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MLS 2017 Eastern Conference preview

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Toronto FC nearly hoisted MLS Cup on its home turf in 2016 but Greg Vanney’s side won’t be the only Eastern Conference contender this season.

[ MORE: MLS 2017 season previews

With the 2017 campaign set to kick off on Friday (yes, just two days away), 11 teams in the East will have the opportunity to reach the postseason as MLS continues its expansion.

Some of you may be thinking “11”? Yep. Welcome Atlanta United to the mix!

[ MORE: MLS 2017 schedule

Below is everything you need to know about the Eastern Conference heading into the 2017 season.


Atlanta United

Twitter/@ATLUTD

Record in 2016: N/A
Offseason evaluation:
It was about as good as any new club could have hoped for, and the team has already showed flashes of brilliance in preseason. With three quality, young Designated Players, savvy veterans like Kenwyne Jones and Michael Parkhurst and a crop of young studs led by first round draft pick Miles Robinson, Atlanta is already off and running.
Key player:
Miguel Almiron — The Paraguayan has made a name for himself in South American football, and now it’s his turn to live up to the billing in MLS. In addition to his club services, Almiron has made an impact for the Paraguayan national side at both the Copa America Centenario and also during 2018 CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.
Coach:
Gerardo “Tata” Martino – He’s coached at the highest levels of the game, including at Barcelona, but Martino takes his talents to an expansion side that has arguably won the offseason. There’s no questioning his resume, however, in a league with as parity as MLS, the savvy manager will have to prove himself once again in the United States.
Vague 2017 prediction: 
This is a deep, deep roster and although expansion sides of the past have struggled to come out firing from the gate, this Atlanta side could very well buck that trend.


Chicago Fire

BRIDGEVIEW, IL - AUGUST 14: John Goossens #7 of Chicago Fire celebrates a goal against Orlando City FC with teammate Brandon Vincent #3 during an MLS match at Toyota Park on August 14, 2016 in Bridgeview, Illinois. The Fire and Orlando City SC tied 2-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Record in 2016: 7-17-10 – last in MLS’ Eastern Conference, last overall record in MLS (didn’t qualify for playoffs)
Offseason evaluation:
The East Conference bottom dwellers had themselves a strong winter, clearly highlighted by their blockbuster trade for veteran midfielder Dax McCarty from the New York Red Bulls. Add in Hungarian attack Nemanja Nikolic and one of the league’s youngest rosters and this has strong potential in the offing. 
Key player:
Nemanja Nikolic — The 29-year-old starred in Europe with clubs like Legia Warsaw Videoton, and the Fire hope he can bring his goalscoring presence to a team that just 42 goals all season in 2016.
Coach:
Veljko Paunovic — The young Serbian manager is still learning the ropes of MLS but he’s surely built a strong roster in just his second season in the U.S.
Vague 2017 prediction: 
Will the Fire make the playoffs? It looks a lot more likely than a season ago.


Columbus Crew

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 12: Ethan Finlay #13 of the Columbus Crew SC and Fabinho #33 of the Philadelphia Union battle for control of the ball in the first half on March 12, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Record in 2016: 8-14-12 – 9th in MLS’ Eastern Conference, 18th overall in MLS (Did not qualify for playoffs)
Offseason evaluation:
The Crew didn’t bring about too many changes during the offseason but their strong core of players, led by Ola Kamara, Ethan Finley and Federico Higuain should pose a great threat to opposing defenses in 2017. Meanwhile, Jonathan Mensah’s addition should fill a void in the back after the exit of veteran defender Michael Parkhurst.
Key player:
Ola Kamara – The striker filled in nicely after Kei Kamara‘s move to the Revolution but he’ll have to avoid a sophomore slump in MLS if the Crew are to contend in the East once again.
Coach:
Gregg Berhalter – As he enters his fourth full season with the club, Berhalter must regroup and his get his side focused after missing the playoffs in 2016. 
Vague 2017 prediction: 
The Crew fell off big time from their MLS Cup appearance in 2015 but this is still a roster full of talent and will surely compete for a playoff spot in the East.


D.C. United

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 27: Gyasi Zardes #11 of the Los Angeles Galaxy and Steve Birnbaum #15 of D.C. United chase after a ball during the second half against D.C United at StubHub Center on August 27, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Record in 2016: 11-10-13 – 4th in MLS’ Eastern Conference, 9th overall in MLS (Knocked out in MLS Cup Conference semifinals)
Offseason evaluation:
The Eastern Conference side has found a solid mix of youth and veteran pieces to help be in the mix for a playoff spot again in 2017. Ian Harkes will be one of the most watched youngsters this season after signing a Homegrown contract, while Luciano Acosta hopes to continue his impressive play in his second season with the club.
Key player:
Patrick Mullins – After getting a new contract this offseason, Mullins will have some high expectations to carry over his goalscoring form from a season ago.
Coach:
Ben Olson – Historically, D.C. has been one of the most successful franchises, but it’s been over 13 years since the club’s last MLS Cup. Olson knows that feeling back from his playing days, but it’s now his job to step up and help deliver one as a manager.
Vague 2017 prediction: 
This is a squad that is built to win now, particularly at the back, so Olson and co. will have to take advantage of the current roster.


Montreal Impact

Montreal Impact players celebrate Matteo Mancosu's goal against Toronto FC during the first half of an MLS Eastern Conference final soccer match in Montreal, Tuesday, Nov.22, 2016. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP)

Record in 2016: 11-11-12 – 5th in MLS’ Eastern Conference, 11th overall in MLS (Knocked out in MLS Cup knockout round)
Offseason evaluation:
There’s no more Didier Drogba but the Impact still boast a squad that nearly qualified for MLS Cup last season. 
Key player:
Ignacio Piatti – He’s easily one of MLS’ most dynamic attackers, and without Drogba, Piatti will be able to influence this Impact side that much more. 
Coach:
Mauro Biello – Biello knows the club in and out, and he’s done everything right to this point. 2017 looks to be the season where the team can take the next step and contend for an MLS Cup title.
Vague 2017 prediction: 
The Impact have reached the postseason two consecutive seasons, and look to be on pace for a third and potentially have bigger sights set.


New England Revolution

Juan Agudelo & Diego Fagundez, New England Revolution

Record in 2016: 11-14-9 – 7th in MLS’ Eastern Conference, 14th overall in MLS (Did not qualify for playoffs)
Offseason evaluation: 
The Revs were relatively quiet during the winter period, suggesting the club is content with its current core. There’s unquestioned talent on the roster, especially in the attack, but the Eastern Conference side has to back up its lack of moves early in the season.
Key player:
Kei Kamara – Considering his track record in MLS, seven goals after joining the Revs was surely a disappointing season for Kamara. He’ll have to do better in 2017 to compete with the beasts in the East.
Coach:
Jay Heaps – The Revs have made the postseason in three of their last four campaigns, but with the attacking group that the team boasts, Heaps will surely feel some pressure if the club doesn’t start off right.
Vague 2017 prediction: 
Kamara, Nguyen and Fagundez. If those guys click, this could be a top four side in the East.


New York City FC

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13: David Villa #7 of New York City FC celebrates his first half goal with teamate Andrea Pirlo #21 againd the Toronto FC at Yankee Stadium on March 13, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Record in 2016: 15-10-9 – 2nd in MLS’ Eastern Conference, 4th overall in MLS (Knocked out in MLS Cup knockout round)
Offseason evaluation:
Losing Frank Lampard was a big blow, but Patrick Vieira and co. have done a fantastic job of bringing in younger options around the squad. The jury is still out on how the backline will look on opening day, but there isn’t really any question regarding how good the attack will be again.
Key player:
Maxi Moralez – The club’s third DP has big boots to fill after Frank Lampard’s production last season, but the South American attacker has already brought big expectations and is expected to help easy David Villa’s load.
Coach:
Patrick Vieira – The Frenchman has done everything he said he would in terms of bringing in a younger core. Now, it’s up to Vieira to grind out results for NYCFC in the regular season and beyond.
Vague 2017 prediction: 
This is surely a playoff team barring injury, but the backline will once again be the area to watch if they are to make a run.


New York Red Bulls

HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 6: Sacha Kljestan #16 of New York Red Bulls dribbles past Steven Beitashour #33 of Toronto FC during their match at Red Bull Arena on March 6, 2016 in Harrison, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Record in 2016: 16-9-9 – 1st in MLS’ Eastern Conference, 3rd overall in MLS (Lost in MLS Cup knockout round)
Offseason evaluation:
The Dax McCarty trade is still mind-boggling to some, but the Red Bulls were simply looking to get younger in the midfield. Sean Davis is a suitable replacement at defensive mid, and it’s now just up to the rest of the attacking players to support Bradley Wright-Phillips during the critical junctures.
Key player:
Gonzalo Veron – It’s safe to say the DP hasn’t lived up to the billing just yet, but there is promise. Veron’s speed and technical abilities are fun to watch, and a potential partnership up front with BWP could be what the Red Bulls need to make a deeper run in the playoffs.
Coach:
Jesse Marsch – Some of the events that transpired during the offseason are still a bit unclear, but Marsch has fully proven himself as a manager in his two seasons with the Red Bulls. Now, he just has to be focused on getting the team over the hump and into MLS Cup.
Vague 2017 prediction: 
Like NYCFC, this is a playoff team. How far they can go is left to be determined.


Orlando City SC

BRIDGEVIEW, IL - AUGUST 14: Cyle Larin #9 of Orlando City FC controls the ball in front of Jonathan Campbell #16 of Chicago Fire during an MLS match at Toyota Park on August 14, 2016 in Bridgeview, Illinois. The Fire and Orlando City SC tied 2-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Record in 2016: 9-11-14 – 8th in MLS’ Eastern Conference, 15th overall in MLS (Did not qualify for playoffs) 
Offseason evaluation:
 Adding veterans like Will Johnson and Jonathan Spector this offseason will do wonders for the Lions defensively, but now the club just needs to hold up without injury to prevent opposition from breaking down their backline after conceding a league-leading 60 goals a year ago.
Key player:
Cyle Larin — One of the most exciting young attackers in MLS, Larin has done everything to entice the Orlando City fan base thus far. It’s up to the rest of his team to help support the Canadian to help the club reach its first postseason.
Coach:
Jason Kreis – The former U.S. striker has the chance to manage from the start of the season, so this will be a real opportunity to see how he can take charge of the Lions. 
Vague 2017 prediction: 
Again, it’s on the defense. If they can keep goals out, this is a playoff-worthy team.


Philadelphia Union

CHESTER, PA - MARCH 20: Diego Fagundez #14 of New England Revolution kicks the ball away from Keegan Rosenberry #12 of Philadelphia Union at Talen Energy Stadium on March 20, 2016 in Chester, Pennsylvania. The Union won 3-0. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

Record in 2016: 11-14-9 – 6th in MLS’ Eastern Conference, 13th overall in MLS (Knocked out in MLS Cup knockout round) 
Offseason evaluation:
Giliano Wijnaldum was one of the more underrated signings during the offseason for the Union, who can bring European experience to the backline, while Fafa Picault will be an intriguing American prospect to watch over.
Key player:
Keegan Rosenberry – The Union struggled to keep goals out last season, largely due to injuries at the back. However, Rosenberry’s presence was a resounding bright spot, and his second MLS season could surely propel his USMNT stock further.
Coach:
Jim Curtin – The Union boss has built a very strong roster both with youth and veterans, so it’s time to take the next step in 2017.
Vague 2017 prediction: 
Curtin and co. will be expected to reach the postseason, but they might still be a step behind the likes of Toronto, Red Bulls and NYCFC.


Toronto FC

Toronto FC defender Nick Hagglund, center, celebrates his goal against the Montreal Impact with teammates Michael Bradley, right, and Steven Beitashour (33) during the second half of the second leg of MLS Eastern Conference championship series, in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

Record in 2016: 14-9-11 – 3rd in MLS’ Eastern Conference, 5th overall in MLS (Lost in MLS Cup final on penalty kicks)
Offseason evaluation:
Losing a veteran presence such as Will Johnson is definitely a significant loss, but look at the rest of this Toronto roster and say it’s not scary. Can’t do it, right?
Key player:
Jozy Altidore – The only question regarding Altidore over recent years has been his health. We saw last year what he can do when he is on the pitch, especially with someone like Sebastian Giovinco playing alongside him. 
Coach:
Greg Vanney – It’s pretty easy when you have the most dynamic player in MLS on your team, but Vanney has built a team that can last. 
Vague 2017 prediction: 
Expect Toronto to be a contender to win the East for years to come. Oh yeah, and they should be among the favorites to hoist MLS Cup too.

Europa League preview: Arsenal in Serbia, Everton desperate vs. Lyon

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The twelve groups of the UEFA Europa League bring forth soccer on Thursday, with a bevy of matches dotting the continent.

[ MORE: Full Europa schedule ]

Here are the top five matches to keep an eye on.

Everton vs. Lyon — 3:05 p.m. ET

If you would’ve told Ronald Koeman his Toffees would walk into this match with just one point but sit only another behind Lyon, he’d probably tell you to take a hike. But Lyon drew 1-1 at Apollon Limassol and 1-1 at home to Atalanta, opening the door for Everton to finish the day in Group E’s top two slots.

Nabil Fekir and Real Madrid loanee Mariano Diaz have seven goals each for Lyon, while ex-Premier Leaguers Memphis Depay and Bertrand Traore are also key components of the French outfit’s attack.

Red Star Belgrade vs. Arsenal — 1 p.m. ET

Arsenal in Europa has been pretty thrilling, with 3-1 and 4-2 wins under Arsene Wenger‘s belt ahead of the first of two with the 1991 European Cup winners. It’s a nice challenge for Canadian national team backstop Milan Borjan, who should be the man to try to thwart the Gunners in Serbia.

Hoffenheim vs. Istanbul Basaksehir — 3:05 p.m. ET

The favorites to win the group are dead last in the group as they welcome the perceived group underdogs from Turkey. The Super Lig runners-up have some familiar names on the roster with Emmanuel Adebayor, Gael Clichy, Eljero Elia, Mevlut Erdinc, Gokhan Inler, Aurelien Chedjou, and Emre Belozoglu.

AC Milan vs. AEK Athens — 3:05 p.m. ET

Milan has been burying goals in Europa play, with five at Austria Wien and three in a home win over Rijeka. Enter Athens, which has scooped up four points in group play and will look for a win to put them ahead of the group-leading Rossoneri.

Nice vs. Lazio — 1 p.m. ET

The only group with a pair of 2-0 teams. Mario Balotelli is plenty familiar with his Roman opposition from his time in Serie A.

Probe finds racial discrimination by England women’s coach

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LONDON (AP) Former England women’s team coach Mark Sampson racially discriminated against two of his players, a fresh Football Association investigation has concluded after initially dismissing allegations of wrongdoing and prompting a damaging public row with striker Eni Aluko.

Sampson was cleared of discrimination by earlier FA investigations but was fired last month because of an unrelated case of inappropriate conduct toward players in a previous job.

[ MORE: Champions League at halfway mark ]

Only now has a barrister considered new evidence about Sampson’s conduct toward England internationals Aluko and Drew Spence, with the details being released ahead of a parliamentary hearing.

“I have concluded that on two separate occasions, MS (Sampson) has made ill-judged attempts at humor, which, as a matter of law, were discriminatory on grounds of race,” barrister Katharine Newton wrote in the report.

One racially discriminatory comment by Sampson in 2014 toward Aluko requested her family members from Nigeria didn’t come to a game because of Ebola.

“MS (Sampson) did treat EA (Aluko) less favorably than he would have treated a player who was not of African descent,” Newton wrote. “MS had therefore subjected EA to less favorable treatment because of her ethnicity.”

During a team meeting in 2015, Sampson also asked Spence if she had been to prison, and then suggested she had been arrested four times. Newton concluded that the comment was made “because of her ethnicity.”

[ MORE: Hamid leaving DC United ]

FA chief executive Martin Glenn apologized to Aluko and Spence before the hearing. But Aluko told legislators that Glenn’s earlier conduct toward her was “bordering on blackmail” after he threatened to withhold payments from an 80,000 pound ($105,000) financial settlement unless she published a statement saying the FA “was not institutionally racist.”

With Aluko sitting behind him, Glenn later told the hearing that the player had not been blackmailed.

Instead Glenn said that an August tweet by Aluko – “at least we now know the FA’s stance on derogatory racial remarks by an England manager. Ignore, deny, endorse” – was a “clear breach of the agreement.”

Aluko, who was part of the team that finished third at the 2015 World Cup, has not played for England since making her 102nd appearance in April 2016.

There was a more apologetic tone from Glenn in his written statement on Wednesday, saying that Sampson’s conduct was “not acceptable” and he “would like to sincerely apologize” to Aluko and Spence.

“Our ambition has always been to find the truth and take swift and appropriate action if needed,” Glenn said. “It was our decision to have the original, second and final investigation to ensure that due diligence was taken. It is regrettable that Eniola did not participate in the first external investigation as this would have enabled Katharine Newton to conduct and complete her investigation sooner.”

Report: Hamid leaving DC United to “push himself” elsewhere

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Bill Hamid is taking his talents elsewhere.

The 26-year-old has been with DC United since 2007, making an even 200 appearances across all competitions.

[ MORE: Champions League at halfway mark ]

Hamid is thrice capped by the United States and widely considering to be one of the best shot-stoppers in the league, but the Washington Post’s Steven Goff says Hamid wants to showcase himself on a new stage.

“I want to push myself and see how far I can go because I know I have the work ethic and the hunger to take myself very far in this game. I know I can make it to the next level.”

Hamid is likely to wind up in Europe, and Goff said Danish club Midtjylland is the favorite. He’s also been scouted by Eintracht Frankfurt.

With a new United States men’s national team coach set to be appointed and Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, and Nick Rimando all on the back end of their time with the USMNT, Hamid has to look at himself as competing with Ethan Horvath and any number of young prospects.

Horvath is 22 and starting for Club Brugge. If their season continues on its pace, he’ll have a Belgian title and a Norwegian title under his belt.

U-20 players Jonathan Klinsmann (Hertha Berlin), Brady Scott (Koln), and Justin Vom Steeg (Fortuna Dusseldorf) are in German systems, while U-17 World Cup starters CJ dos Santos is at Benfica.

Age when making European debut and club
Tim Howard, 24, Manchester United
Brad Friedel, 23, Newcastle United
Brad Guzan, 23, Aston Villa
Kasey Keller, 23, Millwall
Tony Meola, 21, Brighton and Hove Albion
Ethan Horvath, 19, Molde

Surprises, disappointments halfway through Champions League group stage

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Clubs have met each of their group mates once, giving us an imperfect but workable sample size for the 2017-18 UEFA Champions League group stage.

Five groups have a side boasting a 3-0 record, while four clubs have yet to seize a single point.

[ CHAMPS LEAGUE: Tuesday | Weds. ]

Some of the strugglers, like 0-1-2 Maribor and 0-1-2 APOEL, are not surprises. And it’s no shock to see Manchester United at perfect 3-0 given its draw.

Others? Well, that’s not the case.

Status down 

While Manchester United is a perfect 3-0 in Group A, raise your hand if you figured Benfica would have just one goal and zero points through three matches. Benfica’s also played two of its three home ties, making the knockout rounds a dream.

Atletico Madrid has found the UEFA Champions League Final in two of the last four seasons, but finds itself with work to do moving forward. Atleti’s Wednesday draw at Qarabag leaves it three points behind Roma and five back of leaders Chelsea. Diego Simeone’s men still host Roma and Qarabag, so points are out there.

Serie A play has been gorgeous for Napoli, who has failed to bring that momentum to Group F. It’s worth noting that a missed penalty by red-hot Dries Mertens could’ve earned the Neapolitans a point at Man City on Tuesday, but as it stands Napoli is three points back of Shakhtar and could be six back before the Ukrainians visit on Nov. 21.

It turns out you can’t sell everyone and expect the youth to come through shining. Monaco is at the bottom of a very winnable group, having lost at home to Porto and Besiktas. Still just three points behind RB Leipzig, they’ll need to win at Monaco and/or Besiktas to have any hope of the knockout rounds.

Borussia Dortmund got a rough deal from officials when it visited Wembley Stadium, but losses to Spurs and Real Madrid can happen in a group stage. Tuesday’s draw at APOEL Nicosia, however, is close to a backbreaker.

(Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images).

Status up

Spurs draw at Real Madrid may have been aided by a huge performance from Hugo Lloris, but goalkeepers — as you know — are actual components of a team. This is in fact a group of death, but the North Londoners are holding a scythe. If Mauricio Pochettino can lead a home win over Real Madrid at a raucous Wembley on All Saints Day, well, look out!

Cenk Tosun has gone from sleepy transfer target to the tip of many gossipers’ tongues, as Besiktas is a perfect 3-0 including wins at Monaco and Porto. Anderson Talisca and… wait for it… Ryan Babel (!!) have also starred for the Turkish powers who will almost certainly see the knockout rounds.

[ MORE: JPW sits down with Ederson ]

Pep Guardiola‘s done this Champions League dance, you know, and Manchester City has weathered all storms. That includes conceded two penalties — one was saved by Ederson — as a down performance versus Napoli still ended with a home win. If City can win at the Stadio San Paolo on Nov. 1, Pep can sleepwalk into the final two matches (though that’s not his style).

Roma has a classy draw at Chelsea and has gathered five points including four away from home. Mimic that mark and i Lupi will be a challenge in the knockout rounds.

Neymar was best pals with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez last season at Barcelona, but having a less-than-perfect relationship with Edinson Cavani hasn’t hurt a thing in Paris. Paris Saint-Germain is for real, scoring 12 times and yet to concede in wins over Bayern Munich, Celtic, and Anderlecht.

Grey area

Liverpool leads its group and advancing is really the only goal, but there’s something off-putting about the home draw against Sevilla. The 1-1 draw at Spartak Moscow looks better now that the Russians hammered Sevilla 5-1, but a return visit from Maribor next should help the Reds buttress their stock.

Be careful how finely you analyze a club as accomplished as two-time reigning champs Real Madrid, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s men don’t look so hot. Still well-positioned to move on, keep a close eye on how they look at Wembley in a few weeks.

Holding pattern

Chelsea‘s 3-3 draw versus Roma today was its first real stumble of the UCL, but there shouldn’t be too many alarm bells considering their injury problems and Roma’s desperation. Consider their status even, especially given their clever win at Atletico Madrid.

Jose Mourinho is doing a fine job with Manchester United, but it’s really hard to praise the club too much for doing what’s expected in a glorified Europa League group. Clearly Sir Alex Ferguson was involved in the icing some of the draw balls again…