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2016 MLS Eastern Conference season preview: Anything could happen

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Predicting the Eastern Conference is as tricky as ever before, with tumult in several places (Chicago and Philadelphia), consistency in others (New York City, RBNY,  Montreal, Columbus and Toronto), and some star departures in a third group (DC and New England).

[ MORE: PST’s MLS writer roundtable ]

If you’ve not already done so, check out our Western Conference preview. Let’s dig into the East.

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Chicago Fire

1024px-Chicago_Fire_Soccer_Club.svgThe story: Finished 2015 dead last in the East; Three MLS Cup finals, most recently a loss in 2003.

In/Outs: Almost too many to list. This is going to be a wildly different Chicago team under new general manager Nelson Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunović. Gone are Harry Shipp, Joevin Jones, Patrick Nyarko, Mike Magee, Lovel Palmer, Jeff Larentowicz. Here are plenty of new faces.

3 Key Player/DPs: GK Sean Johnson; MF Matt Polster (Rookie star last season; USMNT prospect); DF Brandon Vincent (USMNT prospect; Top draft pick out of Stanford)

Head Coach: Veljko Paunović will have every chance to get it right here. The architect of Serbia’s U-20 World Cup win, he’ll need some time to get the pieces to mesh but is a promising boss.

Outlook: Better than last year, but outside the playoffs.

***

Columbus Crew

ColumbusCrew-PrimaryThe story so far: Lost MLS Cup at home to Portland; Winners of the 2008 MLS Cup.

In/Outs: Consistency a-plenty, with mostly subs leaving the fold. Chris Klute and Jack McInerney are gone; Ola Kamara, Corey Ashe, Amro Tarek and Conor Casey are in.

3 Key Player/DPs: Same as last year: Ethan Finlay, Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp are three who will help drive the bus.

Head Coach: Gregg Berhalter. I’ll admit it; I was wrong. The experienced boss may’ve brushed a few folks the wrong way in his opening days, but that’s because he was doing it right, if a bit unorthodox. One of the best in the business.

Outlook: Fighting for the Supporters’ Shield.

 ***

DC United

DC_300x300_onwhiteThe story so far: Won four titles in five MLS Cup appearances between 1996-2004; Finished fourth last season, losing to RBNY in the conference semis.

In/Outs: Queretaro is no weak opponent, but the choice to not pay Perry Kitchen what he wanted looked a bit foolish in the CONCACAF Champions League. Also gone is mainstay Chris Pontius, while Lamar Neagle, Patrick Nyarko and Marcelo Sarvas join the fray with plenty of MLS experience between them.

3 Key Player/DPs: DF Steve Birnbaum, MF Julian Buescher, MF Luciano Acosta.

Head Coach: Ben Olsen. A smart manager who has his work cut out for him in keeping this team in the East’s playoff picture.

Outlook: Battling for the final slot in the East.

***

Montreal Impact

500px-Montreal_Impact_(MLS)_logoThe story so far: Made massive strides once Didier Drogba arrived, moving up to third in the East while beating rivals Toronto FC in the first round of the playoffs. Two playoff appearances since moving to MLS in 2012.

In/Outs: Gone are Justin Mapp, Eric Miller and Nigel Reo-Coker, but I like the choice of Clemson back Kyle Fisher in the SuperDraft and adding Harry Shipp to the attacking rotation puts this offseason in high-five country.

3 Key Player/DPs: FW Didier Drogba, MF Ignacio Piatti, DF Laurent Ciman

Head Coach: Mauro Biello. Yes, he had Drogba to work with, but there’s no arguing with his results.

Outlook: Can compete for the bye in the East, though a spot 3-6 is more likely.

***

New England Revolution

url-2The story so far: Five-time MLS finalists, but yet to win the big one, the Revs bowed out to DC United in the first round of the 2015 MLS Playoffs.

In/Outs: Jermaine Jones is gone, and that’s no small loss. Xavier Kouassi, Gershon Koffie and Sambinha are joining the fold. Lots of new faces, and a blossoming relationship with Sporting CP.

3 Key Player/DPs: GK Bobby Shuttleworth, MF Kelyn Rowe, MF Scott Caldwell.

Head Coach: Jay Heaps. The Kraft’s love loyalty, and Heaps has done it from the field to the coach’s seat. Still, the mainstay’s 54-53-29 record through four seasons could use a strong campaign.

Outlook: Battling for the final playoff spots.

***

New York City FC

NYCFC_BadgeThe story so far: Struggled in first season of existence last year, firing coach/architect Jason Kreis.

In/Outs: Selected Wake Forest stud Jack Harrison in the draft, and brought in five defenders to help rebuild a weak unit. Gone are defenders Shay Facey, Angelino, Chris Wingert, Kwame Watson-Siriboe and Jeb Brovsky. Neb Grabavoy is gone, too, probably so we can more easily tell that it’s Tommy McNamara on the pitch.

3 Key Player/DPs: Um… Andrea Pirlo, David Villa and Frank Lampard. Cool?

Head Coach: Patrick Vieira. You may have heard of him. How will he do in his first kick at the head coaching can, in a league quite different than any he’s seen? We still think pretty well.

Outlook: A full year of their stars adjusting to the league should have NYC contending for a comfortable playoff berth.

***

New York Red Bulls

500px-New_York_Red_Bulls_logoThe story so far: Improbably won their second Supporters’ Shield in three seasons despite a wild roster and front office turnover. Lost only championship appearance in 2008.

In/Outs: Matt Miazga is off to Chelsea, while Roy Miller is gone as well. There’s a batch of new Homegrown Players — we’re interested in seeing more from Chris Thorsheim — but there’s still a lot to like at RBNY.

3 Key Player/DPs: MF Dax McCarty, FW Bradley Wright-Phillips, MF Sacha Kljestan

Head Coach: Jesse Marsch. Just showed up in the midst of a chaotic changeover and guided the team to a terrific season. Yeah, we’re not doubting him again.

Outlook: Contending for the Supporters Shield again.

***

Orlando City SC

Orlando_City_2014.svgThe story so far: 2016 is their second season in MLS after a solid tenure in the USL.

In/Outs: Plenty of players left: Tally Hall, Corey Ashe, Eric Avila, Danny Mwanga among them. Joining the fray are ex-AC Milan midfielder Antonio Nocerino, forward Hadji Berry, midfielder Richie Laryea and GK Joe Bendik.

3 Key Player/DPs: Kaka, Nocerino, FW Cyle Larin

Head Coach: Adrian Heath. Consistency is key — he’s been with the club in some form since 2008 — but will patience be there if the star-studded attack doesn’t have them flying?

Outlook: Playoffs. Then, who knows? This is MLS.

***

Philadelphia Union

crest logo

The story so far: Founded in 2008, the Union missed the playoffs last season.

In/Outs: Look: almost everyone is new. Welcome Chris Pontius, Walter Restrepo, Joshua Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry, Fabian Herbers, Roland Alberg and Ilsinho. Fond farewells to Conor Casey, Fernando Aristeguieta, Andrew Wenger, Cristian Maidana, Danny Crus, Zac MacMath, Ethan White…

3 Key Player/DPs: Ilsinho, Pontius, MF Tranquillo Barnetta

Head Coach: Jim Curtin. Worked his way from caretaker to full-time coach. Does Earnie Stewart see him as a boss for the long haul?

Outlook: Much, much better. But there’s a lot of work to be done to be a part of the playoff race.

***

Toronto FC


Toronto FC logo
The story so far: Made the playoffs last season for the first time in nine seasons of existence.

In/Outs: Gone are GK Chris Konopka, midfielder Jackson, forwards Robbie Findley, Luke Moore and Herculez Gomez. In are Will Johnson, Clint Irwin, Steven Beitashour and Drew Moor.

3 Key Player/DPs: MF Michael Bradley, FW Jozy Altidore, FW Sebastian Giovinco

Head Coach: Greg Vanney. Keeping a job at MLSE hasn’t been the easiest thing to do, but Vanney has a lot of weapons and was hand-picked by GM Tim Bezbatchenko.

Outlook: Title competitors. Really.

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.

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. They still finished second in La Liga and reached the last eight of the Champions League 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 in truth, 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 a haphazard recruitment process? The answer is a little bit of everything and this defeat will be at the core of 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.

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)