Are we headed for the most unpredictable MLS season yet?

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First Kick is on Saturday, and I have no idea what’s going to happen during the 2013 campaign. I mean, sure, I have some ideas, some vague notions that I feel reasonably confident might come off, but it’s a lot of grasping around in the dark. And you know what? Anyone who tells you differently is lying.

Think about it: How many teams are dramatically different from the end of last season? The New York Red Bulls turned over basically its entire roster, save Thierry Henry who is already complaining about losing Kenny Cooper. (Oh, the irony.) Chivas USA went further, jettisoning pretty much anyone without Mexican heritage. (For the record, I love the idea — as Alexi Lalas says, a plan, even a bad one, is better than no plan at all — but it makes the club remarkably unpredictable.) Real Salt Lake, one of the perennial fixtures at the top of the Western Conference, is working through some issues. The Columbus Crew should be fun with Frederico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta, but who knows how the duo will hold up through the rigors of the long season. Caleb Porter showed up, went to town on the Timbers roster, and isn’t done. (Playoffs, yo. Mark it down.)

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

The Vancouver Whitecaps will only go as far as Jay DeMerit takes them, and his injury concerns are, well, concerning. Toronto FC is playing Where in the World Is Our Coach, but could be surprising when Ryan Nelsen arrives. (Or, of course, they could be terrible.) The Seattle Sounders find themselves without Fredy Montero and needing a performance in the playoffs. That will certainly add pressure. The Los Angeles Galaxy, well, who the heck knows. We know the team will be good — definitely, maybe — but how good is up in the air and largely on Mr. Cambodia. And then there’s Freddy Adu, Chris Wondolowski, and Carlos Ruiz, all with things to prove or not prove or whatever have you.

And that paragraph above is what makes MLS great. Sure, the quality of play could be better, and the referees could improve, and you wonderful readers could think of one hundred and one things to improve in the next five minutes, but you gotta love the league for the fun of it. Anything could happen. That’s something worth celebrating, I think.

Former Arsenal, Brazil midfielder Baptista announces retirement

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Julio Baptista’s time at Arsenal only lasted 12 months, but it was a memorable stint.

The Brazilian, who played the 2006-07 season for the Gunners, announced his retirement on Thursday at the age of 37. The former Brazil international only managed 10 goals with Arsenal, but they came in bunches.

Baptista memorably scored four goals against Liverpool in the League Cup quarterfinal, as Arsenal finished with a 6-3 win. Baptista even missed a penalty kick that game.

Baptista cemented his legacy later in the season with a brace in the FA Cup against rival Tottenham.

Baptista, clearly an immensely talented player, suffered from being a good, but not great player. He seemed to have no perfect position other than the No. 10, and most teams he played for had better players in that position. It forces him to play along the wings, deeper in midfield or as a striker during the prime of his career.

In the end, injuries beset his career, especially a short spell at Orlando City in MLS.

 

U-20 World Cup Rewind: Italy tops Mexico, host Poland falls on Day 1 (video)

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Italy opened the FIFA Under-20 World Cup with a bang, knocking off fellow Group B favorite Mexico, 2-1, in Gdynia, Poland.

It only took Italy three minutes to get on the board, as Davide Frattesi found a pocket of space in front of the El Tri backline and dribbled in on goal. The Sassuolo midfielder then decided to fire on goal from distance, hitting a rocket into the corner to give Italy a 1-0 lead.

Later in the first half Gianluca Scamacca also took a rip from outside the box, but his strike sailed just wide.

A defensive error on a corner kick gave Diego Lainez and Mexico life. In the 37th minute, AC Milan product Alessandro Plizzari committed a howler, coming out to punch away the curled corner kick. Plizzari missed the ball and it went right to the head of Roberto De La Rosa, who calmly made it 1-1.

El Tri however suffered a blow late in the match as Italy took back the lead. In the 67th minute, Luca Ranieri collected the ball on the edge of the six yard box and from a tight angle, he scored past Mexico goalkeeper Carlos Higuera.

For Mexico, it’s a rough way to start the World Cup, having to go against a perennial power in Italy and playing on European soil. Not all is lost for Mexico, but it has to rebound with a win in its next game against Japan.

Elsewhere, Colombia defeated host Poland, 2-0, Japan tied Ecuador 1-1, and Senegal beat Tahiti, 3-0.

Saudis, Bahrain, UAE join to bid for FIFA’s U-20 World Cup

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GENEVA (AP) Middle East neighbors Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are jointly bidding to host the Under-20 World Cup in 2021.

FIFA says the Gulf plan is among five to express interest in bidding, including Brazil.

Indonesia, Peru and a Myanmar-Thailand joint bid are the others.

FIFA announced the contenders Thursday, one day after dropping a proposal for Qatar to share hosting duties for the 2022 World Cup with regional neighbors.

The 2021 U20 contenders must submit a formal bid by Aug. 30. FIFA’s ruling Council will pick the winner, likely in October.

The 2019 edition kicks off Thursday in Poland.

Putin awards medal to FIFA president Infantino

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MOSCOW (AP) Vladimir Putin has given FIFA president Gianni Infantino a medal.

The Russian president awarded Infantino the Order of Friendship at the Kremlin on Thursday.

Infantino has often said last year’s World Cup in Russia, where the host nation surprisingly reached the quarterfinals, was the best of the 21 editions of the tournament.

Putin thanked the FIFA leader for “your glowing assessment of our efforts.”

Infantino says of Russia’s “bonds of friendship” with soccer “is not the end, it is only the beginning of our fruitful cooperation and interaction.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports