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

source: Getty Images
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.

Hodgson vows to sign new Crystal Palace contract

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Roy Hodgson has revealed that he has been offered a contract extension to remain at Crystal Palace beyond the 2020-21 Premier League season, and also hinted that he is highly likely to accept it.

[ MORE: Mourinho: Top-four without Kane, Son would be “something incredible” ]

Following a period of turmoil and instability which saw them drop dangerously close to the relegation zone prior to his arrival in 2017, Hodgson has steadied the ship and guided the Eagles to 11th- and 12th-place finishes in his first two seasons and has them sitting just a point out of 12th with a dozen games to go this season. At no point in his tenure has Palace flirted with relegation, and that’s apparently enough to earn a new deal to remain in charge — quotes from Sky Sports:

“The club have presented me with a contract and although the chairman has been away this week I’ve had a cursory glance through it. It all looks fine to me so I am pretty certain that at some point soon we’ll sit down and get it signed.

“If I am going to stay, it will be because I believe funds will be made available because we’ve had the intention to improve the squad and the team for a while now.

“We all realize you can’t make improvements to the actual team without spending some money. But I would never make those type of demands, because you can’t make any guarantees in the transfer market.

“All you can do is have good intention and if I signed for another year, I would sign because I believed the intentions are true and that something will happen going into the next season.”

As for the transfer situation, that’s something that’ll need to be sorted out in very short order if Palace plan to maintain their current place in the PL’s hierarchy, otherwise they’ll learn a harsh — and quick — lesson about standing still while everyone else is moving forward.

Mourinho: Top-four without Kane, Son would be ‘something incredible’

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Jose Mourinho fancies himself either as a realist or a master of mind games — you be the judge, based on your own level of love or hate for the Portuguese manager — as Tottenham Hotspur embark upon their final dozen games of the 2019-20 Premier League season.

[ MORE: Premier League Preview: Chelsea v. Tottenham Hotspur ]

Speaking ahead of Saturday’s trip to Stamford Bridge where he’ll take on his former club Chelsea (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBCSports.com), Mourinho attempted to put into perspective the level of heroics that will be required for Tottenham to finish in the top-four.

Perhaps he has a point, given the long-term injuries to Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, forwards who account for 20 of Spurs’ 43 PL goals this season and who will also miss the majority, if not all, of the rest of the season — quotes from the Guardian:

“Tottenham without Harry or Sonny, without one of them, doesn’t win a match since 2014. That means a lot. That means that Sonny and Harry score the majority of goals that Tottenham scores. This season was so, so negatively special that we are going to be without them both at the same time for a lot of matches.

“If we manage to finish top four it’s something incredible. Incredible achievement for the boys. So we have to give everything we have.”

As for their chances of doing, so? Well, let’s just say Mourinho is more than happy to pile the pressure onto others and divert it away from his own team, as he has routinely done throughout his career — quotes from Sky Sports:

“At this moment, Tottenham, Manchester United, Arsenal, Sheffield United, Wolverhampton, Everton — we are the underdogs.

“We have ambitions to be there but we are one, two, three points behind Chelsea, so they have an advantage to all of us. That’s obvious. It’s not a big advantage but it is an advantage.

“Chelsea, in this moment, are favorites for the fourth position, considering Leicester has nine points more at this stage of the season.”

Over the course of their next nine PL games, Spurs will face all six sides currently within five points of fourth place. They will almost certainly be without both Kane and Son for the vast majority of those critical six-pointers.

USWNT pushed in depositions: Could they beat the German men?

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Carli Lloyd was pushed over and over on differences between women and men.

[ MORE: USWNT seek over $66 million in damages from U.S. Soccer ]

“Do you think the women’s national team could beat the German men’s team?” U.S. Soccer Federation lawyer Noah Finkel asked during a Dec. 20 deposition.

“I’m not sure,” the two-time FIFA Player of the Year replied.

Finkel inquired about a 2015 email interview Lloyd conducted through her agent’s assistant with the website Sportskeeda.

“You wrote men are faster and stronger, right?” Finkel probed.

“Yeah, if you take those away, yeah, it would be a contest,” Lloyd said.

Again and again, members of the champion U.S. women’s team were pushed to detail distinctions between their sport, which they dominate, and the men’s game, where the Americans struggle.

Lawyers for the USSF are trying to show it’s OK to pay the women differently than the men because the competition is different. The sides made excerpts of depositions public in court filings Thursday night.

“The tone during depositions is reflective of the kind of condescension that many USSF officials employ when talking to the players about pay and workplace conditions,” said Molly Levinson, spokeswoman for the players, “including the plainly disrespectful and sexist attitudes from USSF and their representatives during CBA negotiations when they refused to offer anything close to equal pay.”

[ MORE: Premier League TV, streaming schedule ]

The women sued last year, alleging the USSF violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act of 1963 in reaching what they say is an inferior collective bargaining agreement with the women than the deal struck with the American men. They are seeking more than $66 million in damages.

The federation maintains the women have many benefits the men lack, including guaranteed salaries, health insurance, paid child-care assistance, pregnancy and parental leave, severance pay and access to a 401(k) retirement plan. Men get paid by the game and tournament, most earning the majority of their income from their club.

Reigning FIFA Player of the Year Megan Rapinoe was questioned about her response in an interview she gave to Pod Save America in which she said: “Our pay structure is different. We play different games. We’re different rankings in the world. Like, it’s just apples to oranges.”

The USSF said that from fiscal year 2009 through fiscal year 2019, the women’s national team had gross revenue of $101.3 million for 238 games, an average of $425,446, and the men grossed $185.7 million for 191 matches, an average of $972,147. The women had a $27.6 million net loss over 11 years and the men lost $3.13 million.

“The international soccer environment in which the MNT players compete is far more competitive by many measures than that in which plaintiffs compete,” the USSF said in one of its papers filed with the court. “The MNT players have lower odds of succeeding in the face of such greater competition. In short, MNT players must achieve more and/or better results against tougher competition in order to qualify for, and succeed in, tournament competition.”

Barring a settlement, the trial is scheduled to start May 5 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. The women’s five-year labor deal runs through 2021 while the men play under the terms of a contract that expired Dec. 31.

[ MORE: In the Mixed Zone with JPW: Episode 1 ]

During her deposition on Jan. 15, former U.S. coach Jill Ellis testified she was told the men got chartered flights at times and the women didn’t. The USSF spent about $10.7 million on hotels for the men and approximately $7.3 milllion on the women during the fiscal years 2012-20. Air travel was about $6.3 million for the women during that period and $14.3 million for the men, many of whom play in Europe. The USSF increased first- and business-class travel for the women in 2017.

Speaking during her Dec. 20 deposition, Lloyd talked about personally training with the Medford Strikers’ under-18 boys team in New Jersey.

“It’s different in the sense that men are bigger, stronger, faster. That’s their makeup. There’s no — there’s no denying science in that regard,” she said. “But I am the most skillful player there. So if you take their speed and athleticism and their strength away, it’s the same game.”

Former USSF President Sunil Gulati, speaking during a Dec. 17 deposition, used a comparison with an NBA star to point out differences.

“LeBron James doesn’t get a bonus for getting 15 points and for the Lakers finishing out of the playoffs,” he said. “The expectations for him are different based on who they’re playing against, what – who he is, what the level is.”

Premier League Preview: Chelsea v. Tottenham Hotspur

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  • Chelsea (41 points) sit 4th in PL table
  • Spurs (40) chasing, up to 5th
  • Last meeting: Spurs 0-2 Chelsea

Jose Mourinho is set to make his latest triumphant return to Stamford Bridge, this time for the first time as the manager of Tottenham Hotspur, one of Chelsea’s bitter London rivals, in the first fixture of the Premier League weekend on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBCSports.com).

Not only does the Mourinho storyline carry significant weight ahead of Saturday’s showdown at the Bridge, so too does the two sides’ increasingly tight battle for a top-four finish. As recently as Jan. 17, Chelsea enjoyed a nine-point lead on Tottenham, but the Blues’ current run of just one win from their last six PL games has seen that advantage shrink to a single point with the very real possibility of flipping two points in the opposite direction once the full-time whistle blows. On the other hand, Spurs would already be miles clear if not for dropping a combined seven points from three games against the current 12th-, 19th- and 20th-place sides in recent weeks.

[ STREAM: Every PL match live

Both Chelsea and Spurs are currently enduring injury crises which have just about crippled their respective attacking units. Frank Lampard‘s side has been without Christian Pulisic since New Year’s Day, while both Callum Hudson-Odoi (hamstring) Tammy Abraham (ankle) also missed this week’s defeat to Manchester United. As for Mourinho’s selection issues, Harry Kane (hamstring) has been out since Jan. 1 and will continue to be sideline for at least two more months, and now Son Heung-min could miss the rest of the season after breaking his arm during his two-goal outing in the dramatic victory over Aston Villa last weekend. Son had scored at least one goal in each of his last five appearances (all competitions).

Spurs have scored 43 PL goals this season; Kane and Son combined for 20 between the two of them. Dele Alli, who sits just behind them with seven, has scored just once in his last seven league games and 12 games across all competitions — coincidentally, Alli’s drought began one game before Kane tore his hamstring — after enjoying a red-hot resurgence (four goals in three games) on the back of Mourinho’s appointment. To compound matters, Spurs have had 48 fewer hours to recover and prepare for Saturday’s early kickoff, with Chelsea playing Man United in league play on Monday and the north London side suffering a narrow defeat to RB Leipzig in the Champions League on Wednesday.

Injuries/suspensions

Chelsea: OUT – Christian Pulisic (groin), Callum Hudson-Odoi (hamstring), N’Golo Kante (leg), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (fitness); QUESTIONABLE: Tammy Abraham (ankle), Andreas Christensen (face)

Spurs: OUT – Harry Kane (hamstring), Son Heung-min (arm), Moussa Sissoko (knee), Juan Foyth (groin)


Projected lineups

Chelsea: Caballero — James, Zouma, Rudiger, Azpilicueta — Jorginho, Mount, Kovacic — Willian, Pedro, Abraham

Spurs: Lloris — Aurier, Sanchez, Aldeweireld, Davies — Winks, Ndombele — Lo Celso, Alli, Bergwijn — Moura


What they’re saying

Lampard, on various injured players: “Christian Pulisic is still not fit. I can’t give you an exact date. It’s a difficult injury and we’re working on that. … Tammy has trained the last two days probably at about 70 percent having not trained much recently. He’s in the squad but I’ll have to make a decision on whether he’s fit. … N’Golo is not fit. It’s a muscle injury, similar to the one he came off with against Arsenal recently. Hopefully three weeks, something around that.”

Mourinho, on returning to Stamford Bridge: “To go back to play against Chelsea is the same as to play against West Ham or Crystal Palace. It’s the same for me, exactly the same. The situation is clear, I’m here for about three months, in three months I don’t think about myself, I think about the club, I think about the players and I think about the effort that the players made to be in this position now. We were 12 points behind fourth place. I remember in my first week speaking with the players about not having targets, let’s go match after match and get as many points as possible, because if we were thinking about being 12 points behind, we would lose immediately the motivation that we needed to try to climb such a difficult mountain.”


Prediction

Throw out the injuries to some of this game’s brightest attacking stars along with the fitness and fatigue concerns, because Chelsea v. Spurs almost always delivers a thrilling, goal-filled game. There will be at least three goals, including a late winner to Chelsea.