Major League Soccer team previews: COLUMBUS CREW

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Each day from now until the beginning of Major League Soccer’s 18th season, we will preview one Eastern Conference team and one from the West. MLS first kick is March 2.

No. 7 in the East is the Columbus Crew:

Significant additions and subtractions: Three important South Americans will help strengthen the Crew’s first XI. Brazilian center back Gláuber gives longtime Crew backline cop Chad Marshall a stronger partner.

New midfielders Matías Sánchez and Agustín Viana means solid roster holdovers like Tony Tchani or Danny O’Rourke are now in reserve roles rather than starting roles, which makes Columbus a stronger team.

The departures are notable not in their production around Crew Stadium, but because so much had been expected of players like midfielders Milovan Mirosevic and Dilly Duka, and forward Olman Vargas.

Duka left in a huff; he’s now with Chicago, which offered up speedy Dominic Oduro in exchange.

Rich Balchan, Julius James, Chris Birchall, Carlos Mendes and Sebastian Miranda were all starters at some point who had their options declined.  Also gone is William Hesmer, the longtime starter in Crew goal who has now retired.

Strengths: Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuaín were two of Major League Soccer’s top summer signings last year, in tandem generating 14 goals and 11 assists in 31 matches. Get that over an entire season and Columbus probably cruises into this year’s playoffs.

A new 4-2-3-1 look should give Higuain opportunity to “think” his way around the game, freer to freelance thanks to two defensive screeners behind him.

Generally, the roster is stronger, with a little less “average” spread around the field.

Under Warzycha, the team has always been well organized and tough to oppose. Arrieta and Higuain, plus underrated two-way man Eddie Gaven, provide the offense-defense balance that had been missing for some time in Ohio.

Pressure points: It’s time for manager Robert Warzycha to take a settled roster and move the team beyond makeover mode, where the Crew have hovered since 2010. The core is there to build around in Higuain, Arrieta, Marshall (still an above-average center back, now in his 10th professional season) and goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum.

Speaking of Gruenebaum, the pressure may feel a little different this year. Last year he could ride in heroically as Hesmer’s replacement. Now, everyone expects Gruenebaum to don the super hero’s cape – and that’s a whole other level of pressure.

The soft spots are at outside back, on either side. There’s some talent, but one of the lesser tested types needs to put a stranglehold on the position. Also along the back line, strong as Marshall can be, remaining healthy and available tends to be an issue.

Is the club past all the emotional undertow from popular midfielder Kirk Urso’s shocking death in 2012? Who could blame them if difficult moments still linger? The rookie from the University of North Carolina died from complications of a heart defect on Aug. 5.source: Getty Images

Difference maker: Higuain was so productive over his initial 8-10 matches upon arrival in Ohio last year that he kicked up some league Most Valuable Player chatter. (Higuain did claim league Newcomer of the Year honors.)

An injury crunched the momentum and slowed the Crew’s creator for the season’s final month, tamping down a playoff push that had looked so promising through August and September. The Argentine attacker (pictured right) has all the technical tools, all the know-how and all the desire to be a premier MLS man, and to be everything that the beloved Guillermo Barros Schelotto was for so long around Crew Stadium.

Potential breakout player: Talented young attacker Justin Meram will presumably get his chances around Crew Stadium; Arrieta figures to miss quite a few matches (and probably need resting here and there) due to Costa Rican international duty in World Cup qualifiers and in this summer’s Gold Cup.

Bottom line: You have to look at Columbus as one of the truly interesting teams in 2013, if only for the tremendous potential of the Arrieta-Higuain combo. Crew president Mark McCullers is certainly optimistic, stopping just short of predicting an Eastern Conference and the MLS Cup final being played in Ohio. Honestly, on paper, it’s really not such a stretch.

(MORE: the entire roster of ProSoccerTalk’s Major League Soccer previews and predictions)

Euro 2020 Roundup: France thrashes Moldova, Portugal fails to score

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France showed on Friday that it hasn’t lost its mojo, as it tore apart Moldova on the road, 4-1, in its Euro 2020 qualifying opener.

Antoine Griezmann, Raphael Varane, Olivier Giroud and Kylian Mbappe all scored in the win for France, which jumps well ahead in the Group H standings. For Giroud, it tied him for third in all-time scoring for Les Bleus.

Elsewhere, Portugal suffered a surprising result in a scoreless draw with Ukraine. The defending European champions failed to score, despite starting Bernardo Silva and Cristiano Ronaldo up top. It’s the third straight time that Portugal has started off a qualification campaign without a win.

Here’s a look at the other scores around Euro 2020 qualifying on Friday:

Bulgaria 1-1 Montenegro

Albania 0-2 Turkey

Andorra 0-2 Iceland

Luxembourg 2-1 Lithuania

Indicted UCLA men’s soccer coach, former USMNT defender resigns

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LOS ANGELES (AP) UCLA men’s soccer coach Jorge Salcedo has resigned in the wake of his indictment in the college admissions scandal.

School spokeswoman Liza David said Friday that Salcedo quit after being on leave since the charges became public last week.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Salcedo appeared in court last week after he was accused of taking payments totaling $200,000 in exchange for helping one male and one female applicant gain admission to UCLA under the false pretense that they were soccer recruits when they didn’t play competitive soccer.

He was one of nearly 50 people charged in the scandal that involved prestigious schools like Yale, Stanford, Southern California and Georgetown.

UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said in a statement Friday that the school is conducting an internal review of the student-athlete admissions process.

“I understand and share the outrage that this news has sparked,” Guerrero said. “The behavior described in the allegations is disturbing and unacceptable.”

Salcedo, a former UCLA All-American and national champion, was the second-longest tenured head coach in program history. During his 15 years, the Bruins made two appearances in the national championship game. Prior to his coaching career, Salcedo played professionally in Mexico and the U.S. He played in the LA Galaxy’s inaugural season, also featuring for the Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire and Tampa Bay Mutiny. He went on to record three caps for the U.S. Men’s National Team.

Assistants Matt Taylor and Phil Marfuggi have taken over the men’s team.

Salcedo is scheduled to appear in federal court Monday in Boston, where the charges originated.

Atlanta’s Martinez scores as Venezuela shocks Argentina

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It was supposed to be Lionel Messi’s big night in his return to the Argentine National Team after a nine month break. Instead, it may have reminded him why he left in the first place.

Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez scored a second-half penalty, Newcastle United’s Salomon Robson opened the scoring and the Vinotino of Venezuela shocked Argentina, 3-1 in a friendly match played at the Wanda Metropolitana in Madrid. For all the starpower of both sides, MLS was represented, as Martinez’s club teammate Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez started for Argentina alongside Messi.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The result was another blow to coach Lionel Scaloni as he tries to rebuild an aging Albiceleste side with a frail defense. Meanwhile it is a huge boost for Venezuela ahead of this summer’s Copa America in Brazil.

It only took six minutes for Rondon to put Venezuela on the board. Tottenham’s Juan Foyth was unable to deal with the Newcastle striker as a terrific direct pass from leftback Roberto Rosales found its way to Rondon, who provided a calm finish.

Just before halftime, Jhon Murillo curled home a delightful strike to put Venezuela up 2-0. Pity Martínez was substituted at halftime and while Lautaro Martinez pulled a goal back for Argentina, it was not to be Argentina’s night. Foyth again was to blame as he took down Darwin Machis in the box, setting up Josef Martinez to put the final nail in the coffin.

England kicks off Euro 2020 qualification in style

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It’s been nine months since the 2018 World Cup, but England looked as if it picked up where it left off in Russia.

The Three Lions opened their Euro 2020 qualification on the right foot with a 5-0 win over the Czech Republic on Friday at Wembley Stadium. Raheem Sterling carried his terrific form in front of goal into the international game, finishing with a hat trick. Meanwhile, Harry Kane scored once and picked up a hockey assist on England’s opener as he set the play in motion.

[READ: USMNT ratings vs. Ecuador]

It was the kind of performance England fans have longed to see against Europe’s weaker sides, though in the past England had been unable to break those opponents down. On Friday, just about everything went to plan.

In the opening minutes, England set the tone with their attacking 4-3-3 approach, especially with fullbacks Kyle Walker and Ben Chillwell getting up into the attack. Kane unlocked the Czech Republic defense in the 24th minute with a terrific pass to find Jadon Sancho in space in the box, which you can see in the graphic below. Sancho quickly slid a ball across the face of goal that Sterling slid home to put England up 1-0.

Just before halftime, Sterling was involved again as he was bundled down in the penalty box, leading to a penalty kick. Kane stepped up and cooly dispatches the ball in for England’s second.

In the second half, as the Czech Republic tried to push forward, that left space open in behind. Dele Alli slid a ball into the box for Sterling, who’s initial attempt was blocked. However, the ball popped out to his left and Sterling curled a strike home with terrrific poise. Sterling put a bow on his terrific performance with a strike that took a heavy deflection off Ondrej Celustka and found the net.

Less than two years after winning the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, Callum Hudson-Odoi made his England debut replacing Sterling. The debut is significant, as Hudson-Odom hasn’t started a league match yet.

In the 84th minute, a Chelsea connection led to England’s fifth goal. Sancho dribbled through the middle of the field diagonally before finding Hudson-Odoi out left. The youngster cut inside and fired a strike on goal that was saved by Czech goalkeeper Jiri Pavlenka. But the rebound off Pavlenka’s save was somehow put into his own goal by Czech defender and former Chelsea signing Tomas Kalas.