Major League Soccer team previews: NEW YORK RED BULLS

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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. First kick is March 2.

No. 3 in the East is the New York Red Bulls:

Significant additions and subtractions: In a trade with Real Salt Lake the Red Bulls got a reliable, hard-working scorer in Fabian Espindola and one of the league’s elite center backs in Jamison Olave. The club also added Brazilian veteran Juninho to boost the attack. (There are lots of Brazilian Juninhos out there; this is the Red Bulls’ Juninho.)

The most newsworthy change is Rafa Marquez’s departure; if anything goes wrong this year, we can no longer blame the former Mexican international. (And that was typically the first stop along the blame train.)

Also moving out of Red Bull Arena is Sebastian Le Toux, who is back in the venue of his best success, Philadelphia. And Kenny Cooper was traded to Dallas, taking his team-leading 18 goals with him. The team also purged a few mid- to high-salaried veterans, like Jan Gunnar Solli and Teemu Tainio.

Strengths: No MLS roster looks more promising; back to front the Red Bulls have talent and options. Guiding them is now Mike Petke’s job, and the players seem to have connected with the longtime club figure – Petke was a former Red Bulls player and then assistant coach – in a way they never did with Hans Backe, who was fired last fall after three seasons in charge.

Petke hopes to get the best of his talented collection of attackers through a loosely structured attack, where interchange is encouraged in what he says will sometimes look like a 4-4-2, other times a 4-1-3-2, a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3.

Goalkeeper Ryan Meara, moving toward a possible Rookie of the Year honor last year before a late summer injury, and Luis Robles give Petke two terrific choices in goal. And speaking of choices, Heath Pearce is in the league’s top half of center backs, but probably top five in left backs. That kind of flexibility can only help as Petke builds the match-day lineups.

The central midfield will involve some ordering of Dax McCarty (rewarded with a new contract for that fantastic 2012 campaign), longtime EPL veteran Tim Cahill, Juninho and Thierry Henry.

Pressure points: The club has never won a major trophy, a fairly noticeable black eye for the team representing Major League Soccer’s largest media market. As “pressure points” go, that’s a pretty substantial one, and an ongoing issue around Red Bull Arena. No one is more aware than Petke, a fan favorite in his playing days and the club’s all-time leader in appearance with 169 in league matches.

The trick with Olave is keeping him healthy enough that he justifies that relatively high salary for an MLS center back; Olave has averaged about 24 starts over the last five years, and he never quite looked the same after a hamstring injury last summer.

Henry has plenty of talent around him to provide some relief here and there, and he’ll certainly need it. (Plus, Henry doesn’t like playing on artificial turf.)

source: Getty Images

Difference maker: Henry turns 36 in August, but he still looks up for the job. The former French international (and league’s highest-paid player) supplied 15 goals and 12 assists last year, which are league MVP-worthy numbers. Plus, he never seemed to click between the white lines with Cooper, so the on-field chemistry with fellow attackers will presumably improve in 2013.

We can be 100 percent sure that Henry can still manufacture some very special moments; some of his goals over the last two years have been absolute beauties.

Potential breakout player: The club has three starting-quality left backs in Pearce, Roy Miller and Conor Lade. So we’ll see how much Lade can get on the field.  Sooner or later, the talented, hard-working left back will get the chance to show why a player like Henry spent so much time talking him up last year.

Bottom line: There is a lot of pressure on Petke, 37, to find his feet quickly in this, his first professional head coaching assignment. Assuming he keeps the Red Bulls bus properly in lane, there is zero reason to believe they cannot challenge for the Eastern Conference crown. The roster is well-constructed throughout and blessed with difference makers at the top, even if a couple of them tend to be on the brittle side.

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

Maradona: Argentina drawing Iceland is “a disgrace”

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It’s been a pretty trying and criticism-filled 36 hours for Lionel Messi and Argentina, and that was already true before the World Cup hero that is Diego Maradona weighed in.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

No longer are La Albiceleste simply known as the side that drew tiny Iceland — the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup — but now their efforts on Saturday have been dubbed “a disgrace” by Maradona.

It’s not so much the players whom Maradona, manager of the national team for the 2010 World Cup (quarterfinals appearance, beaten 4-0 by Germany), has gone after, but current boss Jorge Sampaoli for his lack of a proper gameplan befitting the opponent. As for Messi, who failed to convert a critical penalty kick, Maradona has absolved the Barcelona superstar of much of the blame — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s a disgrace. Not having prepared for the match knowing that Iceland are all [6-foot-3] tall.”

“I get the feeling there’s an anger at the heart of the team.”

“I don’t blame the players. I could blame the lack of work rate. But I can’t blame the players, much less Messi, who gave it all he had,” said Maradona.

“I missed five penalties on the spin and I was still Diego Armando Maradona. I don’t think that they dropped two points because Messi missed a penalty.”

England squad reconnects with fans with image makeover

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VOLGOGRAD, England (AP) — Whatever happens to England at the World Cup, at least the reception facing the squad should be less brutal than it was in 2014 after its exit following the group stage.’

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For once, the players can’t be accused of hiding away, retreating behind their headphones. The hallmark of England’s preparations for Russia has been shedding the past reticence to engage with the public, a calculated move by the team leadership to reconnect with a public disaffected by years of failure at tournaments and uninspiring performances.

“They appear more relaxed. They appear more normal,” supporter Gavin Hughes said, overlooking the Volgograd Arena where England opens its World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Monday. “They appear human. They are just lads playing football at the end of the day. That’s been the problem in the past. There’s more of a togetherness.”

A defining clip of the 2010 World Cup was Wayne Rooney bellowing down the barrel of a camera after a 0-0 draw with Algeria: “Nice to see your home fans booing you, that’s what loyal support is.”

That disconnect with the public has been bridged by the 23-man squad facing the media in a 45-minute, Super Bowl-style session before leaving for Russia. The English Football Association’s approach is in a marked contrast to club duty where they are largely closeted away, save for appearances with paying broadcasters or often in controlled appearances.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

“We’ve done a lot for the fans on social media so they can see what we are up to, which has not always been the case,” captain Harry Kane said Sunday. “It’s important while we have free time is to try to let the fans know what we are up to.”

The public is seeing a new side of the players. Not only are they more relatable but painted in a more sympathetic light, beyond the caricatures of millionaire mercenaries just chasing more money.

“That connection with the supporters is really important,” coach Gareth Southgate said. “There have been perceptions about our players for a long time … so it’s been really good for our public to see how much it means to the players to play, to see a different side of their personality.”

In a move unthinkable in years gone by, when a since-departed FA official blocked Rooney talking about his Christianity, defender Danny Rose recently opened up on his problems dealing with depression. Publicly praised by Prince William for raising awareness of health issues, Rose realizes how players can use their new platform to show their human side and inspire others.

“A lot of people messaged me to say thank you, that they know someone who is going through this or has been through that and that I’ve helped them and given them the confidence to express themselves,” Rose said. “We have a lot of down time and I’m going to think of something to help others when I get back. I’ve got time to think while I’m here and when I get back from the World Cup about how I can go forward and help people.”

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It’s not just about the players feeding a voracious traveling media pack with material. Kieran Trippier, who is also Rose’s club teammate at Tottenham, told the left back he appeared no longer burdened by a private plight in England’s last World Cup warm-up game.

“I was playing with a bit of freedom,” Rose said of the victory against Costa Rica. “I think he’s got a point.”

Southgate is credited with encouraging the warmer environment, far removed from the controlling regimes under Fabio Capello and Gary Neville, who was Roy Hodgson’s assistant for the dismal 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship last-16 humbling to Iceland. A bemusing, running theme in the British papers at Euro 2016 in France was the players’ refusal to divulge any details of a darts tournament. The squad has been overhauled by Southgate and it has even been playing darts with the media at the World Cup base near St. Petersburg.

Southgate has been playing his part, going to fan forums in the buildup to the tournament to recognize the commitment and cost involved watching England abroad.

“Sometimes those really good people who follow us are overlooked at the expense of some who have caused problems in the past,” Southgate said.

Ultimately, results dictate the public mood and England hasn’t won a knockout game at any tournament since 2006.

“It’s about how we perform,” Southgate said, “but there’s a bigger picture.”

WATCH: World Cup, Day 5 — England, Belgium enter the fray

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The weekend might be all but over, but that doesn’t mean that 2018 World Cup action is slowing down anytime soon.

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Monday, in fact, will be quite the opposite, as Group G giants — and a pair of popular dark horse picks — Belgium and England make their debut in Russia, taking on Panama and Tunisia, respectively.

Following Germany’s 1-0 loss to Mexico on Sunday, Group F is currently turned upside down on its head. Sweden and South Korea, who’ll face off in the day’s opener, are even more hopeful now than prior to the start of the tournament.

Below is Monday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Monday, June 18

Group F
Sweden vs. South Korea: Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group G
Belgium vs. Panama: Sochi, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Tunisia vs. England: Volgograd, 2 p.m. ET –LIVE COVERAGE

Petkovic: Time to “take Switzerland seriously” after Brazil draw

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While much of the talk about Sunday’s 1-1 draw between Brazil and Switzerland will focus on the former, the Swiss would like their share of credit for frustrating — and matching — one of a handful of favorites to win the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

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Switzerland manager Vladimir Petkovic is chief among those who believe it’s time those on the outside “start taking notice of us and taking us seriously.” As for the insinuations that his side roughed up Neymar, who suffered 10 of the 19 fouls committed by Switzerland, most of them were “very clean” — quotes from the BBC:

“Sometimes if there is a lack of recognition that is a pity because we have played very well. We showed and demonstrated that this team always believes in itself and can achieve results.

“Most of the duels (with Neymar) were won in a very clean way. It was one of the key ingredients to neutralize Neymar.”

“I’m very proud and pleased with the discipline with the way we played. We worked collectively and cohesively.”

“When we are able to play forward and press higher up we were able to do it well and it is an excellent starting position for the rest of our group matches.

“We had real difficulties in the first 40 minutes, I said ‘let’s remain calm, focused and believe in ourselves, push up higher up the pitch and create opportunities to score.'”

Having secured a point in far and away their toughest group game, Switzerland now have eminently winnable games against Serbia (Friday) and Costa Rica (Wednesday, June 27) remaining. Four points from those two games would just about guarantee progression to the knockout rounds.