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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.

New St. Louis stadium plan calls for state land contribution

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ST. LOUIS (AP) Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens has made it clear he’s opposed to state funding for stadiums, yet a revised proposal for a $200 million soccer stadium in St. Louis calls for the state to contribute land that’s potentially worth millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, a city aldermanic committee delayed a vote Thursday to advance a measure putting the proposal, which also requires city voters to approve $60 million in funding, on the April ballot.

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The investor group SC STL’s proposal calls for a 22,000-seat stadium near Interstate 64 and Union Station, a key component in the group’s effort to lure a Major League Soccer expansion team. MLS officials have expressed strong interest in St. Louis, but only if a stadium is built.

Time is of the essence: The league is expected to award two new expansion teams in the fall, with play starting in 2020.

St. Louis’ project was on life support after Greitens, a Republican who took office this month, said repeatedly that he opposed taxpayer funding for stadiums, calling it “welfare for millionaires.” SC STL had been seeking $40 million in state tax credits.

But a provision of SC STL’s revised financing plan, presented at Thursday’s meeting at City Hall, says the state would contribute the majority of the 24-acre project site, which is currently owned by the Missouri Department of Transportation, and perform some site clearing and infrastructure work.

The value is still being appraised, but given its location and the amount of land, it likely is worth several million dollars.

Greitens spokesman Parker Briden told The Associated Press in a statement that the governor “remains opposed to state funding to build the soccer stadium.” He did not immediately respond to a question about how the potential donation of land doesn’t conflict with Greitens’ hard-line stance.

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The first hint of compromise with the governor came in an email from SC STL spokesman Jim Woodcock late Wednesday, when he wrote that a “path forward” had been reached after two weeks of meetings.

“Gov. Greitens has made it clear to us that he is very supportive of adding a new professional sports franchise to the State of Missouri, and that’s a sentiment we wholeheartedly share,” the statement said.

The stadium project also requires taxpayer help from the city. The city Ways and Means Committee heard from SC STL officials Thursday, but no vote was taken on whether to ask the full Board of Aldermen to place the issue on the April ballot. The committee is expected to reconsider the measure Monday.

SC STL would be responsible for at least $95 million of the project cost, the entire $150 million expansion fee and all maintenance costs going forward.

Bundesliga returns: Will Bayern hold off competition again?

MUNICH, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 05: Sebastian Rudy of TSG Hoffenheim is challenged by Douglas Costa of FC Bayern Muenchen during the Bundesliga match between Bayern Muenchen and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim at Allianz Arena on November 5, 2016 in Munich, Germany.  (Photo by Boris Streubel/Getty Images)
Photo by Boris Streubel/Getty Images
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Germany’s top flight returns to action Friday when Bayern Munich travels to Freiburg in an attempt to keep the pressure on new boys RB Leipzig.

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For those who haven’t paid a ton of attention to the Bundesliga this season or need a bit of a refresher after several weeks away, here’s what to monitor over the next several months.

Really Big surprise Leipzig looks to keep title race going

Formed in 2009, RB Leipzig is a lot of German fans’ least favorite club after cash infusions caused a rapid rise into the top flight.

The new club is looking down at most of the haters, however. League leaders for much of the first half, Leipzig is three points shy of league leading Bayern Munich.

Bayern waxed Leipzig 3-0 before the holiday break, and the two sides won’t meet again until May 13. How long can the new boys keep up the show?

Historic relegation candidates

What does USMNT strikers Bobby Wood and Aron Johannsson share besides a national team? Both are on sides that have been in Germany’s top tier longer than the players have been alive.

Wood’s Hamburg has six national titles and hasn’t seen the second tier in 54 years. That’s the longest stretch in the league, two more seasons than Bayern Munich. Hamburg is a currently third-bottom, which would force them into a relegation-promotion playoff against the third-placed team in 2.Bundesliga.

As for Johannsson, his Werder Bremen side is just three points ahead of Hamburg. Bremen has been in the top flight for 36 seasons.

Chasing the Golden Boot

Robert Lewandowski has scored the most goals in two of the past three seasons, with Alexander Meier of Eintracht Frankfurt seizing the honor in 2014-15.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is leading the pack by three goals, but is with Gabon at the Africa Cup of Nations to help open the door for the rest of the bunch.

Koln’s Anthony Modeste is second with 13, while Lewandowski has 12. Two players, Timo Werner (RB Leipzig) and Sandro Wagner (Hoffenheim), have nine.

Can surprise Europe-chasers hold up?

Hertha Berlin was in 2.Bundesliga a few seasons ago, while Eintracht Frankfurt was there a season prior to that. RB Leipzig, as mentioned earlier, wasn’t even a club until 2009.

Eintracht made a Europa League run one year later, but neither was expected to be competing for a spot in Europe this season. As it stands, all three are in the mix.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 16 12 3 1 38 9 29 7-2-0 5-1-1 39
 RB Leipzig 16 11 3 2 31 15 16 6-1-0 5-2-2 36
 Hertha BSC Berlin 16 9 3 4 24 16 8 7-0-1 2-3-3 30
 Eintracht Frankfurt 16 8 5 3 22 12 10 5-3-0 3-2-3 29
 1899 Hoffenheim 16 6 10 0 28 17 11 4-5-0 2-5-0 28
 Borussia Dortmund 16 7 6 3 35 19 16 5-3-0 2-3-3 27
 1. FC Köln 16 6 7 3 21 15 6 4-4-0 2-3-3 25

Report: El Tri’s Chicharito to LAFC in 2018

Bayer Leverkusen's Javier Hernandez, left, and Atletico Mineiro's Mattheus Rolden fight for possession of the ball during the first half of a Florida Cup soccer match, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
AP Photo/John Raoux
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It makes a lot of sense, you know?

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez will turn 30 in 2018, not a spring chicken for a striker but still plenty productive if healthy.

His national team, Mexico, will likely be revving its engines for the World Cup, and won’t be upset to have the forward playing a bit less soccer and a lot closer to home.

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And Los Angeles FC will want to make a massive mark as it seeks to butt its head into a market dominated by the LA Galaxy (and, perhaps still then, Mexico national teamer Giovani Dos Santos).

So, tell us more, Steve Brisendine of MLSSoccer.com:

“[LAFC] are going to do everything possible to sign the current Bayer Leverkusen player, whose contract ends in 2018 and could therefore leave for a reduced fee. That’s what AS.com has confirmed with sources close to the project. LAFC hope to announce their new manager this spring and dream, a little later, to do the same with Javier Hernandez, aka Chicharito.”

Make it happen. Make. It. Happen. We’re already reserving his spot on our MLS fantasy teams.

Transfer rumor roundup: Jagielka, Begovic, Berahino, Zarate

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 13: Saido Berahino of West Brom challenges for the ball with Phil Jagielka of Everton during the Barclays Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Everton at The Hawthorns on September 13, 2014 in West Bromwich, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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There’s action all over England, from those defending the goal mouth to others striving to conquer it.

[ MORE: More transfer gossip ]

— Bournemouth wants an upgrade on Artur Boruc, according to The Telegraph, and that could come in the form of Chelsea backstop Asmir Begovic.

The Cherries reportedly had a $12.5 million bid turned down by Antonio Conte, who has Thibaut Courtois in the No. 1 seat and Portugal national team backup Eduardo in the ranks (along with three keepers on loan and young goalie Mitchell Beanie).

— Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger shut the door on acquiring West Ham wantaway Dimitri Payet according to Sky Sports’ Transfer Centre:

“We have many players offensively who can play in this position. You are interested by the quality of the player but there needs to be a need as well, and we have no need in this domain.”

— Clubs in need of experienced Premier League backs need look no further than Everton, where manager Ronald Koeman has admitted that England international Phil Jagielka could leave Goodison Park. The 34-year-old center back has 40 caps for England and has made 337 appearances for Everton. He could be a massive upgrade for Sunderland if David Moyes is up for a reunion.

— Stoke City chairman Peter Coates says a purchase of Saido Berahino from West Brom is not contingent on a sale of Bojan Krkic. The latter has been linked to Middlesbrough.

— Mauro Zarate may be returning the Premier League. Watford boss Walter Mazzarri has been largely let down by his strike corps as Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney have taken steps back this season. Could $4 be enough to bring the ex-West Ham and QPR man from Fiorentina to Vicarage Road? Zarate has four goals in nine matches for La Viola, and has nine goals in 40 Premier League matches.