MLS Signings: Digging deeper on Pogatetz, Sinima-Pongolle, and Pintos

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A trio of signings brought a set of new names to Major League Soccer on Tuesday, with three teams holding out hopes of a playoff return strengthening their squads before next week’s roster freeze. For one team, that means a former international sliding into a new position of need, while two other clubs look for solutions amid lingering concerns.

We’ll start in Columbus, where the addition of a former Premier League defender could help solidify the team’s playoff spot.

Emanuel Pogatetz signs with Columbus

The 31-year-old Austrian defender has enjoyed a long career in the top flights of Germany and England. Though Pogatetz most recently spent time with Nuremburg and Hannover, he’s best known for his five seasons at Middlesbrough, where he was a mainstay under Gareth Southgate.

The Austrian international has also made 61 appearances for his country, appearing in all three games for the team at the 2008 European Championships.

A big (6’3″) often rough defender, Pogatetz is capable of playing left back, though his primary position is in the middle. Particularly in Columbus’s scheme, he is likely seen as a replacement for Giancarlo Gonzalez, who moved to Italy this summer.

Since that move, Tyson Wahl has filled in ably next to Michael Parkhurst, though Pogatetz could be a significant upgrade. The main question, in addition to whether he can assimilate to his new environment, is whether he can handle the one-on-one situations that arise from Gregg Berhalter throwing his fullbacks forward.

Florent Sinima-Pongolle signs with Chicago

With Mike Magee out, the long-established connection between the Fire and Sinima-Pongolle finally produced a roster spot. In terms of resume, this 29-year-old (seriously, only 29?) has stops that would make most MLS talent blush (Liverpool, Atletico Madrid, Sporting Lisbon). Unfortunately, the one-time France international hasn’t been particularly productive at any of them.

In 12 years of European soccer, the versatile Le Havre product has only produced double-digit goals twice – the two years he spent at former La Liga side Recreativo Huelva. Though he scored 22 times in 38 league matches there (2006-2008), Sinima-Pongolle’s been limited to 21 goals in 192 other appearances in France, England, Spain, Portugal, and Russia.

In a world where Bradley Wright-Phillips is leading MLS in goals, you can only be so suspect of any signing. But for those inclined to read into Sinama-Pongolle’s time at Liverpool, his more recent stop may prove more informative. Over two seasons with Russia’s FC Rostov, Chicago’s new striker scored twice in 18 appearances.

Pablo Pintos signs with San Jose

Pintos is the least recognizable of Tuesday’s signings, though the 6’0″ right back has some impressive clubs on his CV, too. A product of Defensor Sporting in Uruguay, Pintos was sold to Argentina’s San Lorenzo in 2009, six months before Lazio paid close to $2 million to acquire the then-22-year-old. Pintos never touched down in Serie A, instead being loaned out to Getafe (Spain) before making his way to Kasimpasa in Turkey. Coming full circle, Pintos return to Argentina then Uruguay over the last year, making eight appearances for his original club in the last eight months.

During the last two years, however, Pintos has seen relatively little playing time. Between Turkey, Argentina, and Uruguay, he’s made only 17 league appearances (nine starts), and while it’s encouraging he continues to garner interest from teams, those teams are now part of a descending career arc. Instead of building toward a career in Europe, he’s coming back from a short one.

Based on his usage and the limited information available online (which, of course, includes some nice YouTube highlights), Pintos appears to be a right back capable of getting forward, one that’s occasionally filled in at right midfield. With San Jose looking for options at right back (having used Andreas Gorlitz, Brandon Barklage, Ty Harden, and Shaun Francis there this season), Pintos may finally get the time he needs.

It will be the first time since leaving San Lorenzo that Pintos has played consistently. When he gets that time, we’ll see how much is left of the player the once drew big money from Lazio.

Columbus Crew sign Austrian defender Emanuel Pogatetz

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On Monday the head coach of the Columbus Crew, Gregg Berhalter, revealed they have signed former Premier League and Austrian international defender, Emanuel Pogatetz.

The former Middlesbrough, Bayer Leverkusen and Hannover defender joins the Crew on a free contract after spending last season at FC Nuremberg in the Bundesliga.

[RELATED: Gonzalez heads to Palermo]

With the MLS transfer window still open for free transfers and loans until Sept. 18, Columbus have snapped up Pogatetz to fill the void left by center back Giancarlo Gonzalez who was sold to Palermo in August for a fee in the region of $5 million after an impressive World Cup with Costa Rica.

Speaking about the acquisition of Pogatetz, Berhalter had the following to say.

“We think Pogatetz is a great addition to the roster,” Berhalter said. “It’s a highly experienced defender, captain of his national team – over 60 caps for Austria – in the Bundesliga, Premier League, you name it. Tons of experience.”

The 32-year-old defender, nicknamed ‘mad dog’ due to his love for physical play, is left-footed and can play as a left-sided center back or at left back. He will give the Crew a boost in their backline heading into the final few weeks of the season. After losing Gonzalez, the Crew have stayed solid at the back and have conceded just three goals in their last four games. Berhalter’s boys have won three of their last four and sit just inside the playoff spots in the Eastern conference.

Pogatetz is not thought to be match fit, but the Austrian will feature for Columbus down the stretch. Alongside Michael Parkhurst, Waylon Francis and Tyson Wahl, Pogatetz is a quality addition to the Crew’s backline as Berhalter continues to impress during his first season as an MLS head coach.

Columbus, Houston answer questions in Crew’s 3-0 win

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[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCd4N9KcBEk]

Forgive the indulgence, but this is from our weekend preview, posted last night:

The questions for Columbus and Houston are clear. For the Crew, it’s a matter of harnessing whatever they did against Los Angeles and bringing it back to the field.  Twelve shots on target (a season high), and four goals past Jaime Penedo (the most LA’s conceded this year). Is that the real Columbus Crew?

Apparently so. For the second weekend in a row, and in the wake of news that the team had sold one of its best players, Columbus gave a dominant performance, one that moved the team into a tie for third in the Eastern Conference.

Taking advantage of an early David Horst mistake, Justin Meram opened the scoring, his fifth goal of the season giving Gregg Berhalter’s team a 1-0 lead 10 minutes before the break.

After halftime, the Crew got some surprise production from its one problem area: Striker. Adam Bedell headed a ball home from close range in the 59th minute to make it 2-0, while Aaron Schoenfeld, having relieved the rookie, notched his own headed goal in the 64th. Against a team that should be strong playing crosses, Columbus went direct to blow the game open.

Is this the real Columbus? Increasingly, the answer seems “yes,” though two games are still a pretty small sample. But if you consider March’s 3-0-0 start as more proof of Columbus’s potential, August’s result may be the team reverting to form. Maybe the Crew have rediscovered themselves.

As for Houston, well, let’s go back to our preview:

For Houston, it’s a matter of showing constant improvement – building on the progress they showed last Friday against Philadelphia, and taking the show on the road. With a stiffer challenge against a fully rested squad, is Houston a viable playoff contender? If so, they’ll at least keep it close.

Instead of improvement, we saw regression – Houston looking like the same defense-deprived team that sunk to ninth place in the Eastern Conference. After today’s disappointment, the Dynamo are back in the spot, with Chicago’s draw  putting another spot between Dom Kinnear’s team and a postseason return.

That placement is less concerning that the progress. If Houston had played well today and still lost, at least you could argue the team was moving in the right direction. Columbus may be too good, right now, to expect full points on the road. Houston playing well against them? It would be a sign of better things to come.

Instead, we’re left questioning whether Houston’s made progress at all. This felt like one of their performances from earlier this summer. The defensive mistakes, the lack of chances – it all harkened back to a team that had work to do to catch up to the middle of the Eastern Conference.

That work was signing DaMarcus Beasley. It was signing Luis Garrido, and it was firming up a defensive that managed to look decent ahead of Columbus. Before today, Houston had two clean sheets in its last three games.

Now those performance have a different context. After Saturday in Ohio, Houston looks like it’s treading water.

Giancarlo Gonzalez on his way to Palermo ahead of potential $5 million deal

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After less than a year in Columbus, Costa Rican international Giancarlo Gonzalez appears to be moving to different pastures, with the exposure he gained during Los Ticos’ run to the World Cup’s quarterfinals landing him a new home in Italy’s Serie A. Ahead of what league sources told the Columbus Dispatch is a $5 million deal, the 26-year-old central defender is on his way to Sicily for a physical, one that could end with a return to European soccer.

Gonzalez arrived in Columbus this winter after two seasons in Norway with Vålerenga. Before that, the 40-time international spent four years with Alajuelense, having come up through Costa Rican club’s youth system.

Columbus head coach Gregg Berhalter spoke about the potential deal today, saying Palermo’s offer was “very difficult to refuse.”

[tweet https://twitter.com/columbuscrew/status/503294287086620673]

“We’re creating a soccer environment that can improve the value of players.” Berhalter said in comments posted by the Crew’s “Insider.” “We were able to work with a foreign club to put Giancarlo in a situation that not many people get the chance to do, play in Serie A.”

According to Berhalter, the final deal is expected to be announced on Monday or Tuesday, provided Gonzalez passes his physical. While the funds will be available to spend immediately should Gonzalez be sold (after Vålerenga and MLS get their share), the club won’t necessarily pay for an immediately replacement.

“The allocation money that we get gives us the ability to work with a bigger pool of money,” Berhalter said, saying the sale will allow the team to “get to where we want to go faster.”

It’d be a big loss for the Crew, albeit one it appears the club is prepared to suffer. If Berhalter and the team’s goal is to groom players for more sales like these (or, to bargain buy in the offseason with the hope of flipping those talents), this will be a frequent occurrence.

Berhalter’s job is to meld that business into a plan that also finds success on the field, and thus far, the new boss has crafted a better product. But if the team’s playoff push is undermined by the Gonzalez sale, the price Columbus got for one of its better players will be seen in a different light. “At least we got that money” will become an empty refrain if the Crew end up missing the postseason.

Who saw this coming? Columbus routs LA Galaxy, 4-1

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Given how Gregg Berhalter reacted to last week’s loss, noting he needed more from four or five players in his lineup, Columbus were setup for a make-or-break moment this weekend. Either the Crew would respond to their coach’s implied challenge or accept what they had become: A team that’s failed to recapture March’s promise.

In case the headline leaves any doubt, the former came out at Crew Stadium today. Against what’s been the strongest team in the league (at least, over the last few weeks), Columbus gave one of its most impressive performances of the season. Thanks to two goals on each side of halftime, the Crew beat the LA Galaxy 4-1, assuming fourth place in the Eastern Conference in the process.

Justin Meram opened the scoring 23 minutes in, turning onto his right foot to put a shot from just outside the area inside Jaime Penedo’s left post. Ten minutes later, Columbus had taken apart LA’s defense once more, with Ethan Finley finishing from the left of the penalty area.

Gyasi Zardes’s 10th goal of the season brought LA within one in the 49th minute, but an easy goal for Ben Speas in the 75th restored Columbus’s two-goal edge. Nine minutes later, Columbus completed the Galaxy nightmare when Giancarlo Gonzalez headed home a Federico Higuaín corner, giving them a 4-1 win.

It was the first time this season LA has given up more than two goals in a game – a performance that comes on the heels of giving up two at home to San Jose. In that game, the Galaxy only gave up two shots on target but were caught twice in transition. On Saturday, despite holding 57 percent of the ball, LA gave up 12 shots on target, leaving little doubt as to the justice of the result.

That the result was just doesn’t make it any less of a surprise; at least, from Los Angeles’s point of view. While Columbus deserves credit for a convincing display, one that came in the face of last week’s disappointing loss, a three-goal loss is one few thought the Galaxy had in the team. For a team that had begun to look like a championship contender, Saturday could be a setback.

It would also be a complete outlier – a one-off. Though the defense was poor today, nothing about 2014 suggests that’s part of a bigger trend. The reason why this is such a big result: Nobody saw it coming.

It does, however, give us some insight into each team’s potential. For Columbus, it’s an example of the team putting it all together, getting the disparate parts that’ve misfired for much of the season onto the same page. When that happens, the Crew can put up a big result.

And for Los Angeles, the game showed the fine line Bruce Arena’s team may be walking. Though it was the league’s best over the previous month, the Galaxy also have deficiencies in defense, weaknesses that can be exploited when the back line isn’t getting help.

Odds are Saturday’s result will be a wakeup call.