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MLS Roundtable: Dissecting key stories heading into 2017

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There is so much to talk about heading into the 2017 Major League Soccer season.

[ MORE: MLS 2017 season previews

Big name Designated Players have departed, two new teams have arrived, rivals are battling for dominance and plenty of young, exciting DPs are about to arrive, not to mention plenty of top young talent coming through the academy setups.

[ MORE: MLS 2017 schedule

Somehow, we’ve managed to whittle things down into a concise roundtable which debates plenty of the intriguing topics coming up in MLS in 2017.

Okay, ready?

Let’s chat MLS.

What are your thoughts on the switch from veteran DPs in MLS to a bigger emphasis on young talent? Is it a good or bad move for the league long-term?

Joe Prince-Wright: I’m intrigued to see how this goes. DPs have put fans into the stands over the past 10 years but you’d like to think those supporters would now turn up regardless of Lampard, Beckham, Pirlo or Henry playing. It’s hard to get this one right with big markets still craving star names. I think that improving the overall quality of the league most now be the gameplan rather than have two or three world class talents and then leaving the rest of the squad lagging behind. Make no mistake, this is a big shift in policy. I’m pretty certainty that most MLS markets are now established enough to cope without having huge names on the pitch. Long-term this will pay off, especially for the U.S. national team, but only if these young academy products and DPs are given the chance to play regularly.

Andy Edwards: It’s 100 percent necessary. MLS is past the point of novelty popularity grabs. Without spending Chinese Super League-type money, they’re not going to improve the very top of rosters, thus it’s roster spots 4 through 10 that need to close the gap on the three or four Designated Players from each team. Could you do that by paying mid-30-somethings 3 and 4 and $5 million per season? Sure, you could, or you could invest a fraction of that money into a promising youngster who’ll 1) produce on the field in the now, and 2) see his value increase a year or two down the road.

Matt Reed: Casual supporters may not have as great of an awareness for a player like Miguel Almiron in comparison to David Villa, but it’s shows the league is willing to put forth a better overall product by getting younger and developing more players. In the long term, I believe that’s what MLS needs in order to sustain its success. The league is always going to have its stars, particularly in the larger markets, but it’s important that clubs bring in these younger DPs in order build their rosters for 5-10 years as opposed to 2-3 years.

Nicholas Mendola: I think it’s here to stay, and a good thing. That said I do believe there is still a need for big names who can still play (Look what Frank Lampard did when healthy). My worry is the same as it is for most leagues: Getting carried away with a trend and assuming that’s “how it is now”. I remember when the Anaheim Ducks won a Stanley Cup and all of the sudden “rough and tumble fighting teams are back!”. Didn’t quite pan out that way for the long-term. That’s obviously a different scenario in so many ways — let alone the lack of knives bolted to soccer players’ feet. MLS is on its way, but it still isn’t mission accomplished. That’s another lesson the league should take from hockey.

Kyle Bonn: I love it. Not only is Major League Soccer switching from big-name but aged stars, they’re buying smart. Miguel Almiron is 23. Cristian Colman is 23. Josef Martinez is 23. These purchases will go a long way, not only to build the league over time, but to give important players time to adapt to Major League Soccer, which is always a key.

 Which conference is stronger: East or West?

JPW: I think the West is very, very strong once again. Six of the top nine teams in MLS last season were from out West but I am expecting a fightback from the Eastern Conference this season. NYC FC, Red Bulls, Toronto, Philly and even Atlanta can easily compete with the best from West.

AE: It’s still the West when a team with as much talent as the Timbers can’t crack the playoff field in 2016, when 60 percent of each conference’s teams qualified. They reloaded, the six teams ahead of them reloaded, the handful of teams behind them reloaded.

MR: The West has typically received the accolades of being the strong conference in the past, but I like the depth of the East better this season. Considering both New York clubs will be strongly in the mix once again, Toronto is easily the favorite to win the conference and then you throw in Atlanta, Montreal, D.C. and Philly.

NM: It’s dead even. I thought the East had edged in front until I tried to make the case for it on Tuesday. Bet against LA, Seattle, Dallas? No thanks.

KB: The Eastern Conference will be more competitive, but there are fewer truly great teams. The Western Conference is probably better, both with overall better teams and slightly deeper, but there’s a clear cutoff around #7, with more bad teams as well.

Looking at the two new boys in Atlanta and Minnesota, which teams is set up for initial success? And which team do you think will have more success in MLS in the future?

Source: Atlanta United

JPW: To start with, they’ve gone about things very differently. Minnesota will try to be a team first effort and Adrian Heath has gone for a mixture of players who know MLS well, others from the Loons’ NASL days and then a sprinkling of unknown foreign talent. Atlanta has gone big with its coach in Gerardo Martino and plenty of star players and promising young DPs from South America. I really like what Atlanta has done. They will be competitive this season and will only get stronger with their fantastic levels of support.

AE: From day one, I like the look of Minnesota a tad more. They haven’t got the brilliant attacking prospects that Atlanta slotted into their three DP spots, but I can look at their squad and slot guys into an actual system. To me, they’ll be the more functional of the two from the start.

MR: I personally love what Atlanta has done with its initial roster. Martino and co. have added young DPs while bringing in experienced players on both ends of the field with Kenwyne Jones, Michael Parkhurst and Brad Guzan, who will arrive over the summer. That’s not to say that Minnesota doesn’t have a good roster but I believe Atlanta will be better out of the gate.

NM: I’ve seen a lot of people make a case for Minnesota, but the only edge I really see is that their organization has seen the proverbial heat of battle before this season. Atlanta United looks like a team that can compete for a home playoff match, while I believe Minnesota will struggle to be in the playoff mix in Year One. I’d be thrilled to be wrong for the sake of the Loons!

KB: I think Atlanta wins in both regards. They’ve clearly had more resources to work with, which is a bit unfair, but they have bought both smart and gone big at the same time. What a first season they should be set up for. The Eastern Conference could be a total jumble, but I think they make the playoffs.

Who is your under the radar team to watch this year, a la Colorado Rapids of 2016?

JPW: Ah, this is tough. I’m going to say the Philadelphia Union. They’ve built a strong squad and I fancy Philly to upset a few people.

AE: The Vancouver Whitecaps finally have a striker, so watch out for them.

MR: I’m not saying the Chicago Fire are going to win MLS Cup but they had themselves a fantastic offseason, and the playoffs could surely be beckoning for the Eastern Conference side. Throw in Nikolic, Dax McCarty and Juninho with one of the younger rosters in MLS and this is a club that could really shock some people in 2017.

NM: Chicago is going to surprise those who haven’t paid close attention to the offseason, and I also think they did a lot of good things under Veljko Paunovic last season despite being young and woefully shallow in depth. I wouldn’t rule out Real Salt Lake, who surprised me as a playoff team last season, making a bigger statement early this season.

KB: Probably the Columbus Crew. People have them all over the map in early-season predictions, but I think they could have a decent shot at a playoff battle if their core of players that went to a Cup final just 2 years ago repeats that performance. They still need to find a proven goalscorer, but if the new signings on defense gel early, they could patch any issues up front.

Which offseason moves have excited you the most?

JPW: Fredy Montero back in MLS, this time with the Vancouver Whitecaps, seems like a great pickup. As Andy mentioned, they’ve struggled to score goals in recent seasons so I believe Montero will get plenty of service. We all know how great of a finisher he can be.

AE: Selfishly, due to proximity, it’s the changing of the guard for Sporting Kansas City. They’re a ton younger in 2017; they’ve got pace and dynamism; and Ilie Sanchez is going to be the best player you’ve never heard of as of right now.

MR: I touched on it before but Miguel Almiron is a really promising pick up in Atlanta. I think the Chicago Fire may have brought in the best player for immediate impact though, with Nemanja Nikolic from Legia Warsaw. He scored over 40 goals in two seasons with the club, and the Fire really lacked a striker last season.

NM: I’ll be interested in seeing how well Brooks Lennon does back home (on loan) at Real Salt Lake. The fact that the youngster just didn’t head out on loan with a League One or League Two side is intriguing, and his play in U-20 World Cup qualifying has been bonkers. Aside from him, I’m interested to see how Nemanja Nikolic (Chicago), Romain Alessandrini (LA Galaxy), and Chris Mavinga (Toronto) fare with their new clubs.

KB: Atlanta. For a team that started from scratch, they’ve done an incredible job getting prepared to compete immediately.

Toronto, New York City FC, FC Dallas, LA Galaxy: Which team has a better chance of winning MLS Cup?

JPW: Something just tells me that New York City FC will kick on once again this season. Yes, they will miss Frank Lampard’s goals and experience from midfield but I think Jack Harrison will take on a leading role and with David Villa around I believe they have the X-Factor. Now, Patrick Vieira just has to figure out his defense.

AE: FC Dallas amassed a squad of talent the likes of which we’ve never seen in MLS. They’ve got two legitimate starters at all 10 outfield positions, allowing them to take CONCACAF Champions League extremely seriously early on, while not squandering points in league play. When the injuries and/or fatigue sets in come summer, they’ve got the depth to not miss a beat.

MR: I’d lean more towards Toronto because they were on the verge of hoisting the cup a season ago and if Jozy Altidore can stay healthy once again, it makes it so difficult for opposing defenses to get multiple bodies around Sebastian Giovinco.

NM: Toronto or New York City. While I don’t expect TFC to truly compete for the Supporters’ Shield thanks to international team commitments, either of these teams will be a hassle in the playoffs.

KB: FC Dallas. They came close last year, but ran into the hot team. They’re the most reloaded again this season

Who gets more goals this season: Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa or Giovani dos Santos?

Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC

JPW: Sebastian Giovinco. The Atomic Ant has been the best player the past two seasons and he will prove that once again. He and Jozy Altidore will have a lot of fun in 2017.

AE: Villa will be asked to score more than the other two — which he’s clearly capable of doing — but Giovinco’s going to push 40 goals and assists combined this year.

MR: Without Robbie Keane getting the lion’s share of the goals out in LA I’m going to go with Gio dos Santos. He’s battled injuries a bit over recent seasons but when he’s on the pitch he’s dynamic to say the least.

NM: Giovinco will edge Dos Santos thanks to the latter’s Mexican national team commitments (provided Giovinco isn’t back in Italy camp, which seems unlikely). I expect Giovinco to have wild numbers, but perhaps more on the assist side this year as he goes on a scorched-earth campaign having inexplicably been left off of the MLS MVP ballot. That could leave an opening for Villa.

KB: Great question. Giovinco has more goals/assists combined, but Villa probably leads the league again given his target-man position on that team. His goals aren’t nearly as fun though.

What percentage chance do you give the Sounders of repeating their MLS Cup victory and why?

JPW: Eh, I’m going to say 40 percent. I would go higher but it all depends on Clint Dempsey‘s fitness and also on the progression of Jordan Morris. Are we going to see a Sophomore slump from him? Then again, when Nicolas Lodeiro is around you always have a chance of winning games…

AE: I’ll never assign a single team anything above a 10 percent “chance of winning” before the season, because it’s MLS. As for the Sounders specifically, I’m going to have to see how they see best to use Clint Dempsey. I’m not sure he fits into that team right now.

MR: 60%. A healthy Clint Dempsey, a revamped Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro, as well as one of the most underrated backlines and goalkeepers in MLS. This Seattle team can easily muster up another title in 2017.

NM: 20 percent. I’d give a higher number to their odds of taking the Supporters’ Shield, but the playoffs are such a crapshoot. Seattle is the odds-on favorite to come out of the West, but even then a one-game title battle is a 50-50 proposition at best (even at home).

KB: Repeating is nearly impossible, but they’re as well prepared as you can be. Having a fresh Dempsey back is huge, but their defense is pretty thin, which can cause problems.

Which manager(s) are on the hot seat should they have a slow start to the season?

JPW: There are actually quite a few. Houston’s roster looks weak so I’m not sure how long Wilmer Cabrera gets at BBVA. Also, Jeff Cassar at RSL needs a strong start after some big offseason moves. Caleb Porter may be under a little pressure too after the Timbers missed the playoffs last season. He needs a fast start.

AE: Dominic Kinnear needs some progress in San Jose, but no one is more on the hot seat than Caleb Porter. The internal expectations are a little different in Portland, and he could be gone by mid-summer if all that talent is headed for another playoffs-less season.

NM: Dominic Kinnear has been the name most often bandied about, but I’ll look at Jay Heaps in New England as the Revs have underachieved. Given the hype around Portland — which I don’t entirely get — Caleb Porter shouldn’t be too comfortable, either.

KB: Aside from the obvious teams at the bottom, I would say Caleb Porter. With Portland failing to make the playoffs last year, Porter could see trouble if they have a poor start this year. That’s not a team that should be missing the postseason twice in a row.

The team you are most looking forward to watching this season is ______ because ______

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)

JPW: Chicago Fire because I’d love to see them do well. We all know about the fanbase in Chicago. It’s about time they had an MLS team capable of challenging for trophies to get behind.

AE: Real Salt Lake, because the intriguing youngsters who’ll be counted on to assume important roles all over the field — Justen Glad at center back; Bofo Saucedo in midfield; Jordan Allen as a starting winger; Brooks Lennon as the prodigal son in any number of positions; but most notably, Albert Rusnak as the heir to Javier Morales in the no. 10 role. There are a ton of unknowns heading into the season, and there’s a million different ways 2017 could go for RSL.

MR: Minnesota because Atlanta has received the bulk of the media coverage this offseason, and the Loons have put together a pretty solid roster of their own.

NM: The expansion clubs, and that’s simply because watching these theories put into practice is thrilling (Cheap plug for my interview on the construction of Atlanta United).

KB: Probably LA Galaxy, because they have one of the most dynamic attacks. Giovanni dos Santos is a player we’re all watching grow up from a good player to a great player, and that’s always exciting to see.

Finally, share your wildest dream for this MLS in 2017…

JPW: Both Atlanta and Minnesota United become genuine playoff contenders in their debut season. It’s so tough for expansion franchises but I’d love to see both teams come in and ruffle plenty of feathers.

AE: The Chicago Fire are going to the playoffs in 2017, and I couldn’t be more excited for that franchise and its fanbase to return to relevance.

MR: It’s a league built on parity so it would have to be seeing the Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamo in MLS Cup. The two bottom dwellers from a season ago wouldn’t exactly be pulling off Leicester City odds but it would make for great drama.

NM: Michael Bradley begins to follow the Wayne Rooney career hair arc and arrives with a midseason mullet (full-blown, too, not ironic). … Minnesota and Colorado stage a two-legged playoff match, both in an inch or more of snow. … Clint Dempsey leads the league in combined goals and assists per minutes played. … Columbus comes back from its super poor 2016 to win at least two trophies. … Brooks Lennon is leading the league in scoring and on the way to a Rookie of the Year when Jurgen Klopp calls him back for Liverpool preseason, sending Daniel Sturridge back as a makeweight. Sturridge then finishes in the Top Ten in goals despite only playing three months. … Vancouver wins the Cascadia Cup. … Wilmer Cabrera wins Coach of the Year in Houston, but the Dynamo go winless against Dallas.

KB: Giovinco gets a call-up to the Italian National Team. Come on. The guy deserves it, clearly.

USMNT roster announced for pair of World Cup qualifiers

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The regulars are all aboard as Bruce Arena has announced a mostly full-strength roster for the World Cup qualifiers against Mexico and Trinidad & Tobago.

The only true regular missing from the 27-man list is midfielder Jermaine Jones, who is recovering from a knee injury suffered back in early May.

Leading the line are Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey up front, with Jordan Morris and Bobby Wood alongside. Fabian Johnson, Michael Bradley, and Christian Pulisic headline the midfield, along with Alejandro Bedoya and Darlington Nagbe. Kellyn Acosta is called up as a like-for-like replacement for Jermaine Jones.

Along the back, Geoff Cameron is available for selection after navigating a few injuries this past season. John Brooks is back as well after his muscle tear suffered in late April. DeAndre Yedlin is back as well after missing the last pair of qualifiers with an injury and winning the Championship with Newcastle. Fulham’s Tim Ream is called in after showing improvement all season at the club level. Jorge Villafana returns at the thin left-back position, as is DaMarcus Beasley, who is listed as a midfielder.

In goal, Brad Guzan, Tim Howard, and Nick Rimando present an experienced trio, also supported by 21-year-old Ethan Horvath.

The US takes on Venezuela in a friendly on June 3rd in a warm-up to the pair of qualifiers. First, they’ll host Trinidad & Tobago in Denver on June 8th. Then, on just a three day turnaround, they head to the Azteca to play Mexico.

After earning four points in the last international break, the United States sits in 4th position in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. The top three teams advance automatically to the 2018 World Cup, while the 4th placed team can qualify via a two-legged playoff against a team from the Asian confederation.

GKs: Brad Guzan (Atlanta United FC), Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

DEFs: DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City).

MIDs: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)

FWDs: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC), Bobby Wood (Hamburg).

Totti’s loyalty one of the great soccer accomplishments ever

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During the prematch ceremony to celebrate the retirement of Roma legend Francesco Totti, there were fans crying. There were mascots crying. There were family members crying. There were players crying. The man himself was crying.

When 25 years with one club, no celebration can keep back the tears that naturally follow such a glorious career. Instead, an entire stadium paid tribute in one massive outpouring of emotion.

He was never flashy, he was never self-concerned, he never attracted the spotlight. All Francesco Totti did was give and give and give to his club. As the Italian’s career progressed, the game changed around him, with more and more money flowing through a landscape that gave players every reason to change teams as often as possible.

Through it all, Totti stayed put.

Roma’s Francesco Totti enters the field for his final salute to his fans after an Italian Serie A soccer match between Roma and Genoa at the Olympic stadium in Rome (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino).

At the end of it all, 25 years produced 618 league appearances, and 782 appearances overall. He scored 250 Serie A goals on the nose, and another 66 amid all other competitions. Those are just numbers, and Totti gave Roma far more than a laundry list of big numbers.

But for now, we focus on the bookkeeping, because even those are staggering. 250 league goals leaves Totti 2nd all-time in Italy, behind just Silvio Piola, but even the great 1938 World Cup champion never scored more than 143 league goals for a single club. Only three active players have over 100 league goals.

Totti racked up 618 Serie A appearances, his final one a 3-2 win over Genoa that earned Roma a Champions League group stage spot. That total is good for third all-time, one (for now) behind the great Gianluigi Buffon and 29 back of all-time leader Paolo Maldini. Maldini, who retired in 2009, also spent his entire career with one club in AC Milan, an equally commendable accomplishment. But in the modern game, 8 years adrift of Maldini’s playing days, the overwhelming temptations to move clubs make what Totti has done even more remarkable. Plus, he out-lasted Maldini’s career by a year (24 vs. 25 years active).

A note: only two players in the top 30 list in Serie A appearances are still active: Buffon, and 34-year-old Alberto Gilardino, who has played for 11 clubs in his career and is still 104 appearances back of Totti.

Past all the numbers stands a humble man who served one fanbase as loyally as humanly possible. Totti’s accomplishments are not only among the greatest in the history of the game, but it also may never be surpassed by anyone as long as we live.

Mascherano out 6 weeks, will miss Argentina vs. Brazil

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says defender Javier Mascherano will be out of action for six weeks to recover from a right knee injury.

[ MORE: Luis Enrique leaves Barca with feeling of accomplishment ]

Barcelona’s season is over, but the injury will rule out Mascherano from Argentina’s friendly against Brazil on June 9.

Mascherano injured his leg early in Saturday’s final of the Copa del Rey, when Barcelona beat Alaves 3-1 to defend its title for a third straight season.

He also cut his head during the collision with an Alaves player that produced the leg injury. He returned on crutches to join the team celebration.

Argentina doesn’t play its next World Cup qualifier until it plays Uruguay on Aug. 28.

Courtois aiming at new Chelsea contract after strong season

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There’s a wide range of players that were integral in Chelsea’s Premier League-winning season in 2016/17, but one of the most underrated was arguably goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

[ MORE: PL clubs may miss on Celtic’s Dembele and more transfer news ]

The Blues shot-stopper started all but two PL matches this past campaign, and now the Belgian international is seeking an extension with the London club.

“Contract talks haven’t opened but I am happy at Chelsea,” Courtois told Sky Sports after Chelsea’s loss to Arsenal at Wembley.

“I hope they reward me with a good contract, then there will be no doubt I will sign it.”

The 25-year-old keeper has been in at Stamford Bridge since arriving from Genk in 2011, but Courtois spent three seasons in Spain on a loan spell.

Courtois likened this PL campaign to his time on loan at Atletico Madrid, stating that while his side’s achievements in the league were everything Chelsea could have hoped for that there was still more the Blues could have done.

“It’s not a good feeling now,” Courtois told Chelsea’s official website. “I had the same thing in Spain when I won the league and then lost the Champions League.

“We wanted to end on a high, now we feel sad. Winning is everything so this is hard to face but we have to try to forget it.”