Ryan Giggs, Louis van Gaal

Premier League Playback: Manchester United’s struggles, Liverpool’s new philosophy

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New season, same struggles for Manchester United

Okay, it’s too early to judge Louis van Gaal’s tenure at Old Trafford, even though plenty of folks have already pointed fingers angrily at the Dutchman following United’s 2-1 opening day defeat at home to Swansea City. Yeah, it’s happening again. In the video above the new man in charge bemoans how his side “didn’t play as a team.” The similarities between van Gaal’s United and David Moyes’ side are striking. That’s because, well, not much has changed. In what was supposed to be a ‘Dutch Revolution” over the summer, two players Moyes helped to sign (Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera) are the only new faces. Only one team, Exeter City, have signed less players than United this summer out of the entire 92 professional teams in England and Wales. With two weeks until the transfer window slams shut, van Gaal needs to act fast if United are going to succeed this season. This may all sound like a knee-jerk reaction, but in their defeat to Swansea one thing was clear: the quality of players is not good enough at the club. Van Gaal has since said that.

“I thought that before this match. When we were playing in the United States I saw the same. I know in what positions we need better players but I won’t discuss [how many].”

Okay, United have been ravaged with injuries as Robin van Persie, Shaw, Antonio Valencia, Michael Carrick and others were missing for the curtain raiser, but if LVG plans to keep employing a 3-5-2 formation, he needs some top quality defenders to arrive. Fast. On Saturday Swansea exposed Chris Smalling and debutant Tyler Blackett with pace down the flanks that left them in two minds whether to step out or retreat. That’s how Swansea’s winner arrived as Jefferson Montero beat Smalling down the wing and whipped in a cross as Gylfi Sigurdsson scored a late winner. Phil Jones had far from a stellar match, and the only other central defensive option they possess is Johnny Evans. The Red Devils are in deep trouble in defense. No disrespect to Swansea, but if they are recording their first ever league win at Old Trafford and exposing United’s weakness with ease, van Gaal has some serious issues. Also, it was the first time United had lost at home on the opening day since 1972. Those records, not the good kind, continue to tumble.

[RELATED: Why are United struggling to buy players?]

Premier League Schedule – Week 1

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 2-1 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here
Burnley 1-3 Chelsea Recap and watch here
Leicester 2-2 Everton Recap and watch here
Liverpool 2-1 Southampton Recap and watch here
Man United 1-2 Swansea City Recap and watch here
Newcastle 0-2 Man City Recap and watch here
QPR 0-1 Hull City Recap and watch here
Stoke City 0-1 Aston Villa Recap and watch here
West Brom 2-2 Sunderland Recap and watch here
West Ham 0-1 Tottenham Recap and watch here

A hangover from last season is impacting United. Rooney’s tremendous bicycle kick and Adnan Januzaj’s powerful running aside, the Red Devils showed little to suggest an aspirin will soon arrive to relive them of their misery and return things to the way they once were. The hangover is here to stay, until new faces and fresh impetus arrives. And plenty of it. The Red Devils have been linked with Mats Hummels, Angel Di Maria, Edinson Cavani, Arturo Vidal, Marco Rojo and pretty much every other available player this summer but so far, to no avail.

Let’s not panic. LVG has two weeks to bring in four or five top quality players to strengthen his side and get them into the top four. However with star players turning down one of the largest and most famous clubs in the world, United are running out of time. The fact that they now need to persuade players to join them is a little sad and shows how far the mighty have fallen.

[RELATED: United’s confidence “smashed down”]

The opening day marked the worst possible start to the season van Gaal could have hoped for. Maybe it will act as a wake-up call to Executive Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward that money needs to be splashed before it’s too late. The squad at van Gaal’s disposable isn’t good enough and is looking thin after his summer clearout. Moyes made a mess of last season but was it really all his fault? Now, increasingly, we have seen the same players putting in mediocre performances time and time again. Van Gaal’s task to return United to their past glory is suddenly looking like a rather ominous one. Where have we seen this before?

Liverpool’s new philosophy, post-Suarez

Against Southampton on Sunday, Liverpool kicked off the post-Luis Suarez era with a 2-1 win at a strangely subdued Anfield. One of the most atmospheric, spine-tingling and boisterous stadiums in world soccer sat in silence for vast swathes of a nail-biting match.

Chants of “Is this a library?” rang our from the small section of Southampton fans at the Anfield Road. They had a point.

As NBC Sports analysts Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe point out in the analysis above, Liverpool’s tact will be a lot different this season without Suarez. Last year their swashbuckling style stole the hearts of neutrals across the globe. the gun-ho approach saw them score 101 goals but they let in 50. That last stat is crucial. It is what cost them the title last season and if they are going to go one step further and win the Premier League crown, they need to be able to grind out wins 1-0, 2-1 and settle for a draw on the road.

| PL full replays | PL stats | Latest PL news |

Premier League Star Performers

Player Reason
1. Raheem Sterling (L’pool) 1 goal, scintillating speed
2. Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal) 1 goal, dug deep, got winner
3. Allan McGregor (Hull) Clean sheet, saved late PK
4. David Silva (Man City) 1 goal, silky skills galore
5. Saido Beraihno (WBA) 2 goal, pivotal for Baggies

Without Suarez, who joined Barcelona for $128 million this summer in case you’ve been living under a rock, they have lost 31 goals from last seasons total already. They need to shave at least 15 goals off the goals conceded column too. With Dejan Lovren arriving in central defense, plus full backs Alberto Moreno and Javier Manquillo on board, Brendan Rodgers has realized his side can no longer plan to outscore the opposition and hope for the best. Against Southampton they lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Steven Gerrard and Lucas holding in front of the back four to give them extra stability. Sure, there will be times when Liverpool obliterate teams 4 or 5-0 this season, but picking and choosing when to do that will ultimately leave them with a much stronger defensive core. In the long run, especially without Suarez, that is the most sensible and attainable recipe for success. With the goals of Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge, who both scored to seal the win on Sunday, they will still rip teams apart.

Even if it fails to flex the vocal chords at Anfield as vociferously as last season, Liverpool’s fans should be pleased their manager has addressed the areas he needed to over the offseason and the Reds are a stronger defensive unit for it. As for Suarez, does the old half of S.A.S. believe the Reds are stronger without him?

“I think so, with the players we’ve brought in,” Sturridge said. “No disrespect – he’s a great player and will be missed – but we move on.”

Let’s see if Liverpool’s new-look after Suarez sees them challenging for the title again this campaign. The thought is that Rodgers has used the $128 million to bolster the quantity of the squad, with Champions League soccer in mind, instead of bringing in top quality to replace Suarez. Let’s see how this goes.

Top 10 TV markets across the USA

Across the U.S. on Saturday NBC’s blanket coverage of the PL was consumed copiously by fans. It’s good to be back, I;m sure you’ll agree. Above are two tweets from NBC Sports PR which state the top 10 TV markets in the country from Saturday’s slate of opening games. Plus, you guys broke all of our records for watching every single PL game online via NBC Sports Live Extra. You savvy bunch, you.

Away day delight

Just two home teams won on the opening weekend of the Premier League. Arsenal and Liverpool, who both scored late on to seal narrow 2-1 wins. For a long time now, away teams seem to be faring better away from their homely confides. With no pressure on them to go and get a result, plus the home fans eager for their teams to succeed, the onus never seems to be on the visitors. Until Aaron Ramsey’s late winner for Arsenal on Saturday, we were looking at the first PL Saturday since 2004 where not one single home team won. Free-flowing soccer from teams likes Manchester City and Swansea produced away wins, while the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Hull City set up their stall, defended for their lives and grabbed all three points on the road. Yes, it’s only a stadium and a different pitch in another part of England or Wales, but we are increasingly seeing teams play with extra freedom on the road. Will this away day delight continue?

All of Saturday’s highlights and goals are in the video above, while Sunday’s are below.

USMNT update

Brad Guzan takes the gong (if such a thing exists… perhaps it would be a Captain America shield placed in the arms of a Statue of Liberty replica?) for the best performed U.S. national teamer in the PL on opening weekend. Guzan’s Aston Villa went to Stoke City and won 1-0. The American goalkeeper dealt with Stoke’s aerial bombardment expertly and has started his third season as a PL regular in the best possible fashion. As for his U.S. teammate Geoff Cameron, his situation at Stoke is a strange one. Despite starring for the USA at the World Cup, Cameron has been somewhat on the outside looking in since he returned to England and was left out of the 18-man squad against Villa on Saturday. I’ve heard plenty of rumors that several top teams in Germany, Italy and elsewhere in England have been alerted as to his situation. Cameron could be on the move in the next two weeks, while fellow American Brek Shea is available on loan from Stoke.

Tim Howard’s Everton let two leads slip away at newly promoted Leicester City to draw 2-2 on the opening day. Jozy Altidore was also involved in a 2-2 draw, Sunderland scored late to deny West Brom, as he jumped off the bench to play in his first competitive match since tearing his hamstring in the USA’s World Cup opener vs. Ghana back in June.

Men In Blazers wrap things up

Let’s finish off the first Playback of the 2014-15 season in style by getting the lads from Men In Blazers to sum everything up in the way that only they can. From Ashley Young’s ‘incident’ with a bird, ew, to Jordan Henderson’s sublime skills, take it away Rog and Davo.

Premier League Playback comes out every Monday and takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Ranking the top 10 MLS players in each position for 2017

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Union during the first half of an MLS soccer playoff match in Toronto, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
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Pumped for the start of the 2017 Major League Soccer season?

Yup, us too.

[ MORE: MLS 2017 season previews

Hit the link above to devour all of the MLS 2017 season preview material ahead of the big kick off this weekend.

Below we have a go at ranking the top 10 players in each area of the pitch for 2017.

[ MORE: MLS 2017 schedule

Sure to be some debate about some of these picks…


Goalkeepers

COMMERCE CITY, CO - JULY 23: Tim Howard #1 of the Colorado Rapids celebrates after making a first half save against the FC Dallas at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on July 23, 2016 in Commerce City, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

  1. Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids)
  2. Brad Guzan (Atlanta United – Will arrive in May)
  3. Andre Blake (Philadelphia Union)
  4. Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
  5. Luis Robles (New York Red Bulls)
  6. Jake Gleeson (Portland Timbers)
  7. Brian Rowe (LA Galaxy)
  8. Bill Hamid (D.C. United)
  9. David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes)
  10. Clint Irwin (Toronto FC)

Center backs

Los Angeles Galaxy defender Jelle Van Damme (37) congratulates forward Alan Gordon (9) for scoring against the Real Salt Lake during the first half of a knockout round MLS playoff soccer match in Carson, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

  1. Jelle Van Damme (LA Galaxy)
  2. Axel Sjoberg (Colorado Rapids)
  3. Matt Hedges (FC Dallas)
  4. Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas)
  5. Laurent Ciman (Montreal Impact)
  6. Steve Birnbaum (DC United)
  7. Roman Torres (Seattle Sounders)
  8. Drew Moor (Toronto FC)
  9. Liam Ridgewell (Portland Timbers)
  10. Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City)

Full backs

ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 04:  Ronald Matarrita #22 of Costa Rica chases the ball during the 2016 Copa America Centenario Group A match between Costa Rica and Paraguay at Camping World Stadium on June 4, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Alex Menendez/ Getty Images)

  1. Ronald Matarrita (New York City FC)
  2. Keegan Rosenberry (Philadelphia Union)
  3. Justin Morrow (Toronto FC)
  4. Ashley Cole (LA Galaxy)
  5. Greg Garza (Atlanta United)
  6. Andrew Farrell (New England Revolution)
  7. Robbie Rogers (LA Galaxy)
  8. March Burch (Colorado Rapids)
  9. DaMarcus Beasely (Houston Dynamo)
  10. Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders)

Midfielders

Osvaldo Alonso (top)

  1. Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle Sounders)
  2. Michael Bradley (Toronto FC)
  3. Sam Cronin (Colorado Rapids)
  4. Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City)
  5. Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy)
  6. Andrea Pirlo (New York City FC)
  7. Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls)
  8. Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union)
  9. Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire)
  10. Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers)

Attacking midfielders/Forwards

Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC

  1. Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC)
  2. Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle Sounders)
  3. Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas)
  4. Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers)
  5. Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy)
  6. Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders)
  7. Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact)
  8. Kaka (Orlando City)
  9. Kevin Molino (Minnesota United)
  10. Joao Plata (Real Salt Lake)

Strikers

David Villa, New York City FC

  1. David Villa (New York City FC)
  2. Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
  3. Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC)
  4. Fanendo Adi (Portland Timbers)
  5. Cyle Larin (Orlando City)
  6. Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders)
  7. Dom Dwyer (Sporting Kansas City)
  8. Ola Kamara (Columbus Crew)
  9. Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
  10. Kei Kamara (New England Revolution)

How can Arsenal, Liverpool mount a title challenge?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 21: Lucas Leiva of Liverpool challenges Francis Coquelin of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Arsenal at Anfield on December 21, 2014 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Ahead of Liverpool host Arsenal this Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) there’s plenty of talk about how both teams have seen their title challenges fade away once again.

[ MORE: Full PST Extra archive

For Liverpool, the aim this season was always going to be a top four finish but after leading the Premier League early on, they’re now fighting for their lives to finish in the top four after grabbing just one win in their seven games in 2017 so far.

As for Arsenal, well, it’s the case of the same old story for Arsene Wenger‘s men as they plod along in the PL’s top four, are all but out of Europe and look set to go far in the FA Cup. With the futures of Wenger, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil up in the air there’s a lot of uncertainty at the Emirates.

In truth, there’s a lot of uncertainty for both these clubs as they continue to set themselves up to play attractive, attacking soccer but continue to fall short.

That’s where Jenna Corrado and I come in as we discuss their issues ahead of the big game at Anfield this Saturday.

Hit play on the video above to get your latest PST Extra fix.

MLS 2017 Western Conference preview

Members of the Seattle Sounders celebrate after winning the MLS Cup soccer final over Toronto FC in Toronto, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
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The new Major League Soccer season is approaching fast.

Like, it starts this Friday fast.

[ MORE: MLS 2017 season previews

With that in mind it’s time to take a closer look at all 11 teams in the Western Conference as new boys Minnesota United boost the ranks of the “power conference” which provided six of the top nine teams in MLS in 2016.

[ MORE: MLS 2017 schedule

Below is a what you need to know about each team heading into the 2017 campaign.


Colorado Rapids

COMMERCE CITY, CO - JULY 23: Tim Howard #1 of the Colorado Rapids stands in the goal against the FC Dallas at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on July 23, 2016 in Commerce City, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)


Record in 2016:
15-6-13 – 2nd in MLS’ Western Conference, 2nd overall in MLS (Knocked out in MLS Cup Conference finals)
Offseason evaluation:
It was a case of not having too much to do after such a successful season. Jermaine Jones leaving was a blow, however bringing in Alan Gordon and talented youngster Bismark Adjei-Boateng will bolster the squad. The Rapids are aiming for another solid season led by a brutish defense and the goals of Kevin Doyle and Shkelzen Gashi. 
Key player:
Tim Howard – Struggling with injury over the offseason, Howard may miss the first few weeks. That said, his presence for an entire campaign should have a huge impact on Colorado’s chances of making another deep run in the playoffs.
Coach:
Pablo Mastreoni – A wonderful season in 2016 for Mastreoni’s men as he took the Rapids from shambles in 2015 to the brink of the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup. Just keep on trucking. Things are heading in the right direction in Commerce City, Colo. 
Vague 2017 prediction:
Rapids will start the season well off the back of their 2016 success, then fade badly to just hang onto a playoff spot.


FC Dallas

FC Dallas, 2016 Supporters Shield winners (Photo credit: FC Dallas / Facebook)
Record in 2016: 17-8-9 – 1st in MLS’ Western Conference, 1st overall in MLS (Knocked out in MLS Cup Conference semifinals)
Offseason evaluation:
Dallas had another superb season in 2016 but came up short in their quest for MLS Cup, despite winning the Supporters’ Shield. Losing Fabian Castillo to Trabzonspor was a blow and with Mauro Diaz out long-term they’ll have to rely heavily on Javier Morales and Cristian Colman in the early months of the season. Overall, Oscar Pareja’s plan has been to get in younger talent to replace experience. Let’s see how this works but it promises to be another exciting season in Frisco, Texas. They look incredibly strong once again.  
Key player:
Kellyn Acosta – The young U.S. national team product is growing in confidence and will be a key man for FCD with his versatility. Also, with Diaz out for so long, Dallas need as many contributors as possible to chip in with goals and assists. Over to you, Colman, Akindele and Urruti. Acosta will continue to keep things ticking over. 
Coach:
Oscar Pareja – He is working wonders in Dallas and adding plenty of young attackers in the offseason will add even more intrigue to his team. He’s put together a fun team to watch.
Vague 2017 prediction:
FC Dallas will make another deep run to the playoffs. If injuries are kind to them, MLS Cup is a real possibility.


Houston Dynamo

HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 08: Erick Torres #9 of Houston Dynamo works the ball in the second half against the San Jose Earthquakes during their game at BBVA Compass Stadium on August 8, 2015 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Record in 2016: 7-14-13 – 10th in MLS’ Western Conference, 19th overall in MLS (Did not qualify for playoffs)
Offseason evaluation:
Lots of change in Houston and it was needed. The Owen Coyle experiment didn’t work out and after moving out Giles Barnes, Will Bruin and Sheanon Williams, the Dynamo will go with a young squad. That’s a lot to ask in a stacked Western Conference but Leonardo and DeLaGarza coming in from LA will provide some experience. Once again, all change at the Dynamo. 
Key player:
Erick “Cubo” Torres – He has returned from his loan spell at Cruz Azul and it looks like he will get his chance to lead the Dynamo’s attack. Now, can he fulfill his obvious potential?
Coach:
Wilmer Cabrera – Promoted from their USL affiliate, the former Chivas USA coach will try to galvanize the group and get them heading in the right direction. He has perhaps the toughest job in MLS.
Vague 2017 prediction:
Houston will finishes in 10th position in the West after making a brief midseason run towards the playoffs.


LA Galaxy

CARSON CA - AUGUST 9: Making his MLS debut Giovani Dos Santos #10 of the Los Angeles Galaxy congratulates Gyasi Zardes #11 after he scored a goal against Seattle Sounders during the first half at StubHub Center August 9, 2015, in Carson, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Record in 2016: 12-6-16 – 3rd in MLS’ Western Conference, 6th overall in MLS (Knocked out in MLS Cup Conference semifinals)
Offseason evaluation:
It’s been a huge shift in the offseason for LA with Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, Alan Gordon and Landon Donovan (after his second coming) all moved on. Plus, Bruce Arena was out the door to the U.S. national team. Simpy put, the times they are a changing. Can LA’s talented youngsters help the transition go smoother than expected? Six Homegrown players are on the roster with Gyasi Zardes the main man, plus Jermaine Jones’ arrival will add some experience alongside Sebastian Lletget and new DP Romain Alessandrini from Marseille to help out star man Giovani dos Santos.
Key player:
Giovani dos Santos – This is his team now. The Mexican star has shown flashes of brilliance after arriving in MLS midway through 2015 but with Keane and Gerrard gone, Gio is front and center. With 20 goals and 21 assists in his 47 games so far for LA, he could be the new face of the league. 
Coach:
Curt Onalfo – Promoted from LA Galaxy II, Onalfo was the safe hire in a time of transition for the five-time MLS Cup champs. It will be intriguing to see how these young players develop under his tutelage. 
Vague 2017 prediction:
LA’s bold new plan will hit a few speed-bumps in the early months but then, predictably, they’ll finish the season strong and make a deep run in the playoffs.


Minnesota United

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 08: Orlando head coach Adrian Heath salutes fans during an MLS soccer match between the New York City FC and the Orlando City SC at the Orlando Citrus Bowl on March 8, 2015 in Orlando, Florida. This was the first game for both teams and the final score was 1-1. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
Record in 2016: N/A
Offseason evaluation: 
It has been a busy few months years up in the Twin Cities. They have finally arrived in MLS with plenty of roster changes, a new coach and a new stadium being built and ready for 2018. Like pretty much every expansion franchise, it’s tough to know how this first season will go. There is a real mix of international talent on this roster and no big-name DPs. Kevin Molino links up with Adrian Heath once again and will provide pace and nous, while international defenders Francisco Calvo and Vadim Demidov will play in central defense. 
Key player:
Miguel Ibarra – He burst onto the scene a few years ago with his goals in NASL which earned him a USMNT call up in 2014 but his career stalled after moving to Liga MX. Now, everything is in place for him to lead Minnesota into a new era alongside his potent partner from the NASL days, Christian Ramirez.
Coach:
Adrian Heath – He will be desperate to prove doubters wrong after he was fired by Orlando last season. Heath built an exciting team in Orlando and the hope will be that Ibarra and Ramirez will translate their attacking success seamlessly to MLS. That said, you can clearly see that Minnesota is working on a small budget and with a squad full of players from smaller European leagues it will be intriguing to see how they adapt to the rigors of MLS as the Loons play in the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium for the 2017 campaign. 
Vague 2017 prediction:
Early struggles will give way to some key midseason additions and the Loons will finish the campaign challenging for the playoffs.


Portland Timbers

COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 6: Diego Valeri #8 of the Portland Timbers celebrates after scoring within the first minute of the first half against the Columbus Crew SC on December 6, 2015 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Portland defeated Columbus Crew SC 2-1 to claim the MLS Cup title. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Record in 2016: 12-14-8 – 7th in MLS’ Western Conference, 12th overall in MLS (Did not qualify for playoffs)
Offseason evaluation:
Portland have added two key players in the offseason in David Guzman and Sebastian Blanco and plenty of experience elsewhere as they try to rebound from not making the playoffs. Nobody really expected that failure but after not winning on the road throughout 2016, the outcome was always clear. Jewsbury, Grabavoy and Borchers all retired to leave Caleb Porter will plenty of work to do to rebuild his roster. 
Key player:
Diego Valeri – The Argentine attacker will have even more freedom this season after the arrival of Guzman and he should link well with Blanco and Nagbe to feed Adi. He has won so many games for the Timbers over the past few seasons.
Coach:
Caleb Porter – A really big year for the former Akron coach as he looks to shake off the tag of the Timbers being “one season wonders” after they won MLS Cup in 2015. Once again, he needs to improve the defensive play of Portland. 
Vague 2017 prediction:
Portland will be an offensive powerhouse, blowing teams away early in games. Expect a trip back to the MLS postseason.


Real Salt Lake

Real Salt Lake forward Joao Plata (8) gestures while walking during an MLS soccer game against New York City FC Saturday, May 23, 2015, in Sandy, Utah. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP) DESERET NEWS OUT; LOCAL TELEVISION OUT; MAGS OUT
Record in 2016: 12-12-10 – 6th in MLS’ Western Conference, 9th overall in MLS (Knocked out in MLS Cup knockout round)
Offseason evaluation:
The big news was Javier Morales leaving RSL after a decade, he will be replaced by young Slovakian playmaker Albert Rusnak. He has a DP deal and big shoes to fill at the Rio Tinto. There were sweeping changes in terms of the roster with Liverpool youngster Brooks Lennon arriving on loan as RSL got a lot younger, but Beckerman, Rimando and Movsisyan are still around. 
Key player:
Joao Plata – He will be the spark in the RSL offense and he is capable of moments of magic. Now, can he string it together for an entire season? 
Coach:
Jeff Cassar – The jury was out after his first season as RSL started well but faded badly in the final few months of the season. The Utah outfit have been loyal to coaches but if Cassar’s side start poorly he could be on the hotseat rather quickly.
Vague 2017 prediction:
RSL will battle through the season and pick up unexpected wins like they usually do. Don’t expect a playoff spot.


San Jose Earthquakes

SAN JOSE, CA - MARCH 06: Chris Wondolowski #8 of San Jose Earthquakes looks to pass the ball towards the goal against Colorado Rapids during the second half of their MLS Soccer game at Avaya Stadium on March 6, 2016 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Record in 2016: 8-12-14 – 9th in MLS’ Western Conference, 17th overall in MLS (Did not qualify for playoffs)
Offseason evaluation:
Massive amount of change this offseason as Goodson, Goitom and Emeghura were all let go plus Stewart, Lenhart and Barrett all moved on too. New GM Jesse Fioranelli has big plans for San Jose. Marco Urena will support Chris Wondolowski, while Panamanian defender Harold Cummings will add strength to the backline. 
Key player:
Chris Wondolowski – He just keeps doing it. Wondo is a predator and as long as San Jose create chances he will be there to finish them. 
Coach:
Dom Kinnear – This is a very big season for Dom. After seeing San Jose struggle badly in 2016, especially away from the Avaya Stadium, he has a new GM and it appears a new approach is needed. A veteran MLS coach will need his veteran striker Wondolowski to get him back in the playoffs.
Vague 2017 prediction:
San Jose look likely to struggle once again and they will be outsiders for the playoffs. Wondo can’t do it all, you know.


Seattle Sounders

Seattle Sounders midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro (10) exults as FC Dallas midfielder Carlos Gruezo (7) lies on the turf at the end of an MLS soccer western conference semifinal playoff match Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016 in Frisco, Texas. Though Dallas won 2-1, Seattle advanced in the playoffs on aggregate score. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)
Record in 2016: 14-14-6 – 4th in MLS’ Western Conference, 7th overall in MLS (Won MLS Cup 2017) 
Offseason evaluation:
The reigning MLS Cup champs have momentum on their side and Clint Dempsey back fit and ready to roll. They lost plenty of defenders in the offseason with Zach Scott retiring and Tyrone Mears moving to Atlanta United. Adding Will Bruin and Harry Shipp will add depth to their midfield and forward options, but Seattle is set in terms of goals and assists. 
Key player:
Nicolas Lodeiro – What an impact the Uruguayan playmaker made after arriving in MLS last season. He will be handed the keys for the Sounders once again and alongside Dempsey it will be fun to see it all play out.
Coach:
Brian Schmetzer – He’s a hero in Seattle. Simple. Replacing Sigi Schmid in 2016, he had a tough job on his hands but his team gained momentum and were exhilarating to watch throughout their glorious MLS Cup run. 
Vague 2017 prediction:
Seattle will build on their success of 2016 and go deep in the playoffs once again as Lodeiro and Dempsey feed Morris.


Sporting Kansas City

Sporting Kansas City's Connor Hallisey, left, and Dom Dwyer react after Dwyer's second-half goal against the Seattle Sounders during the second half of an MLS soccer match Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Kansas City, Kan. (Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star via AP)
Record in 2016: 13-13-8 – 5th in MLS’ Western Conference, 8th overall in MLS (Knocked out in MLS Cup knockout round) 
Offseason evaluation:
Not much changed at SKC over the offseason. Brad Davis retired but Peter Vermes was able to keep the core of his squad together. Gerso Fernandes is the big offseason addition as the striker comes in as a DP with plenty of experience in Europe. 
Key player:
Dom Dwyer – He remains their main man up top after scoring 16 goals in 36 games last season. He needs more support and it looks like he has it this season. Could soon be playing for the USMNT too. 
Coach:
Peter Vermes – He rallied his squad to clinch a playoff spot last season and Vermes will be hoping for much more than that in 2017. Besler and Zusi are his go-to guys and he needs Fernandes to hit the ground running. Level-headed, Vermes knows what he is doing.
Vague 2017 prediction:
SKC will make a run towards MLS Cup and will feed off the disappointment of last season. They’ll get the balance right between defense and attack.


Vancouver Whitecaps

VANCOUVER, BC - MARCH 6: Kekuta Manneh #23 of the Vancouver Whitecaps looks on as Donny Toia #25 of the Montreal Impact plays the ball during their MLS game March 6, 2016 at BC Place in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Montreal won 3-2. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

Record in 2016: 10-15-19 – 8th in MLS’ Western Conference, 16th overall in MLS (Did not qualify for playoffs)
Offseason evaluation:
They have been trying to rebuild and rebound from a bad 2016 which saw them fade dramatically in the second half of the season. Losing playmaker Pedro Morales was a blow but they have lots of talented attackers this season. 
Key player:
Fredy Montero – If he can get anywhere near the kind of form and production he had in Seattle then Fredy will be a hero in Vancouver.
Coach:
Carl Robinson – A big, big year for Robinson. After a solid start to life as an MLS head coach in 2015, things unraveled in the second half of last season. Badly needs a good start to 2017 to get things going in the right direction. 
Vague 2017 prediction:
Vancouver will be sniffing around the playoff spots all season long. Watching Montero, Bolanos and Manneh play together could be a lot of fun at BC Place.

TOMBOY documentary series on gender in sports

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This month a documentary series focusing on gender and its role in sports will be aired on NBCSN and across all  NBC Sports Regional Networks.

TOMBOY  is a multi-platform documentary project which aims to elevate the conversation about gender in sports told through the voices of many of the world’s most prominent female athletes, broadcasters and sports executives. The first-of-its-kind integrated initiative culminates with a special one-hour documentary, also titled TOMBOY, which will air across all NBC Sports Regional Networks, nationally distributed NBCSN, and select NBC Owned Television Stations in March.

Former U.S. women’s national team defender Danielle Slaton has spoken about her experiences with gender in sport and how she got her start in the game by playing on an all-boys team.

Click play on the video above to hear Slaton’s story, while here you can find out how you can watch all of the TOMBOY content coming up this month.