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.

3 things learned as Bayern Munich beat Barcelona 8-2

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Barcelona – Bayern Munich was a UEFA Champions League classic as Bayern ran riot in Lisbon to book their spot in the semifinals as they won 8-2. That’s right. 8-2.

[ MORE: Barca, Bayern players reaction ]

Bayern scored early and often as both teams had chances galore but the German giants took theirs with Thomas Muller scoring twice, plus Ivan Perisic and Serge Gnabry scoring one each. Joshua Kimmich, Robert Lewandowski and Philippe Coutinho (twice) all scored in the second half after Luis Suarez pulled one back to make it 4-2.

Early on Barcelona briefly made it 1-1 through David Alaba’s own goal but Lionel Messi and Co. were dominated and made so many defensive errors. Hansi Flick’s Bayern will now face the winner of Manchester City v. Lyon in the semifinal, while Quique Setien’s brief spell in charge of Barcelona is surely over.

[ MORE: Champions League schedule ]

The game started at an incredible pace as Jerome Boateng defended superbly with Suarez lurking, then Bayern took the lead. Lewandowski and Muller combined and the latter finished to make it 1-0, but soon it was 1-1. Jordi Alba’s cross was shanked into his own net by Alaba to level things up.

Barca then went close as Suarez was denied by Manuel Neuer, then Messi hit the post as his cross missed everyone and struck the woodwork as four Barcelona players were left clutching their heads in disbelief.

[ VIDEO: Alphonso Davies magical assist ]

Chances kept on coming for both teams in an entertaining, end-to-end clash with Messi forcing Neuer into a save. Perisic then drilled home a low shot to make it 2-1 and Bayern almost scored a third but Marc-Andre ter Stegen saved well. They did make it 3-1 soon after as Gnabry drilled home a low shot after fine passes from Thiago and then Leon Goretzka.

Muller made it 4-1 before the break as Joshua Kimmich’s cross found the veteran German at the near post as Barcelona kept conceding chances, and goals. In the second half Suarez made it 4-2 early on to give Barca a chance of an unlikely comeback but that’s all it was. Alphonso Davies’ amazing assist set up Joshua Kimmich to make it 5-2 and Lewandowski got his goal to make it 6-2 as Barca were humiliated further when their player, Coutinho, on loan at Bayern rolled two home late on to rub further salt into their wounds.

Here’s a look at what we learned from Barcelona – Bayern Munich, a truly memorable Champions League quarterfinal.


BARCELONA THEIR OWN WORST ENEMIES

No team had conceded four goals sooner in a Champions League knockout match and this was the first time Barcelona conceded five or more goals in a Champions League match in their history. It was also the first time since 1949 that Barcelona had conceded seven goals in a single game. It was also the first time since 1951 they lost a game by six goals and the first time since 1946 that they conceded eight goals in a game. It was also the first time a team had scored eight in a Champions League knockout game. Yes, Bayern were clinical but Barcelona caused their own problems time and time again and it was all too easy for the Germans. Ter Stegen was hellbent on playing the ball short inside his own penalty box which put Barca under pressure, while Sergi Roberto and Frenkie de Jong were totally overpowered in midfield and Nelson Semedo was bullied at right back. Barcelona kept making poor defensive mistakes and anybody who has watched them since the restart in La Liga will understand why. This is not a new thing. Bayern could have scored more and Barcelona were just woeful and looked totally devoid of confidence late on. Messi and Co. looked stunned in the final stages of the game, and for most of the 90 minutes. Bayern were good but the story here was about Barcelona being woefully bad.

END OF AN ERA AT BARCELONA?

Messi, Suarez, Busquets, Vidal, Pique. What do they all have in common? Four of them are 33 years old and Busquets is 32. This feels like the end of an era at Barcelona. Of course, Messi is Messi and he can play until he wants as he whipped in delicious deliveries in the first half but didn’t have enough help around him. Even he gave up in the second half. This Barcelona team couldn’t cope with the pace and power of Bayern and they just gave up and Messi was one of the worst culprits. Earlier this season the Argentine legend was outspoken when it came to asking questions of the powers that be and his own teammates and he knew. He knew that big problems were coming and Barca were in big trouble. This has been coming. The shock Champions League defeat in the second leg at Liverpool last season. The collapse at Roma before that. Barcelona have been papering over the cracks for a long time now and relying on Messi and Suarez to bail them out.

They still finished second in La Liga and reached the last eight of the Champions League this season but that’s not good enough for Barcelona and this was one of the most humiliating nights in their history. Quique Setien doesn’t seem to have the belief of his squad but this Barcelona team is running on empty. It has been for a long time. Is it the managers fault, or the fault of their ageing squad which has been so good for so long but not rebuilt out of faith to their superstars and down to haphazard recruitment process? The answer is a little bit of everything and this defeat will now be the reference point for a dramatic Barcelona rebuild.

BAYERN’S HIGH-LINE A PROBLEM

The one negative for Bayern was how many chances they gave to Barcelona, especially in the first half. Their high-line was problematic but perhaps they pinched so high up so they could give Barcelona’s shaky defensive problems? Either way, they can’t play that high of a line against Manchester City or Lyon in the semifinal. Alhonso Davies and Joshua Kimmick were left exposed at full back and that is something they should address because this game, and result, is likely be a freak one. Aside from that defensive line, they were dominant, powerful, hungry and classy throughout. The German champions are full of confidence and are the red-hot favorites to win the Champions League. Barcelona – Bayern Munich will go down in history and Bayern will be feared by everyone if they weren’t already.

Destroyed Barcelona a ‘disaster’; dominant Bayern react after 10-goal stunner

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Barcelona – Bayern Munich reaction. How do you have a reaction to that?

Barcelona 2-8 Bayern Munich. Yep, that was the score in the Champions League quarterfinal. That’s why the Barcelona – Bayern Munich reaction post-game saw both sets of players and coaches looked utterly stunned. It was the first time since 1946 that Barcelona had conceded eight times in a game and they had no answer to Bayern’s relentless attacking.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Lionel Messi and Barcelona’s players and coaches looked totally stunned towards the end of the game as Bayern could have easily scored 11 or 12 goals. We are not exaggerating. This looked like the end of an era for Barcelona, as their players were outclassed and overpowered throughout.

Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu had this to say: “A very hard night. I’m sorry for the fans, for everyone. We weren’t the team we are or the club we represent… Today has been a disaster. Now we have to take decisions. Some we had already decided before today. Above all we have to say sorry to the fans.”

[ VIDEO: Alphonso Davies magical assist ]

Barcelona boss Quique Setien didn’t have much else to add, as his time as Barca boss is surely up but he did state that his team were ‘destroyed’ in the dressing room in Lisbon after the game.

“The truth is it is a defeat tremendously painful. Scoreline maybe too harsh, but for sure they deserved many of the goals. The team was overrun at many times. We started very well, but the decisiveness of (Bayern) in many areas overcame us… The dressing room is destroyed. I’m not going to talk about what is needed at the club. I’ve been here for just a few months. If Gerard Pique says that it’s time for big changes there’s going to be importance to his words. It’s time for us to review and take the decisions which are needed for the future.

“The fans? The team did what we could and the rival allowed us to. We started well and as the game went on, we were beaten… We are all tremendously frustrated at the moment. It hurts but we have to accept it. You have to think always that the future will be better, that you can improve the image we showed today, above all thinking of the future. I think that right now it’s too soon to be talking about whether I stay at the club or not. The reality is that it doesn’t depend on me. It’s worth all of us working out what’s important and considering a wide range of things which correspond to a defeat of this importance and which is so painful.”

[ MORE: Champions League schedule ]

Setien may not be in charge of that future, as he only took charge in January but has struggled to galvanize a talented but error-strewn Barcelona side. Setien has overseen one of the most embarrassing nights in Barcelona’s history and although his ageing players were outclassed, the way they kept making the same mistakes time and time again surely points to his managerial style not fitting this squad.

Barcelona veteran Gerard Pique summed it up best.

“Embarrassment is the word, no one is indispensable. If new blood has to come and change the dynamic I’ll be the first to exit and let it happen. Now, we have reached the bottom,” Pique said. “I’m in pain. We all are. We can’t compete like that. It’s very, very tough to take. Nothing more is worth saying. The club needs changes. Not just the players, I don’t want to point out anyone.

“But football is a sport where change is constantly required. We must change the dynamic we are on because I believe we have just hit bottom. We have to look around, we have to trust that people will do the right things for the club. Is it an end of an era, I’m not sure? But I know that we must accept that we have hit bottom. Not just players the but, as a club, we aren’t on the right road. We have had years of success but we haven’t won the league and we haven’t won in Europe and we have to compete. You’ve seen it on the pitch and this today is unacceptable. This was a horrible game… it’s a dreadful feeling. It’s shameful. Structurally we need changes at all levels.”

On the other side of the Barcelona – Bayern Munich reaction, Thomas Muller continued his amazing season to score twice and grabbed an assist as the German legend summed up the focus in the camp of the German champions as they want to win the Champions League and not dwell on their humbling of Barcelona.

“Of course it’s a big statement. The semifinal starts from 0-0. Statement doesn’t matter,” Muller said. “I know the other teams watch our games. They can be impressed or not. It starts from 0-0. We have to be quiet, calm and relaxed, also a little bit happy. Tomorrow morning when we wake up and answer the whole messages on our phone from home and the whole world, then we have to focus and concentrate on the next game. That is our business. We are not here to win the quarterfinal or semifinal. We are here to win the final. I know these tournament situations a lot. Most of the times after these big wins it is more difficult, so we have to be careful.”

Muller and Bayern are ruthless and hungry for more, as he also said they can be more aggressive in their remaining Champions League games.

Hansi Flick has created a ruthless winning machine, as Bayern have scored 26 goals in the six Champions League games he’s been in charge since replacing Niko Kovac in November and they’ve won 27 of their last 28 games in all competitions and are unbeaten since December 7 and have won the Bundesliga and German Cup.

The treble is on for Bayern after their historic humbling of Barcelona.

VIDEO: Alphonso Davies turns on style with amazing assist

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Alphonso Davies ladies and gents. Alphonso Davies.

The Canadian teenager set up Bayern Munich’s fifth goal in their demolition of Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal and he did it in some style.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

Remember: the Vancouver Whitecaps product only broke into Bayern Munich’s first team as a regular earlier this season and he’s now ripping it up against Barcelona in the latter stages of the Champions League.

He will be pinching himself right about now as he played a key role in a classic Bayern display as they tore Barcelona apart and could have scored seven or eight easily.

Alphonso Davies, 19, totally bamboozled Barcelona’s right back Nelson Semedo on more than one occasion way out on the left flank. He then drove towards goal, skipped past another defender and put it on a plate for Joshua Kimmich to make it 5-2.

Check out the video below to see Davies doing what he does best for the assist, as the teenager is surely going to become the best left back on the planet.

His incredible story continues as his first season as a regular for Bayern Munich has been a hugely memorable one.

Champions League, Europa League: How to watch, odds, start time, predictions

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The UEFA Champions League and Europa League action has resumed and I’m going to reveal my predictions for this next round as well as the latest odds for Europe’s top two continental tournaments.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

With Manchester City still in the Champions League and Manchester United still in the Europa League, there is a lot on the line for the two Premier League clubs in the next week.

Just because the Premier League season is over, that doesn’t mean the action is over. Far from it. Both Manchester clubs are the bookmakers favorites to seal their respective European glory.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

In the next few days the Europa League semifinals and Champions League quarterfinals will take place as the mini tournaments take place in Germany and Portugal.

Man City beat Real Madrid 4-2 on aggregate, while Chelsea lost Bayern 7-1 on aggregate as they crashed out of the Champions League. Man United beat Copenhagen in extra time and will face Sevilla in the semifinals and are the lone Premier League club after Wolves were knocked out by Sevilla.

Lisbon, Portugal will host the Champions League games from the quarterfinal stage onwards, while the Europa League games will be hosted around Germany.

Below is a look at my predictions, the odds for the games this week and how to watch and follow all of the fixtures in the USA.


How to watch, stream Champions League and Europa League

Dates: August 5-23
Location: Quarterfinals onwards in Lisbon/Germany
How to watch: CBS Sports
Live updates: UCL here at NBCSports.com & Europa League here at NBCSports.com


JPW’s Champions League predictions

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)
Wednesday, August 12: Atalanta 2-3 PSG
Thursday, August 13: RB Leipzig 1-2 Atletico Madrid
Friday, August 14: Barcelona 1-3 Bayern Munich
Saturday, August 15: Manchester City 3-1 Lyon


JPW’s Europa League predictions

Semifinals (August 16-17)
Sunday, August 16: Sevilla 1-2 Manchester United
Monday, August 17: Inter Milan 2-0 Shakhtar Donetsk


Champions League betting odds via DraftKings

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)

(+210) Atalanta v. PSG (+117). Tie: +275
(+225) RB Leipzig v. Atletico Madrid (+135). Tie: +220
(+235) Barcelona v. Bayern Munich (+115). Tie: +255
(-305) Manchester City v. Lyon (+750). Tie: +450

Outright winner
Bayern Munich (+150)
Manchester City (+250)
Paris Saint-Germain (+250)
RB Leipzig (+900)
Lyon (+5000)


Europa League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
(+195) Sevilla v. Manchester United (+150). Tie: +215
(-132) Inter Milan v. Shakhtar Donetsk (+350). Tie: +280

Outright winner
Inter Milan (+160)
Manchester United (+190)
Sevilla (+280)
Shakhtar Donetsk (+800)