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Assessing MLS offseason needs in the Western Conference

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The offseason is a time for change, and there are now 21 clubs gunning for the Seattle Sounders to take home MLS Cup in 2017.

[ MORE: MLS reveals timetable for teams 25, 26; expansion fee at $150 million ]

With the arrivals of Atlanta United and Minnesota United, MLS just became a bit more challenging and with the offseason in full swing teams must now gear up to add as much talent as possible before preseason begins.

[ MORE: PST ranks top DPs of past 10 years ]

PST finishes its two-part series (check out the Eastern Conference here) by examining the Western Conference and what each team needs to do to be a playoff contender in 2017.


Colorado Rapids

The league’s stingiest defense (32 goals conceded in 34 games) was just enough to finish second in the West during the regular season, but when push came to shove and they needed a goal (or two) against the Sounders in the playoffs, the cupboard was bare for Pablo Mastroeni. Thus, the lack creativity, in all of the four attacking positions, wide and central, must be addressed this winter. They’ll get by just fine without Jermaine Jones — Sam Cronin was fantastic this year — and hopefully fill his place in the starting lineup with a no. 10.


FC Dallas

What do you advise for the team that has it all (two deep at just about every position)? Mauro Diaz (torn achilles) will likely miss a sizable chunk of the early season, but the trio of Carlos Gruezo, Kellyn Acosta and Victor Ulloa should be able to bridge the gap until the Argentine magician returns. Former Swansea City winger Roland Lamah has already been inked to bolster FCD’s attack out wide — a glaring need prior to his signing this week — just as Ecuadorian left back Anibal Chala has done defensively — another would-be need. With the CONCACAF Champions League group stage on tap in 2017, Oscar Pareja will require a two-deep roster at every position, and he’s got two-plus months to spare with most of his squad already in place.


Houston Dynamo

Newly-named head coach Wilmer Cabrera has some work to do. Let’s work backwards here. Here’s a list of things the Dynamo don’t need: starting goalkeeper — Tyler Deric and/or Joe Willis are fine; one starting center back, in theory — Keyner Brown is expected to win a starting job; starting defensive midfielder, about half the time — Ricardo Clark and Eric Alexander are mostly fine, when they’re healthy, which isn’t all that often; attacking Swiss army knife — Andrew Wenger; legitimate star striker in the making — Mauro Manotas, when given a modicum of service, is a lethal goal-getter. That’s five-ish contributors Cabrera can count on from day one. They Dynamo are halfway to fielding a full starting 11.


LA Galaxy

With the departure of Robbie Keane this winter, it’s Giovani dos Santos’ team now. As such, a strong center forward capable of holding the ball up and bringing Dos Santos, who’ll be at his best when playing underneath a mobile monster, into play. Perhaps you think that’s Gyasi Zardes, who’ll be back after breaking his foot at the end of the summer, which, sure, maybe. That means the Galaxy need a winger or two. If Jones is the “answer” at defensive midfield, there’s still a question at defensive midfield. The 35-year-old played in nine (regular-season) games in 2016 (he played in 18 the year before last). Also of importance: finding a permanent positional home for Sebastian Lletget. Theory: we’re about to see a wave of signings from LA Galaxy II, the club’s southern California breeding ground of young talent, ushered in by former II head coach, and new Galaxy head coach, Curt Onalfo.


Minnesota United

Adrian Heath has plenty of building to do, again. Through the expansion draft and early-offseason trades, he’s managed to fill out the following spots on the field: two defensive midfielders, Collen Warner and Mohammed Saeid, who’ll fit perfectly into his 4-2-3-1 system. That’s just about it. The Tim Ream rumors are intriguing and would certainly fill a need at center back. As far as MLS veterans (and free agents) go, Marco Pappa, Chance Myers, Dominic Oduro, Will Johnson and Marvell Wynne would also be largely cost-effective options just about everywhere on the field.


Portland Timbers

A revolving door at the heart of defense was the Timbers’ most glaring weakness in 2016. Liam Ridgewell has been largely fine since arriving in 2014, but he endured nearly a half-dozen different partners at center back after Nat Borchers (ruptured achilles) was lost for the season. Steven Taylor wasn’t the answer, and he’s already left the club after three short months. Jack Jewsbury and Ned Grabavoy have retired, which means Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe (not that Caleb Porter will play him there ever again) are the only central midfielders capable of playing behind Diego Valeri. They’re two or three starting-caliber center mids from having a deep enough squad to get through a 34-game season. If Lucas Melano isn’t going to be the outside-in winger the Timbers have so handsomely paid him to be, they’ll have to figure out who starts opposite of a poorly miscast Nagbe on the wing. Advice: bring back Rodney Wallace.

Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi, Portland Timbers FC
Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi, Portland Timbers FC (AP Photo/Bob Levey)

Real Salt Lake

It’s time to rebuild the defense and midfield at Rio Tino Stadium. 19-year-old center back Justen Glad was one of the breakout stars of 2016, so there’s a solid building block in place in the back, just as Kyle Beckerman and Sunny provide in midfield. Glad reads the game and reacts extremely well, so RSL would do well to pair him with a strong physical presence who can dominate the game in the air and break up play in front of the backline. The departures of Javier Morales (expected) and Juan Manuel “El Burrito” Martinez (unexpected) mean a new no. 10 and a wide attacker capable of combing with Joao Plata and Yura Movsisyan, as Martinez did so well in 2016, likely sit near the top of Jeff Cassar’s wish list this holiday season.


San Jose Earthquakes

Goalkeeper David Bingham, midfielders Anibal Godoy and Darwin Ceren, and forward Chris Wondolowski are about the only players on the ‘Quakes’ roster whom you could say would start for half of the league’s teams. Translation: this might be the worst roster in MLS — worse than the Dynamo, because at least some of Houston’s promising talent is still young — and much work lies ahead for Dom Kinnear.


Seattle Sounders

Despite the fact they’ll be the defending champions, the 2017 Sounders will probably look quite a bit different than the 2016 edition. For starters, Clint Dempsey is expected to slowly return to the field beginning with the U.S. national team’s January camp, which means he’ll be in the starting lineup once healthy and fit, which means the “where does he fit in?” question must once again be addressed, this time by Brian Schmetzer. Andrea Ivanschitz and Nelson Valdez are gone, which leaves just Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Alvaro Fernandez as attackers returning from this year’s improbable title run. Beyond that, at some point Osvaldo Alonso is going to have to be replaced in the long-term — Cristian Roldan will extend his career by a year or two, if paired together — or, at the very least, a ready-made replacement must be added to the roster in the event of Alonso missing a month with injuries.

Alvaro Fernandez; Jordan Morris, Nicolas Lodeiro, Seattle Sounders (Photo credit: Seattle Sounders / Facebook)
Alvaro Fernandez, Jordan Morris, Nicolas Lodeiro, Seattle Sounders (Seattle Sounders / Facebook)

Sporting Kansas City

When Krisztian Nemeth left Kansas City a month before the start of the 2016 season, he took not only the 10 goals and six assists he tallied the season prior, but more importantly, the secondary scoring and creation threats to Dom Dwyer and Benny Feilhaber. With Feilhaber operating deeper and deeper as his career unfolds, Sporting desperately require an attacker who’s comfortable playing in between the opposition’s midfield and defensive lines. Midfield depth is also a serious concern after the retirement on Paulo Nagamura, who was the only reserve central midfielder on the roster in 2016. Will Johnson would be the perfect backup at multiple spot in Sporting’s midfield, which means he’d get the 20-24 appearances he presumably desires.


Vancouver Whitecaps

On paper, the Whitecaps possess quite an impressive, talent-rich roster. In practice, very few of those pieces actually fit together into anything resembling a cohesive unit. If they’re going to continue trying to play fast — why wouldn’t you with Kekuta Manneh and 16-year-old Alphonso Davies? — they’re going to need a striker who can, 1) finish from 12 yards and in, and 2) keep pace with those blazing fast wide players. Many of the pieces are in place to replicate the Montreal Impact’s counter-attacking juggernaut with three defensive-minded midfielders in the center and speedsters on the wings — Matias Laba is as good as the get right in front of defense, and Russell Teibert should be able to play as the most advanced of the three, pressing high and reducing the workload of those behind him. A new temper for hot-headed Kendall Waston probably wouldn’t hurt, either.

Timbers sign Peruvian winger Andy Polo from Liga MX’s Morelia

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The Portland Timbers have acquired winger Andy Polo on loan from Liga MX club Monarcas Morelia for the upcoming season.

The 23-year-old native of Peru played in 25 matches last year for Morelia and made six starts with two goals.

He’s also World Cup-bound, having appeared in Peru’s two-legged playoff against New Zealand in November. Peru won 2-0 on aggregate. Overall, he’s appeared with the Peruvian national team 15 times since his senior debut in 2016.

“Andy is a versatile, young player who will add another element to our attack, and we believe that he has further upside to his development,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said in a statement.

The Timbers used targeted allocation money and have a purchase option. Polo’s arrival is pending a physical and receipt of a visa.

He will occupy an international roster spot.

Can Man United still sign Sanchez without Mkhitaryan swap?

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The answer to the (first) titled question is, undoubtedly, yes.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

The latter question — the “will they?” — remains a relative unknown at this point, but if reports out of the UK are to be believed, Manchester United are just as likely to send $40 million (or so) Arsenal’s way in exchange for Alexis Sanchez, should Henrikh Mkhitaryan refuse the move by declining any contract offers from the Gunners.

[ MORE: Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies ]

The thinking, at least for the last few days since Man United somewhat unexpectedly entered the Sanchez sweepstakes, was that swapping the Armenian for the Chilean was the obvious — and, perhaps only — way forward. Call it special circumstances or an obvious audible, but that’s not necessarily the case — from the Guardian:

“It is understood that if Mkhitaryan does not leave Mourinho believes that, given the club’s robust finances, [Man United executive vice-chairman] Ed Woodward could still sanction a move for a player who would potentially vastly improve United.”

By the time Sanchez is signed, sealed and delivered, United will have also paid Sanchez and his agent, Fernando Felicevich, massive signing-on fees that could total another $30 million. No matter the order in which the Sanchez-Mkhitaryan saga plays out, United will come out ahead with a superior player at a massively discounted price — should Sanchez ultimately move to Old Trafford, of course.

Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies

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If the FA, English football’s governing body, is insistent upon testing video-assistant refereeing (VAR) as they have done in recent FA Cup and League Cup fixtures, Antonio Conte believes they should darn well use it.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Following his Chelsea side’s penalty-shootout victory over Norwich City in an FA Cup third-round replay on Wednesday, Conte was equal parts frustrated and confused by the fact that video-referee Mike Jones failed to prompt referee Graham Scott to consult the on-trial system on multiple occasions.

Most notably, Chelsea’s 92nd-minute (extra-time) penalty shout following Timm Klose‘s tackle on Willian. Scott, instead, booked the Brazilian for diving — one of three cards, all shown to Chelsea players, for simulation on the night — and that was that.

“If you watch the replay you see very clearly it is a penalty,” said Conte after the game — quotes from the BBC:

“I think that there was a penalty but not on [Alvaro] Morata — on Willian.

“With Willian, the referee heard what the other referee watched and decided to continue to play. If we want to try to use this new system, it is important for the referee to wait, especially in this incident that is not so clear.

“And then when the referee that is watching had a doubt, he has to call the referee to watch and he can make a decision. The referee on the pitch has to make the decision, not one off the pitch.

“We can improve it for sure but we need to try to take the best solution. The final decision is for the ref on the pitch. Otherwise, why is there this ref?

“The mistake wasn’t of the ref on the pitch but the person watching. When you see this, you have to call the referee.”

VAR was used in another third-round replay, on Tuesday, and helped to correctly rule Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho as being in an onside position when he scored his side’s second goal. While offside/onside calls are much clearer, cut-and-dry decisions to make — and with the aid of a natural stoppage in play — clearly much work lies ahead with regard to the process of determining whether the referee has made a “clear and obvious error,” which remains the threshold for using VAR, in instances of fouls/diving.

Copa QF: Messi misses PK, Barca’s 29-game unbeaten run ends

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MADRID (AP) — Lionel Messi missed a penalty and Barcelona conceded late as its 29-match unbeaten streak ended in a 1-0 loss to city rival Espanyol in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal on Wednesday.

Messi failed from the spot in the 62nd minute, his shot brilliantly saved by goalkeeper Diego Lopez.

Youngster Oscar Melendo netted the winner for the hosts in the 88th with his first goal as a professional.

“I have no words, I was looking forward to this first goal,” said the 20-year-old Melendo, who had come on as a substitute in the second half.

It was Espanyol’s first win against Barcelona at its RCDE Stadium.

The second leg of the Catalan derby is next week at Camp Nou.

Barcelona hadn’t lost since a 2-0 defeat by Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 16. It had won 23 of its last 29 matches in all competitions.

“We knew we would lose one day,” Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said. “The positive thing is that in a week we have a chance to rebound and advance.”

Messi had his chance from the spot after Sergi Roberto was fouled by Esteban Granero, but his low shot into the right corner was stopped as Diego Lopez dived to his left to tip the ball away.

It was a rare miss for Messi, who is having a stellar season and is the Spanish league’s top scorer with 17 goals.

“The penalty save gave us the boost that we needed,” Melendo said. “We were playing too defensively.”

Melendo netted the winner with a low shot from the middle of the area after a well-timed pass by Marc Navarro.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde did not use all of the team’s regular starters, leaving players such as Luis Suarez on the bench.

The match was interrupted for a few minutes in the 76th after Barcelona goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was hit by an object thrown by fans behind his goal.

Barcelona midfielder Paulinho was replaced in the second half because of a foot injury.