2014 Season Preview: Welcome to the last year of MLS 2.0

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This World Cup business is awfully inconvenient. Here’s Major League Soccer, turning its wallet inside out, embarking on its first major spending push since the 1990s, and FIFA has to throw this huge party in Brazil – in the middle of the MLS season! Then they go and invite all of the league’s best players, some of whom MLS just paid big bucks to bring back? World Cup, your timing couldn’t be worse.

Entering its 19th season, Major League Soccer is starting to transcend mere stability. Under commissioner Don Garber, the league now has a national footprint of viable teams, one that’s allowed it to become ambitious. Those days of contracting teams in Florida? Dead, gone, irrelevant.

With signings like Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley and Seattle Sounders attacker Clint Dempsey, MLS is reaching out to the casual fans, I really only watch the national team follower and saying “then watch your national team with us.” Dear mainstream sports fan: Drop on by; hang out; beers are on us.

But for the first three months of the 2014 season, those casual and mainstream fans are going to be all about the World Cup. The U.S. plays an exhibition against Mexico on April 2. They’ll call their preliminary roster into camp mid-May. Then the send-off tour begins. Even before festivities in Brazil kick-off in mid-June, the national team pops onto the radar just enough to keep MLS’s breakout season in the shadows.

At least, this is supposed to be MLS’s breakout season, what with all the Bradley-ness and Dempsey-ness happening. Former Tottenham striker Jermain Defoe’s in Toronto, Philadelphia brought Maurice Edu back from Stoke, and and teams’ new ability to use “retention funds” have kept the likes of Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, and Diego Fagundez in the league. If Garber’s goal is to make MLS a “league of choice,” recent choices say Major League Soccer’s climbing the ladder.

source: Reuters
New York City FC is on the horizon. Along with Orlando City they’ll help usher in a new era of Major League Soccer. (Photo: Reuters.)

The real breakout, however, won’t happen until next year. That’s when New York City FC comes in. Along with Orlando City SC, the Manchester City venture will push the league to 21 teams, starting an era that’s sure to see even more spending. With a new collective bargaining agreement on the horizon, the league will have a new set of rules meant to cultivate its new, dramatic growth.

2014 will be the end of an era, albeit a short one. Starting with Seattle’s move to MLS in 2009, the league welcomed a new identity, one that embraced the virtues of their new, ready-to-go markets. Major League Soccer was no longer picking spots on a map and hoping things work. Portland, Vancouver, Philadelphia, and Montréal were all to go from day one.

Their effects could even be seen on last year’s champions. The story of Sporting Kansas City’s success goes beyond the maturation of Zusi, Besler, and head coach Peter Vermes. It’s about a brand whose success has hinged on creating an exciting product that could capture imaginations in a competitive market. Part of that was a new name. Part of that was a new look. A great stadium had something to do with that, too. When the team claimed their second MLS title last December, that whole new, MLS 2.0 package came together.

(MORE: An alternate view of the 2014 Major League Soccer season.)

That’s where we stand, one day ahead of 2.0’s last season. This time next year, we’ll have fully embarked on a new, more ambitious era of Major League Soccer – a period that will couple ambition’s excitement with endeavor’s risk. Whereas the last five years have been defined by stability new teams brought, MLS 3.0 will see the league try to claim the ‘major’ status it’s sought for so long.

Enjoy 2.0’s farewell.

(MORE: LATEST 2014 MLS PREVIEWS, RIGHT HERE)

source: Getty Images
Peter Vermes and Sporting Kansas City broke through last season, claiming the club’s second MLS title. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Outlook: Eastern Conference

Sporting Kansas City finished second in last year’s regular season but went on to claim the title. If they falter before playoffs this year, it will be because Zusi and Besler will be gone for the World Cup.

New York is coming off their first major honor, having won the Supporters’ Shield. As a result, they’ve elected to roll with the team that worked, bringing in only two new starters.

Contrast that with D.C. United, who have completely made over a team that set an MLS record for fewest wins in a season (three). Toronto FC also engaged in an overhaul, albeit a more expensive one. With Bradley, Defoe, and Brazilian attacker Gilberto, Ryan Nelsen has a new set of Designated Players in a team that’s expected to make its first postseason.

Juan Agudelo’s gone, but New England remains young and talented; Columbus lost Chad Marshall but still has the criminally overlooked Federico Higuaín; Chicago needs Mike Magee to continue to be an MVP to replicate last year’s mid-table performance; Houston will be looking to move past a season of chronic absences and sporadic scoring; Philadelphia’s hopes rest on Conor Casey and Jack McInerney producing a viable attack; while Montréal looks in flux, with Plan A on the verge of becoming plan AARP.

Favorites: Sporting KC, New York
Contenders: Toronto FC, Houston
Playoff hopefuls: Everybody else
No chance: I’m being nice here

MORE, Team-by-Team previews: Chicago | Columbus | D.C. United | Houston | Montréal | New England | New York | Philadelphia | Sporting KC | Toronto

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Will Johnson’s first season in Portland helped the Timbers climb from eighth to first, with the former Real Salt Lake midfielder garnering MVP consideration for his contributions. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Outlook: Western Conference

Portland and Real Salt Lake, last year’s top two finishers, look as strong, but whereas the Timbers have brought in Argentines Norberto Paparatto (defense) and Gastón Fernández (attack), last year’s conference champions lost head coach Jason Kreis.

Dallas also has a new coach, with former Rapids boss Óscar Pareja eventually bring Honduran destroyer Hendry Thomas to Frisco with him. Colorado replaced Pareja with nobody (yet) but still offers Major League Soccer’s best core of young talent (Deshorn Brown, Dillon Powers, Shane O’Neill, Chris Klute, Clint Irwin).

Vancouver also switched coaches, swapping the youth and promise of Martin Rennie for the youth and MLS experience of Carl Robinson. A full year of Jay DeMerit and the acquisition of Matías Laba make then playoff contenders. San Jose is in that category, too, with Mark Watson hoping his first full year on the sidelines returns the Earthquakes to there 2012 selves.

LA Galaxy retained Omar Gonzalez with last year’s Designated Player deal and have added significant depth in attack and midfield. Their StubHub Center co-tenants, Chivas USA, were bought by the league in February and are set for another year of transition.

And then there’s Seattle, the league’s ultimate wild cards. Among MLS’s most talented teams, the Sounders face-planted at the finish line in 2013, sparking an offseason mark over. Still among the league’s most talented, they’ll start 2014 with the same problem that killed them last fall: A lack of familiarity with each other.

Favorites: Portland, Real Salt Lake, LA Galaxy
Contenders: Seattle
Playoff hopefuls: San Jose, Vancouver, Colorado, FC …
No chance: … Dallas (this conference is tough), Chivas USA

MORE, Team-by-Team previews: Chivas USA | Colorado | Dallas | LA Galaxy | Portland | Real Salt Lake | San Jose | Seattle | Vancouver

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The United States’ all-time leading scorer will secure the same status in MLS early in 2014.
  • Landon Donovan, LA Galaxy – It may happen on Saturday, or we may have to wait until spring. At some point, the Galaxy legend is going to score his 135th career goal, leaving him alone at the top of MLS’s all-time scoring list. It you can’t love that, even for a moment, this list is not for you.
  • Michael Bradley, Toronto FC – Major League Soccer has no shortage of talented midfielders, but there are very few guys that can command games from box-to-box. Welcome back, Michael Bradley. Take this thing over.
  • Diego Valeri, Portland Timbers – One of a slew of talented playmakers in MLS, Valeri is a man of action. Whereas other trequaristas can be pensive, thoughtful on the ball, Portland’s Argentine import is the most decisive playmaker in the league, a quality that makes him easy to love.
  • Diego Fagundez, New England Revolution – The best young player in Major League Soccer and arguably the best 19-year-old to ever play in the league, Fagundez is coming off a 13-goal, seven-assist season … as an 18-year-old! Often a step ahead of the game, imagine what the Uruguayan-born attacker can do once he really hones his talents.
  • Aurélien Collin, Sporting Kansas City – When he’s on, he’s the league’s best defender, but he does so behind a mask that means he’s often the heel. Collin led the league in yellow cards last year, but watch what he does when he’s not drawing cards. You’ll come to love the duality.
  • DeAndre Yedlin, Seattle Sounders – If Fagundez is the best young player in the league,  Yedlin is the best young defender. Only 20, even Yedlin’s faults are endearing. Ambitious going forward while still growing into his game in defense, Yedlin has already drawn the attention of the U.S. national team.
  • Jay DeMerit, Vancouver Whitecaps – DeMerit missed most of 2013 recovering from an Achilles injury. Back, healthy, and looking as good as he did during his 2012 All-Star season, the former U.S. international can be one of the league’s best defenders. Welcome back.
  • Federico Higuaín, Columbus Crew – Don’t love him for his game breaking skill or a command of play that makes every moment of Columbus transition into must see TV. Love Higuaín because, despite his famous name and a year-and-a-half in the league, he’s still overlooked. Love Higuaín’s game because you can still get in on the ground floor. When people finally start seriously talking about All-Star and Best XI spots, you can say you were there all along.
  • Deshorn Brown, Colorado Rapids – The second year pro out of Central Florida is a handful, so much so that the Jamican national team has already brought him into the fold. Be it through the middle or out wide, Brown can tear you up with the ball or blow past you without it. If he wasn’t also 6’2″, his game might have a weakness.
  • Amobi Okugo, Philadelphia Union – This is his time. A natural midfielder, Okugo has been fully converted to central defense, a place where his intelligence and skill can thrive. Entering his second full season at the position, the 22-year-old is poised for a break through. Couple that with one of the more endearing personalities in the league, and Okugo’s game becomes easy to love.

MORE: Top 10 Rookies | Goalkeepers | Defenders | Midfielders | Forwards

What now?

You know the teams. You know the stars. Now, watch. The league season of Major League Soccer 2.0 kicks off Saturday, with Seattle hosting Sporting Kansas City, with coverage available on NBCSN and NBC Live Extra beginning at 3:00 p.m. ET.

FIFA sees no obstacles for women to attend games in Iran

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ZURICH (AP) Soccer’s governing body FIFA says an inspection visit to Iran has shown “no noteworthy operational obstacles” to lifting the country’s 40-year ban and letting women attend a World Cup qualifying game next month.

After meeting government and soccer officials in Tehran this week, FIFA says it will work with Iran’s soccer body to also open domestic league games to female fans.

FIFA wants Iran to end its ban on women entering stadiums which breaches international soccer statutes prohibiting discrimination.

Global attention on the ban followed the death this month of a 29-year-old activist, Sahar Khodayari, who set herself on fire outside a courthouse. She had been detained for dressing as a man to enter a soccer stadium in Tehran and faced six months in prison.

Ahead of Iran hosting Cambodia at the 78,000-capacity Azadi Stadium on Oct. 10, FIFA says the visit on Thursday focused on “international relations, security and ticketing matters.”

Iranian officials were told of FIFA’s “firm and clear position that women need to be allowed to enter football matches freely” with tickets sold to as many who wanted to attend.

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

FOLLOW LIVE: Atlanta v. Quakes, Galaxy v. Impact on a busy MLS Saturday

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Eight games in seven hours, now that’s a jam-packed MLS Saturday.

[ FOLLOW: MLS scoreboard, for the next 7 hours ]

Things kickoff with Matias Almeyda’s San Jose Earthquakes visiting red-hot Josef Martinez’s Atlanta United, and comes to a close in Los Angeles, where league leaders LAFC host Toronto FC and LA Galaxy, who look to continue moving up in the Western Conference standings, host Montreal Impact.

In between, the New England Revolution look to remain in the Eastern Conference playoff picture as they welcome Kyle Beckerman and Real Salt Lake, while the Chicago Fire hope to jump level with the Revs in the standings as they take on FC Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium.

Saturday’s full MLS schedule

Atlanta United v. San Jose Earthquakes — 3:30 p.m. ET

Vancouver Whitecaps v. Columbus Crew — 5 p.m. ET

New England Revolution v. Real Salt Lake — 7:30 p.m. ET

FC Cincinnati v. Chicago Fire — 7:30 p.m. ET

Sporting Kansas City v. Colorado Rapids — 8:30 p.m. ET

Houston Dynamo v. Orlando City — 8:30 p.m. ET

LAFC v. Toronto FC — 10:30 p.m. ET

LA Galaxy v. Montreal Impact — 10:30 p.m. ET

Bundesliga wrap: Lewandowski’s Bayern keeps rolling, Leipzig stays top

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Week 5 of the Bundesliga season looked a lot like so many others since Robert Lewandowski arrived in the country from Lech Poznan in 2010.

He scored, and his team won.

[ MORE: Man City hangs 8 on Watford ]

It wasn’t enough to put Bayern Munich atop the league, as the Bavarian side also saw RB Leipzig get a win and could sit third once Lewandowski’s first German team, Borussia Dortmund, plays on Sunday.

Bayern Munich 4-0 Koln

Robert Lewandowski is humming along, scoring two more goals to give him nine in Bayern’s first five matches of the Bundesliga season. The 31-year-old Polish superstar scored at midweek in the Champions League, and has scored in all seven matches he’s played since being skunked in the DFL SuperCup loss to Borussia Dortmund.

Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Perisic also scored for Bayern, who will finish the weekend no lower than third on the table. A 59th minute red card to Koln’s Kingsley Ehizibue came with Bayern already leading 2-0, so it was a bit snoozy in terms of drama at the Allianz Arena.

Werder Bremen 0-3 RB Leipzig

A 64th minute red card to Konrad Laimer couldn’t slow down the table leaders, as Leipzig added a goal after going down to 10-men in the win.

Willi Orban and Marcelo Saracchi scored for the visitors, and Marcel Sabitzer scored a terrific free kick in the win.

American teenager Josh Sargent started and played 80 minutes for the hosts, covering 9.63 kilometers and getting a lone shot on goal.

Elsewhere
Schalke 2-1 Mainz — Friday
Freiburg 1-1 Augsburg
Hertha Berlin 2-1 Paderborn
Bayer Leverkusen 2-0 Union Berlin
Borussia Monchengladbach v. Fortuna Dusseldorf — 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Eintracht Frankfurt v. Borussia Dortmund — Noon ET Sunday

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 RB Leipzig 5 4 1 0 13 3 10 1-1-0 3-0-0 13
 Bayern Munich 5 3 2 0 16 4 12 2-1-0 1-1-0 11
 SC Freiburg 5 3 1 1 11 4 7 1-1-1 2-0-0 10
 FC Schalke 04 5 3 1 1 10 5 5 2-0-1 1-1-0 10
 Bayer Leverkusen 5 3 1 1 8 7 1 2-1-0 1-0-1 10
 Borussia Dortmund 4 3 0 1 13 5 8 2-0-0 1-0-1 9
 VfL Wolfsburg 4 2 2 0 7 3 4 1-1-0 1-1-0 8
 Mönchengladbach 4 2 1 1 5 4 1 0-1-1 2-0-0 7
 Eintracht Frankfurt 4 2 0 2 5 5 0 2-0-0 0-0-2 6
 Werder Bremen 5 2 0 3 8 12 -4 1-0-2 1-0-1 6
 FC Augsburg 5 1 2 2 7 11 -4 1-1-0 0-1-2 5
 Fortuna Düsseldorf 4 1 1 2 6 7 -1 0-1-1 1-0-1 4
 1899 Hoffenheim 4 1 1 2 3 6 -3 1-0-1 0-1-1 4
 1. FC Union Berlin 5 1 1 3 5 10 -5 1-0-2 0-1-1 4
 Hertha BSC Berlin 5 1 1 3 5 11 -6 1-0-1 0-1-2 4
 1. FC Köln 5 1 0 4 4 11 -7 0-0-2 1-0-2 3
 FSV Mainz 05 5 1 0 4 5 15 -10 1-0-1 0-0-3 3
 SC Paderborn 5 0 1 4 6 14 -8 0-0-2 0-1-2 1

Nothing to separate Newcastle, Brighton at St. James’ Park

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A bright performance from the visitors produced nothing, as Newcastle United and Brighton played to a scoreless draw at St. James’ Park on Saturday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Brighton had more than 70 percent of the ball and an advantage in shots, but couldn’t get a goal over the line. Newcastle only arrived late after the introduction of Allan Saint-Maximin and Andy Carroll, and would not truly challenge Mathew Ryan.

The Seagulls rise 15th with six points, two spots and one point ahead of the hosts.


Three things we learned

1. Relegation candidates for sure: Both Graham Potter and Steve Bruce are new managers of their sides, but neither looks much better than their predecessor. Maybe Brighton is on a slightly better trajectory than the Gulls side that survived by two points last season, but the Magpies looked very poor over two formations in the first half. Maybe that’s a symptom of the sick, but a winner of this game might’ve ended up pointing to the points as what kept it up come May.

2. Brighton cannot capitalize vs. awful Newcastle midfield: The match was screaming out for Glenn Murray as Brighton was the brighter side but oh-so-wasteful in the 18. The Seagulls press befuddled Newcastle’s midfield and kept the back line on edge, but every chance was wasted.

There was a gulf between the Magpies’ back line and center forward Joelinton, who himself struggled to assert himself on the game. It’s telling that Steve Bruce’s 73rd minute subs were Allan Saint-Maximin and Ki Sung-yeung for Miguel Almiron and Jonjo Shelvey, as the Magpies had little possession and less threat.

3. Carroll back in black (and white): Hometown hero Andy Carroll last played for the Magpies in a Premier League game on Dec. 29, 2010, against Spurs before being sold to Liverpool for a massive fee. The oft-injured but powerful striker came on for the final 10 minutes to a rousing “One of our own” chant from St. James’ Park, and cued Allan Saint-Maximin up for a chance during his cameo.

Man of the Match: Schar — It just has to be. Martin Dubravka was beaten by Neal Maupay, but his dink could not cross the goal line before Schar leapt to clobber the ball to safety with an overhead clearance. What a play, and indicative of how often the Swiss centerpiece has saved Newcastle at either end of the pitch over the last two years.


 [ MORE: Premier League stats ]

Martin Dubravka was tasked with making the match’s first save after Pascal Gross blazed down the right and toward the six-yard box.

Almiron came close to getting his first goal with a well-timed run and shot which was saved by Mat Ryan in the 22nd minute.

The Magpies’ season record of wobbly starts continued, and Dubravka and Jamaal Lascelles needed to make borderline heroic plays to keep it 0-0 by the half-hour mark.

Joelinton came very close to nodding a corner kick home as Lewis Dunk forgot to mark the Brazilian. His free header just missed the far post.

Steven Alzate had the ball in the back of the goal, as Newcastle was at sixes and sevens at the back, but was offside in the 34th.

The Magpies were booed off the pitch at halftime, and started brightly with a 46th minute shot punched wide by Christian Atsu.

Almiron made a delightful turn on the right side before dribbling into the 18 for a low shot saved by Ryan. Closer, but still not enough. The ex-Atlanta United man two more extremely bad giveaways on the day, and isn’t offering too much hope.