Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: Vancouver Whitecaps

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(Through the week we’ll look at three Major League Soccer clubs per day, considering what they need to accomplish and what questions deserve answers during preseason training camps. Opening day in MLS is March 2.)

Vancouver may have made last year’s playoffs, but having stumbled into the postseason after a mid-season makeover, 2013 comes with more questions than answers. Thankfully, there’s still a strong base of talent featuring the kind of veteran cornerstones that make create envy in more MLS bosses.

But players like Jay DeMerit and Lee Young-Pyo only provide a foundation – a fail safe ensuring one half of the Whitecaps’ game will be fine. Vancouver’s problem last year was going forward, with the team scoring seven fewer goals than any other playoff team. It’s difficult to imagine a return to the postseason unless the Whitecaps can find some more goals.

  • How good will Darren Mattocks be?

In 21 appearances and 15 starts, the 22-year-old Mattocks put up seven goals (1300 minutes). That’s a decent debut in an absolute sense, but compare that with the other forwards taken high in the 2012 SuperDraft: Andrew Wenger had four goals; Casey Townsend scored once; Sam Garza, Ethan Finlay, Chandler Hoffman, Dom Dwyer and Colin Rolfe failed to score. Mattocks scored more goals than the rest of the first round forward combined. Add in the mid-season reshuffle at BC Place and the demands of World Cup Qualifying and Mattocks’ rookie season looks impressive.

He was more impressive on the field. The raw abilities he showed forced you to imagine an attack that could do more than dump balls behind the defense. That will always be a huge part of the burner’s game, but Mattocks is capable of much more.

If Martin Rennie can harness that talent and put a system behind Mattocks’ inevitable improvement, Vancouver could have one of the more dangerous strikers in the league. But out your calculator, up his minutes, and bump up the numbers to account for some improvement and more help around him, and you can see a player challenging 14-15 goals. Even if it’s low double digits, that would solve a lot of Vancouver’s scoring problems.

  • What now without Barry Robson?

Scottish international Barry Robson is gone, and that’s a good thing. Martin Rennie was enamored with the midfielder, built his attack around him, and it cost the team. Vancouver was worse after Robson came into the lineup, with the former Celtic man see more success venting his frustrations than creating goals.

How they move on may depend on Omar Salgado’s health. He’s still coming back after last year’s foot injury, but when he returns, he’ll have to play, something that will influence Rennie’s deployment. Does he play on the left again? Or up top? Regardless, when you combine Salgado with Mattocks, Vancouver has two formidable (if emerging) talents in attack. That’s their future.

The midfield, however, looks thin. Once a position of depth, now Rennie only has Jun Marques Davidson, Gershon Koffie, and Matt Watson returning from the corps he used last season. Alain Rochat seems destined to see time here, but that doesn’t solve the position’s main problem: There’s little to offer in attack. This preseason, Rennie will need to identify the player that’s going to make the connection between the Koffie-level and Mattocks.

  • What has Martin Rennie learned?

Rennie looked like a perfect fit at the beginning of last season. In the middle, he got a little ahead of himself. With the departure of Robson, it’s clear there’s been some reconsideration of last year’s moves.

Call it a learning experience, but it remains to be seen what the lessons were. Surely Rennie has learned a lot about what his players can do, but how does that transfer onto those mid-season adjustments the Whitecaps will have to make during the summer window?

Hopefully Rennie gets comfortable with his squad before March so the changes Whitecaps fans see in the middle of the season are more gradual than last summer’s dice roll. The team has the talent to challenge for the playoffs again. Since it’s hard to imagine a mid-season overhaul that would change that state, Vancouver would best served trying to get the most out of now rather than waiting for their team to re-form in July.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Lukaku working to shed extra muscle he put on for World Cup

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Romelu Lukaku has found it difficult to replicate his international form at club level since returning to Manchester United from the 2018 World Cup, but Belgium’s superstar no. 9 is confident he’s worked out the main reason why: he came back carrying too much muscle.

[ MORE: Chelsea hand Man City a first loss | Liverpool win to go top of PL ]

After scoring four goals in six appearances in Russia, Lukaku has netted just six times in 15 appearances in the Premier League and has received considerable criticism with the Red Devils slumping to their current sixth-place standing in the league table.

In preparation for the World Cup, the 25-year-old says he packed on a few extra pounds of muscle to better stand up to the international game’s highly physical nature. Once he returned to Manchester, though, he quickly realized that all that extra weight would be hugely detrimental in the fast-paced, end-to-end PL. It’s taken some time and effort, but it sounds like Lukaku is just about where he would like to be again — quotes from the Guardian:

“In the Premier League, I cannot play with the same amount of muscle as international football. That was something that when I came back I knew straight away — ‘Nah, I cannot play in this style like this.’ I had to lose muscle basically. So you just stay out of the gym, drink a lot of water, and a lot of vegetables and fish, and it helps.”

“After the World Cup, I think I really was a bit tired. But, you know, I had the same thing in 2014 after the World Cup when I came back to Everton, I was really in a slump after the World Cup. So now I think I am in a decent level again and ready to go again. I knew this. Me and the [United] medical staff, we did like a lot of tests to see what was the problem. I had a hamstring injury, which is something that never happens to me.”

“We are doing more prevention in the gym and I am trying to do speed bursts in training and that’s the most essential”

Things are certainly looking up for Lukaku as he’s scored twice in Man United’s last three PL games — the first time he’s managed to do so since tallying in back-to-back fixtures at the start of September.

Burnley’s Mee defends tackle that broke Joe Gomez’s leg

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Joe Gomez is expected to miss the next six weeks after suffering a broken leg during Liverpool’s 3-1 victory over Burnley on Wednesday, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with the tackle which resulted in the injury, according to Clarets defender Ben Mee.

[ MORE: Chelsea hand Man City a first loss | Liverpool win to go top of PL ]

Mee, who tackled the ball away from the Liverpool defender halfway through the first half, took the opportunity this weekend to defend his tackle, calling it “unfortunate” and saying that strong challenges are “part of the game” — quotes from the BBC:

“I don’t think anything was wrong with my tackle personally. You can’t take tackles out of the game.”

“I’ve seen Liverpool make tackles and get the crowd up and things like that. For me, you can play fair, but you can also play hard as well.

“We’re at the bottom of the table and we need to get out of it, so we’re obviously going to work our socks off to win games. It was just unfortunate and I send my best wishes to him.”

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp seemed to side with Mee’s version of events following the game earlier this week, calling it “the cleanest” tackle made by a Burnley player all game — a clear reference to what he felt was a highly physical outing by the Clarets. Burnley boss Sean Dyche called it a “fantastic tackle.”

Serie A: AC Milan frustrated by results, missing out on Zlatan

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MILAN (AP) AC Milan’s problems in front of goal show no signs of abating and it has been forced to admit defeat in its attempts to bring back Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Milan was held at home to a 0-0 draw by Torino in Serie A on Sunday. The Rossoneri have scored just three goals in their past four league matches, and only three of the other sides in the top 10 in Serie A have scored fewer than Milan’s tally of 24 in 15 rounds.

Milan had been trying to bring back the 37-year-old Ibrahimovic on loan from the Los Angeles Galaxy. The former Sweden international scored more than 50 goals for Milan in his two seasons at the club, 2010-12.

“He gave his word to Galaxy that he would stay if they satisfied his conditions and they did so,” sporting director Leonardo said. “It would have been a really lovely story because it would have given a significant weight to the team.

“We can’t deny that both parties thought of it but it will not be possible.”

Patrick Cutrone should have snatched the win for Milan with four minutes remaining on Sunday but he fired wide of the right post when one-on-one with Torino goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu.

The 20-year-old Cutrone put his head in his hands in dismay, while other Milan players were also visibly shocked at the miss.

Milan’s teenage goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma pulled off a stunning save in the fifth minute to keep out Iago Falque’s header from close range.

“I’ve had a really difficult year but I’m much more calm now,” said Donnraumma, who has faced criticism recently following several poor performances.

Milan remained fourth, three points behind Inter Milan, which lost at league leader Juventus on Friday. Milan is a point ahead of Lazio, which drew 2-2 at home to Sampdoria on Saturday.

Torino also remained in the fight for the final Champions League place, and is four points behind Milan.

The 2 Robbies: Chelsea top Man City; Liverpool go top

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe discuss what was perhaps a title-defining weekend which saw Chelsea hand Manchester City their first defeat of the season with a 2-0 victory at Stamford Bridge (4:30) and Liverpool beat up on Bournemouth with a 4-0 win at Vitality Stadium to go top of the Premier League table (22:15). Plus, thoughts on wins for Tottenham Hotspur (31:50), Manchester United (39:25) and Arsenal (47:55) before the midweek Champions League fixtures.

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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