23, has a single cap for Belgium and played 34 times for Sampdoria during his first season with the Serie A club. He played 84 minutes of the Genoese club’s 2-1 season-opening win over Benevento this weekend.

[ MORE: Wood to Burnley; Clucas to Swans ]

He arrived from Anderlecht last season for just under $12 million, and Newcastle’s reported cost for his services will be right around $15 million.

More than capable in his own end and productive in moving play along, he’d play a bit deeper in Newcastle’s midfielder.

With Jonjo Shelvey suspended, Isaac Hayden had a feast or famine partner in on-loan Borussia Dortmund mid Mikel Merino in the Magpies’ disappointing 1-0 Sunday loss at Huddersfield Town.