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:

CCL: Toronto FC embarrassed in 4-0 defeat in Panama

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As far as Toronto FC are concerned, 2018 never actually ended and appears set to continue for the rest of eternity.

[ MORE: Jurgen Klinsmann received $3.35M settlement from U.S. Soccer ]

After losing the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League final to Chivas de Guadalajara on penalty kicks, the then-defending MLS Cup champions proceeded to ninth in the Eastern Conference and miss the playoffs by 14 — fourteen — points.

Fear not, though, for the most recent offseason would be a time for rebuilding to make one final push for trophies during the Sebastian Giovinco/Michael Bradley/Jozy Altidore era. Except, the exact opposite of that occurred: Giovinco left for Saudi Arabian side Al-Hilali; Victor Vazquez departed for Kuwaiti side Al-Arabi; Laurent Ciman and Terrence Boyd were the big arrivals this winter. A net-negative, to state the painfully obvious.

[ MORE: Liverpool draw Bayern Munich | Barcelona held by Lyon ]

Then, on Tuesday, things got worse — so, so much worse. Playing away to Panamanian side Independiente in the CCL round of 16, Greg Vanney’s side conceded four (quite spectacularly) poorly defended goals en route to a 4-0 defeat that has them all but eliminated before even stepping foot on their home field next Tuesday.

If you’re into watching that sort of thing, have a quick look below…

Boyd sent a penalty kick into orbit, just before halftime when the score was still just 1-0, thus setting in motion the Reds’ total collapse over the final 45 minutes.

There have been some embarrassing showings by MLS sides in CCL over the years, but what TFC did on Tuesday ranks right down near the bottom of anything we’ve ever seen.

Champions League preview: Man City visit Schalke; Atleti v. Juve

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Manchester City’s quest for European glory resumes on Wednesday, when the reigning Premier League champions travel to Gelsenkirchen, Germany, to take on a struggling Schalke side in the UEFA Champions League round of 16.

[ MORE: Liverpool blunted by Bayern, and vice versa, in first-leg draw ]

Schalke sit 14th in the Bundesliga with barely a point per game (23 from 22 games) nearly two-thirds of the way through a disastrous league season. Manager Domenico Tedesco’s position will surely come under consideration this summer, though he could do himself a massive favor by knocking off a heavy favorite to reach the Champions League quarterfinals.

Man City come into the first leg in fine form, having won 12 of their last 13 games (all competitions) after their season nearly went up in smoke back in December. Sergio Aguero’s red-hot finishing touch has been at the center of recent successes, with the Argentine scoring in five of his last six appearances (nine games during that time, including a pair of hat tricks). City will, however, be without the services of three key figures: left back Benjamin Mendy (knee), forward Gabriel Jesus (hamstring) and center back John Stones (groin); meanwhile, Vincent Kompany (muscular strain) has been passed fit and made the trip to Germany.

[ MORE: Lyon strong at home, hold Barcelona to 0-0 draw (video) ]

All Atletico Madrid have to do to compete in this season’s final at their brand new Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in the Spanish capital is run through three home-and-away ties over the next three months, beginning with seven-time reigning Serie A champions Juventus. To further complicate matters, the Bianconeri are now led by Atleti’s old nemesis, Cristiano Ronaldo, from his days at Real Madrid. On the plus side, Atleti haven’t lost a home knockout game in 22 years, so they’ll almost certainly head to Turin with a puncher’s chance of sneaking through.

Massimiliano Allegri and Juve, on the other hand, intend to leave little to chance in the second leg on March 12.

Our team is growing physically, mentally and technically and we have to keep going as we enter the most important stage of the season,” the Juve boss said this week. “We have to be focused, knowing that we face a compact team that make the most of set pieces, and who in recent years have achieved a lot of good results in Europe. I wouldn’t take a draw now — I said to the lads that it’s important to score goals.”

Sarri an isolated manager after Chelsea fans turn on him

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LONDON (AP) The volley of abusive chants from Chelsea supporters were aimed in a different direction this time. Toward the sideline at Stamford Bridge.

[ MORE: Liverpool blunted by Bayern, and vice versa, in first-leg draw ]

Players were spared on Monday, there was no need to dig out the “rats” banners from 2015, and supporters seem just fine with Eden Hazard and Co.

Typically loyal to their managers — and there have been a dozen alone this century — many Chelsea fans instead seem to be done with Maurizio Sarri even before the end of his first season in charge.

Losing in the FA Cup to Manchester United was the breaking point, even if it wasn’t a complete rout. The cup competition is low on Chelsea’s priority list — winning it wasn’t enough to save Antonio Conte last season — but the end of that quest only adds to the despair.

In this rebuilding season, winning the Premier League — as Conte did in 2017 before finishing fifth the next year — couldn’t have been expected given the strength of Manchester City. But neither was a slide to sixth in the standings and a scramble for one of the four Champions League places.

“I am worried about the results,” Sarri said after Monday’s 2-0 loss to United. “Not about the fans.”

But the mutinous atmosphere won’t be lost on owner Roman Abramovich, who has spent the year watching from afar because the British government stymied the Russian billionaire’s visa renewal. That offshoot of the London-Moscow diplomatic dispute feeds the uncertainty at Chelsea.

[ MORE: Lyon strong at home, hold Barcelona to 0-0 draw (video) ]

Without fan backing, the 60-year-old Sarri — without a trophy in his career — looks isolated and exposed. The much-vaunted “Sarriball” is now part of the vocabulary of vitriol in chants — with added expletive.

It’s reminiscent of Rafa Benitez‘s interim title being used against the caretaker coach five years ago. Even in the darkest days of Jose Mourinho’s second spell in charge — as Benitez’s successor — it was the players who were blamed. Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa and Hazard were branded “rats.”

Hazard is the only one of the trio still on the team — not that he gives the impression of wanting to stick around. The Belgium winger has avoided committing his future to Chelsea and has openly stoked talk of a transfer to Real Madrid.

Much like Madrid, Chelsea oscillates from glory to gloom under a conveyor belt of managers.

There’s also a regular flow of trophies, albeit only potentially secondary ones this season. Chelsea can still win the League Cup by beating Manchester City on Sunday and remains in contention in the Europa League.

While Madrid dropped to sixth place at one point this season in the Spanish league, the team hauled itself back up to third. Chelsea, which has won the Premier League five times since 2005, hasn’t been as successful. In the last month, the London club has lost to Arsenal, Manchester City — a 6-0 humiliation — and even to an ostensibly inferior Bournemouth.

For the stubborn Sarri, there seems to be no alternative to the “Sarriball” pressing tactics that helped his Napoli team push Juventus hard for the Italian title. Just a repetitive sequence of decisions.

– a reluctance to trust young players like Callum Hudson-Odoi.

– a determination to shoehorn Jorginho into defensive midfield, forcing N'Golo Kante out of position in favor of the recruit from Napoli.

– persisting with a back four after a three-man defense proved so effective for Conte.

– substitutions repeated in like-for-like changes. If it’s not Ross Barkley replacing Mateo Kovacic in central midfield, then they are interchanging the other way – 20 times this season. Pedro Rodriguez and Willian have swapped places 14 times.

For all the problems, it’s easy to forget that it took Chelsea three months to lose a game as Sarri started on an 18-match unbeaten run. Losing to Tottenham in November now seems to be a significant turning point.

Before that 13th game, Chelsea was in third place and had scored 27 and conceded only eight times in the league. Since then, Chelsea had netted 18 and conceded 21.

The cups will now define Sarri’s future, and it’s one down and two to go this week.

Chelsea holds a 2-1 lead over Malmo in the Europa League heading into the second leg of the round of 32 on Thursday before the League Cup final against City at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

“The most important thing now is to stay calm, train really hard and recover our best football and our best feeling,” Pedro said, “because if not, we are in trouble.”

More specifically, Sarri will be.

First-leg draw “not the worst, not a dream result” for Liverpool

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If indifference — and its inherent lack of feeling — could be classified a feeling, it’s the one most Liverpool players, and manager Jurgen Klopp, would use to describe their collective mood following Tuesday’s 0-0 home draw with Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League round of 16.

[ MORE: Liverpool blunted by Bayern, and vice versa, in first-leg draw ]

While the high-quality chances weren’t quite there for a meeting of two sides the magnitude of Liverpool and Bayern, the frenetic pace and end-to-end nature was still on display, which did plenty to keep a scoreless draw plenty entertaining for the neutral observers.

Speaking after the game, Klopp said it “wasn’t a dream result,” but also called it “a good one.” Wishy-washy — quotes from the BBC:

“From a result point of view, it’s OK. It’s not a dream result, but it’s a good one.”

“We made life more difficult with the last pass today – about 10 or 12 times a promising situation [fizzled out]. We can play better. We should play better.

“In the first half we had the bigger chances. I can’t remember any chances for either side in the second half. It wasn’t a Champions League night from that point of view.”

Midfielder and captain Jordan Henderson, who, it must be said, was a titan for the Reds on Tuesday, called it “not the worst result in the world.” Noncommittal.

“It’s not the worst result in the world. The performance level was good but we lacked that bit in the final third.”

“We’re disappointed not to score. But we kept a clean sheet and defended well. We had enough chances, especially in the first half.

“They’re a good team, they’re going to keep the ball. At times we found it frustrating. We were a bit unlucky in front of goal.

“It’s still alive. We’ve got games before the second leg. We’ve got to be confident still. It’ll be difficult but we have experience in the Champions League. We can go there and hurt them.”

In fairness, all of the above is true. The feeling of Liverpool having left so much on the table stems from how effervescent they were en route to reaching last season’s Champions League final. To see them struggle so early in the knockout rounds was, even after just one deep run a year ago, a bit jarring and unsettling.

[ MORE: Lyon strong at home, hold Barcelona to 0-0 draw (video) ]

Take into consideration the 10 days they had to prepare between games, and you get the feeling that Klopp and Co., know they needed to do so much more to give themselves a better chance of advancing to the quarterfinals.

The second leg is set for the Allianz Arena on March 13.