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Regression or progression? Why New York, Portland are off to slow starts

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They were the feel good stories of last year’s regular season, but four weeks into the 2014 campaign, both the New York Red Bulls and Portland Timbers have yet to win a game. Perhaps more importantly, both teams are playing to their poor March records. After being blown out on opening day, the Supporters’ Shield-winning Red Bulls have earned three lackluster draws, while Portland’s struggles while drawing its first two at home have led to back-to-back losses on the road. While both teams started slowly last year, too, 2014’s brought new problems.

Even before opening day disappointments, both teams’ rise last season made them logical relegation candidates, with last year’s San Jose providing a great example of what happens when everybody comes back to earth. In 2012 under Frank Yallop, the Earthquakes surged from out of the playoffs the pervious year to the top of the league, claiming the Supporters’ Shield. Chris Wondolowski won Most Valuable Player, Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart had career years, while Simon Dawkins and Martín Chávez exploded on the wings. The likes of Rafael Baca, Steven Beitashour, and Justin Morrow had unpredictably good seasons, while Honduran import Víctor Bernárdez won Defender of the Year.

Fast forward one year, and everybody simultaneously regressed, perhaps predictably so. As a result, Frank Yallop was out of a job within months, and the Earthquakes had to rally under Mark Watson to finish on the edge of the playoff picture. The team regressed.

What does San Jose’s story tell us about New York and Portland? As it concerns the Timbers, it may tell us a lot. The list of players who had unexpectedly strong seasons under Caleb Porter is nearly as long as San Jose’s, from Ryan Johnson and Rodney Wallace in attack, to Will Johnson in the middle, to Donovan Ricketts in goal. Even Michael Harrington, on Kansas City’s bench the year before, and Jack Jewsbury, moving from midfield to right back, may have been unexpectedly strong performers, while Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe may yet prove regression candidates, too. Play devil’s advocate and be pessimistic, and Portland could be 2014’s San Jose.

The obvious problem: Portland can’t score goals, and it isn’t necessarily for lack of good chances. Yes, the quality of the chances can always improve, but when you see Diego Valeri flubbing shots at the edge of the six-yard box (vs. Philadelphia), Kalif Alhassen not hitting goal with open shots inside the arch (at Dallas), or Futty Danso missing opener headers at close range on corners (vs. Colorado), player performance is the issue. All the things that were going right for Portland last year — those things that translated onto the scoresheet, into the stat columns, and into the standings — may not be clicking thus far this season.

source: APThere is an alternate narrative, though. Whereas San Jose’s year-over-year improvement happened under the same coach, Portland brought in a new guy, somebody with a drastically different philosophy about how to play soccer. Moving from John Spencer to Porter (right), the Timbers also completely overhauled their roster, with only Nagbe and Diego Chara returning to the starting lineup in a similar role. If the concept of regression requires us to identify a mean or baseline, it’s almost impossible to tell what Portland’s should be. The player’s based level of play under one coach may be drastically lower than expectations under Porter.

In New York, however, the explanation may be two-fold. Yes, New York may have also punched above its weight, but this year’s problems may come down to an old cliché: If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling behind – an expression that actually has a practical application in professional sports. In a world where athletes’ performances start to diminish after a peak age, electing to carry over an old squad could mean taking a step backwards.

Thierry Henry is 36. Tim Cahill is 34. Jámison Olave is 32, while eight others who’ve seen time this year are 29 or older. New York may not only have exceeded expectations in 2013, but the advanced age of the squad means their recoil could be brutal, perhaps explaining why this season, in 360 uninspiring minutes, New York is playing like one of the league’s worst teams.

This is not to say the Red Bulls and Timbers are destined to fail, but if we’re looking for explanations as to why New York’s 0-1-3 and Portland’s 0-2-2, regression may be one of them. And for New York, age may be another. Four games is too few to draw any conclusions, but it is enough to note some potentially disturbing patterns. Teams shouldn’t blow things up based on one bad month, but they may need to develop plans in case the trend becomes undeniable.

If March was just an uncharacteristic stretch, New York and Portland’s results should improve soon. It’s also worth remembering: 2013 may not tell the story of how good these teams really are.

Kelechi Iheanacho’s incredible rise to stardom

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10: Kelechi Iheanacho of Manchester City (R) celebrates scoring his sides second goal with his team mates Nolito of Manchester City (C) and Raheem Sterling of Manchester City (L)  during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford on September 10, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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What a story.

Kelechi Iheanacho is one of the top young forwards on the planet — he has the best minutes per goal ratio in Premier League history, by the way — but we don’t know much about how the soft-spoken youngster ended up at Manchester City.

Now we do.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live

In the latest superb first-person piece from the Players’ Tribune, Iheanacho, still just 20 years old, recalled his journey from Nigeria to England as he continues to make a big impact at one of the biggest clubs on the planet.

Ahead of Man City’s big Premier League clash with Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com), below is an excerpt from the piece where Iheanacho talks about the impact of his mother’s death and that in-turn explains his goal celebration.

You can read the piece in full here via the Players’ Tribune, as he recalls how he watched Sergio Aguero’s title-winning goal in 2012 in a games arcade in southern Nigeria.

Later that year, I was invited to play for the under-17 Nigerian national team, and it was a big opportunity for me. We went away to training camp on the other side of the country. But then at the start of camp, I received news from home that my mother was sick. I didn’t know how bad it was — I just knew she was sick. And it was a very long and hard camp, so I could not go home to see her. This was my chance to go for my dream. The next news I got from home, a few weeks later, was that my mother had died.

It is very hard for me to talk about this.

I felt so sad, and it was a very, very hard time, but I had to stay at the camp to keep training. My mother loved her children, and she had always pushed me to keep working hard, even when it was football and not books. So I just kept working hard. The next year, our Nigerian national team won the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup. I scored five goals in the tournament. Every time I scored, I would point my fingers to the sky.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks – Week 22

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Premier League action is here and things are tense at both ends of the table.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Click play on the videos below to hear my score prediction and preview of each game.

[ VIDEO: Previews of every PL game, Week 22 ]  

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Chelsea 2-0 Hull City – (Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Crystal Palace 1-3 Everton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]

Arsenal 3-0 Burnley – (Sunday, 9:15 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Bournemouth 1-3 Watford – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Middlesbrough 0-2 West Ham – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

West Brom 1-1 Sunderland – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Stoke City 2-2 Manchester United – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Southampton 1-2 Leicester City – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Liverpool 1-1 Swansea – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Manchester City 2-0 Tottenham Hotspur – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

Steven Gerrard returns to Liverpool in coaching role

Gerrard's arrival in MLS is eagerly anticipated.
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Steven Gerrard is back where he belongs.

[ VIDEO: Spurs’ stunning new stadium ]

Gerrard, 36, will take up his first coaching role since retiring as a player in November.

Liverpool have described Gerrard’s new job, which he will start in February, as “a wide-ranging role in the professional development phase of the young players” and he will work under academy director Alex Inglethorpe.

The former Liverpool captain and legend hung up his boots after the 2016 Major League Soccer season ended with LA Galaxy and now he will begin life as a coach.

Speaking about his full-time role with Liverpool, which will see him work at the youth complex in Kirkby, Gerrard is excited to get going.

“It feels like completing the circle; returning to the place where professionally it all began. However, this isn’t a decision based on emotion – it’s about what I can offer and contribute to Liverpool. I don’t think I need to explain to people what this football club means to me, but when I knew coming back was a serious option I wanted to make sure it was a substantive role and a role in which I could really help the organisation.

“Meeting with Alex Inglethorpe, seeing the work they are currently doing and want to do in the future at Kirkby, it just felt right. The right option at the right time, for all parties involved. This gives me a great opportunity to learn and develop as a coach, while at the same time offering my knowledge, ideas and experience to the young players at an important period of their development.”

Gerrard grew up in Liverpool as a fan of the club and came through their academy system himself, making his professional debut as a 18-year-old and spending 17 years at the club as a first team player before moving to the LA Galaxy in 2015.

There is perhaps nobody better for this role as the former midfielder made 710 appearances for the Reds, scoring 186 goals and won 10 trophies in his time at Anfield, including captaining the side to a historic UEFA Champions League title in 2005.

He is Mr. Liverpool.

In this new role Gerrard will have a strong influence on the next crop of youngsters to come through at Liverpool and many will see this as the first step towards him having a big role in Jurgen Klopp‘s coaching staff and maybe one day taking over from the German head coach.

WATCH, STREAM: Premier League schedule, Week 22

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Week 22 of the 2016-17 Premier League season is here.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ]

Liverpool host Swansea City (7:30 a.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) at Anfield looking to grab a win which would close the gap on leaders Chelsea, while Swansea are scrapping for their lives at the other end of the table.

Stoke City host Manchester United (10 a.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) with Jose Mourinho’s men aiming to extend their unbeaten run to 13 games in the Premier League. At the same time Crystal Palace host Everton (10 a.m. ET live CNBC and online via NBC Sports.com) as Sam Allardyce looks to grab his first win as Palace boss in the PL against the in-form Toffees.

[ STREAM: Premier League “Goal Rush” ]

Rounding off Saturday is a big game at the Etihad Stadium as Manchester City host Tottenham Hotspur (12:30 p.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com). Pep Guardiola has already conceded the title but Spurs have a real chance of Chelsea as Maurico Pochettino’s side are chasing a seventh-straight PL win.

On Sunday, Leicester visit Southampton (7 a.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) with both the Foxes and Saints in real danger of being sucked into the relegation battle. Then Arsenal welcome Burnley to the Emirates Stadium (9:15 a.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) with the Gunners hoping to stay in the title hunt, while the Clarets seek a first away win of the season.

Rounding off Week 22, leaders Chelsea welcome Hull City to Stamford Bridge (11:30 a.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) as Antonio Conte had Diego Costa back fit and available but the Blues will be wary of new Hull boss Marco Silva after a positive start to his spell at the KCOM Stadium.

You can watch every single second of every single game live online via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App, plus you can also watch Premier League “Goal Rush” at 10 a.m. ET on Saturday for all the goals as they go in. Goal Rush is available via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App,

If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here. They are available soon after the final whistle, but rights limit us to a certain number each week. Looking for game highlights? Try this. Here’s your full TV schedule for the coming days. Enjoy.


FULL TV SCHEDULE

Saturday
7:30 a.m. ET: Liverpool vs. Swansea City – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Stoke City vs. Manchester United – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Crystal Palace vs. Everton – CNBC [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Bournemouth vs. Watford – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: West Brom vs. Sunderland – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Middlesbrough vs. West Ham – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
12:30 p.m. ET: Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur – NBC [STREAM]

Sunday
7 a.m. ET: Southampton vs. Leicester City – NBCSN [STREAM]
9:15 a.m. ET: Arsenal vs. Burnley – NBCSN [STREAM]
11:30 a.m. ET: Chelsea vs. Hull City – NBCSN [STREAM