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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.

Gerard Pique signs news Barcelona deal

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Gerard Pique has signed a new contract at Barcelona which keeps him at the club until 2022.

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Pique, 30, joined Barcelona in 2008 from Manchester United after leaving his boyhood club Barca in 2004 to join United’s youth team.

The new release clause in Pique’s contract is $610 million, with the Spanish international set to spend the rest of his career at the Nou Camp. The center back, who has won 25 major trophies with Barca, was delighted to nail down his future to his hometown team.

Pique has played in 422 games for Barca and scored 37 goals with the flamboyant defender a mainstay for much of the last decade.

Breaking out of the back line with surging runs and assured passing, Pique will go down as one of the greatest defenders in Barcelona and Spain’s history when he hangs up his boots.

In a team where the supreme attacking talent is always praised, it’s easy to overlook the achievements of Pique and his fellow defenders in the Catalan capital. However, there’s no doubt his composure on the ball, reading of the game and ability in the air makes him one of the top center backs on the planet.

Wenger: Sanchez likely to leave for Man United

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Alexis Sanchez’s move to Manchester United is close to completion.

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Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger has confirmed that Sanchez is “likely to leave” for Jose Mourinho’s side, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan thought to be heading in the opposite direction plus a sizable transfer fee.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday ahead of Arsenal’s clash with Crystal Palace on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com), Wenger revealed the deal for Sanchez is almost complete.

“I worked on transfers for 30 years so it is likely to happen, but at any moment it can break down,” Wenger said. “As long as it’s not over the line you have to accept it may not happen, these kind of things are not guaranteed. I have no problem with Sanchez’s attitude. He was in training fully committed. He is 29 years old and the next contract will of course be very important to him.”

So, there you have it. Sanchez to United is happening and with the numbers being mentioned, it’s easy to understand why he will leave. Sanchez will be paid $19.2 million per year, after tax, and he will also receive a $27.7 million signing-on fee and his agent will get $13.8 million.

United will get a new star No.7 in his prime and Sanchez getting a fresh start and being hungry to impress will certainly be music to the ears of Mourinho. Whether or not the Chilean international will have the same impact as Eric Cantona, who joined United in his late 20’s and helped led them to multiple PL titles, remains to be seen, but this deal does remind you of that circumstances. One player doesn’t make a team but a special player like Sanchez can make a heck of difference overall.

Wenger also spoke about the possibility of Mkhitaryan being part of the deal and it seems he is very keen on signing the Armenian international who almost joined the Gunners in the summer of 2016 before joining United instead.

“I like the player. We played many times against him when he was at Dortmund. He appreciated the quality of our games. The wages would not be a problem,” Wenger said.

It seems like everyone will be happy with this deal. Of course, Arsenal wanted Sanchez to stay and that’s why they didn’t sell him to Manchester City in the summer. Wenger couldn’t persuade him to sign a new deal and now, less than six months before he leaves on a free, they are getting a decent chunk of change and playmaker who, on his day, can unlock any defense in the world.

For United, Mkhitaryan is out of favor under Mourinho and they will get him off their wage bill, while they also get Sanchez in his prime and get one over on Man City where everyone thought he would end up.

All in all, this tricky situation seems to have worked out best for everyone, especially Sanchez and his agent.

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.