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Premier League 2014-15 preview: Stoke City

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A surprising revival under Mark Hughes has seen Stoke City become a club with plenty of potential.

Though they are without star players, flashy talent, or a beautiful playing style, Stoke has become a mainstay in the Premier League through hard work, physical play, and shrewd business.

A look through their roster reveals a number of players who somehow flew under the radar and landed at the Britannia, and through this conglomeration the success has slowly built. Last season marked their first-ever top half finish, and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be the goal this year.

Once again their strike force remains a question mark as people question the aging of Peter Crouch, but with the help of a brick wall behind them and some electric wing play, he did just enough.

Their goalkeeping situation is outstanding as well, with Asmir Begovic statistically proving himself season after season, and England youngster Jack Butland behind him should something go awry.

[RELATED: Full PL season preview]

The real work for Stoke is done on the touchline, with a number of wide men the true value of the team. With very little done in the transfer market, Hughes is relying on the chemistry built last season to carry over into this year as well.

Transfers in: Bojan Krkic (Barcelona), Steve Sidwell (Fulham), Phil Bardsley (Sunderland), Mame Diouf (Hannover 96), Dionatan Teixeira (Banska Bystrica)

Transfers out: Matthew Etherington (unattached), Juan Agudelo (unattached), Michael Kightly (Burnley)

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Last season: Mark Hughes was the first new manager at Stoke City since Tony Pulis began in 2006, meaning there were some growing pains. However, after failures at Manchester City, Fulham, and QPR, Hughes finally found a home to build on. He instilled a style of defensive solidarity along with a bit of attacking flow, and it earned Stoke its first top-ten finish in Stoke’s top-flight history.

With little done this offseason, supporters are hoping the team doesn’t get worse by standing still, but no doubt Hughes has finally been able to solidify his plans and make this team his own. With that, there’s no reason why the slow building process shouldn’t continue in an upward direction.

Star player: Marko Arnautovic

Hughes upon signing Arnautovic a year ago: “People will very quickly see what an outstanding talent he is. He has power and his pace, which is something I think we need in the squad.” Bang, right on the money.

The 25-year-old Austrian winger was a complete unknown when Hughes brought him to the Britannia from Werder Bremen last September. For a paltry $4.7 million, Arnautovic brought pace, electricity, and class to link between the hard-hitting Stoke midfield and its statues up front.

Where most players need some time to acclimate themselves to the Premier League style of play, Arnautovic needed none of the sort. He has the skill and pace to fly on the ball, and the strength to keep it in traffic and under challenge one-on-one. The Austrian pumped in four goals and 10 assists from the wing, and still managed to fly under the radar as no teams looked to swoop and cash in on his successful first year.

With a more free role to roam about the attacking half of the pitch as the season rolled on, expect plenty of the bold Potters’ #10 as they look for another finish in the top half of the table.

Coach’s corner: Mark Hughes

Despite his reputation built on a successful playing career, 18 months ago the managerial career of Mark Hughes looked to be just about over. He had taken four Premier League jobs, and had tanked at three of them. He built his resume after four pretty good years in charge of Blackburn, which saw Rovers finish in the top half of the table multiple times and even make it to European play.

However, it went downhill from there, and fast. He followed the money to Manchester City, but he was unable to help them reach the heights they so desired, and he was out after a year and a half. Fulham snatched him up hoping to replace Roy Hodgson, and he quit after a year due to creative differences, famously citing his “ambition” which the club apparently lacked (and later admitted he was wrong to leave). He moved to Fulham’s rivals Queens Park Rangers, where he is often credited for sewing the seeds of their relegation in the 2012/13 season and was out before December hit.

Cut to this summer, where Hughes got a chance at Stoke following Pulis’s sacking.  He released a large amount of the squad’s dead weight, and brought in some new talent, which was an immediate hit. The club plodded along last season earning some impressive wins along the way, and eeked its way to a top-ten finish. What seemed to be a career dead in the water is now revived, and should Hughes earn yet another solid finish, it wouldn’t be surprising to see some top-level interest in him once again.

PST Predicts: It hasn’t been a secret where I think this team ends up. A finish in the 8-10 area is certainly attainable, although outwardly they will likely be shooting for the Europa League hoping to build on last year’s success. However, in the Premier League, when it comes to top-ten finishes, treading water is often akin to growth, and another finish in that area of the table will certainly be welcomed. As Everton can prove, treading water in the top half of the table often leads to an eventual breakthrough, and is a much more successful model than trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

MLS Snapshot: Orlando City SC 2-1 Montreal Impact

Cyle Larin, Orlando City SC

The game in 100 words (or less): For weeks, it was a widely held belief that the Montreal Impact would snatch up the sixth and final playoff place in the Eastern Conference with little or no resistance from their opposition. As they went six games unbeaten (four wins), all looked to be setting up perfect for the club that fired Frank Klopas midseason, but there was another team in the race for sixth that kept winning themselves: Orlando City SC. On Saturday night, Montreal and Orlando City faced off at the Citrus, with the expansion Lions claiming their fourth-straight victory with a 2-1 triumph. Montreal now holds a one-point lead on Orlando in the race for sixth, and have two games in hand, but it’s no longer a foregone conclusion L’Impact will qualify for the playoffs no resistance whatsoever.

[ MORE: | Week 30 TOTW | POTW ]

Three moments that mattered

33′ — Bush’s mistake gifts Larin the opening goal — Larin did what your taught to do as a striker — “put it on frame, test the goalkeeper” — but in no universe does a shot so feeble have any business finding the back of the net. Evan Bush has been great this year. Hopefully (for Montreal’s sake), this howler doesn’t turn into the yips with the playoffs looming.

43′ — Hall’s “mistake” gifts Oduro an equalizer — Dominic Oduro equalized in the 43rd minute, when he took the ball out of the hands of Tally Hall and smashed it into the back of the net, but the goal should have been disallowed due to Hall having full control of the ball.

80′ — Hines hits the winner for Orlando — Seb Hines put the ball back into the mixer and just so happened to find the back of the net in the 80th minute. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Seb Hines

Goalscorers: Larin (33′), Oduro (43′), Hines (80′)

MLS Snapshot: NY Red Bulls 2-1 Columbus Crew SC

Bradley Wright-Phillips, New York Red Bulls
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The game in 100 words (or less): Two weeks in a row Columbus Crew SC have had a chance to go top of the Eastern Conference with a victory, and two weeks in a row Crew SC have failed to take a single point from massively important fixtures. Their latest defeat, a 2-1 humbling at the hands of the East-leading New York Red Bulls, started so well for Gregg Berhalter’s side, but was undone by a pair of costly, comedic defensive errors that allowed Lloyd Sam and Bradley Wright-Phillips (15th of the season) to erase an early deficit (Justin Meram) and win all three points. The result not only keeps the Red Bulls top of the East, but gives them a three- and four-point cushion with three and two games in hand on their nearest competitors., D.C. United and New England Revoltion respectively. For Crew SC, they’re four points back of the Red Bulls in fourth place, one point ahead of fifth-place Toronto FC, who have a game in hand.

[ MORE: | Week 30 TOTW | POTW ]

Three moments that mattered

9′ — Meram pokes it past Robles for an early lead — Meram “earned” his goal all the way back in midfield, when the Iraqi international’s mazy run took a routine turnover inside Crew SC’s defensive half and turned it into a dangerous counter-attacking opportunity. Harrison Afful overlapped and provided the cross for Meram to send home.

12′ — Sam capitalizes on multiple mistakes to equalize — Crew SC pass the ball out of the back. They don’t boot it forward to clear. It’s just what they do. Sometimes, that’ll bite you. When your goalkeeper and right back both have blunders clearing the ball 10 seconds apart, you probably deserve to concede an ugly, scrappy goal.

21′ — Wright-Phillips capitalizes on more defensive gaffes — See the above description for Red Bulls goal no. 1.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Damien Perrinelle

Goalscorers: Meram (9′), Sam (12′), Wright-Phillips (21′)