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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Liverpool – Aston Villa preview: How to watch, stream, prediction, odds

Liverpool - Aston Villa preview
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Liverpool – Aston Villa preview: Liverpool will welcome Aston Villa to Anfield on Sunday with a more urgent perspective on its place in history (Watch live at 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN or online via NBCSports.com).

Liverpool hasn’t gotten its usual return on results for some time. Dating back to the 3-0 loss at Watford on Feb. 29, the Reds are 2W-1D-4L from their last seven outings across all competitions.

STREAM LIVERPOOL – ASTON VILLA

In an odd coincidence, Liverpool won the Premier League during this stretch.

Take the start of that run back another week to the first leg against Atletico Madrid and the Reds have won just three times from nine, beating Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, and West Ham.

Alanis Morrissette screwed up the concept of irony for me forever, but I think that applies here somehow? Maybe?

[ RELATED: Liverpool win title – everything to know ]

Of course all Aston Villa will see is one of the best teams in the world in the first match at Anfield since clinching a first English crown in 30 years and, oh yeah, their last outing was a 4-0 blowout loss to their rivals Man City.

The Villans have 27 points, one point back of 17th place Watford and three fewer than West Ham.

Team news

Liverpool’s Joel Matip is out for the season and Dejan Lovren won’t play Sunday. Xherdan Shaqiri makes the bench and there are starts for Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Divock Origi.

As for Villa, Matt Targett misses out through injury, as do Bjorn Engels, Wesley, and Tom Heaton. Frederic Guilbert is available on the bench after injury, while American prospect Indiana Vassilev is also a sub.

What they’re saying

Jurgen Klopp on not taking a club job post-Liverpool“When it is time, hopefully I am still healthy and I can say … ‘great, I loved it but now I would like to watch other people doing it. So, I hope I find this inner mood to say … ‘see you later, I wish you all the best, best of luck, love you all but don’t call because of any football matters.’ That’s the plan.”

Dean Smith on Villa taking inspiration from other upsets“You saw Brighton win in the last minute against Arsenal and West Ham win in the last minute against Chelsea. It didn’t escape me that West Ham’s stats were pretty similar to ours against Chelsea but they managed to stick the ball in the net a couple of times. We can take great heart from that, knowing you can go and beat these big teams.”

Odds and ends

Villa are tied with Southampton for the second-biggest underdog status in Matchweek 33 (+800). A Liverpool win stands at -315, according to DraftKings.

Villa took Liverpool to the limit at Anfield earlier this year, taking a Trezeguet-inspired lead into the 88th minute only to see Andrew Robertson and Sadio Mane score in the final throes of the match.

Prediction

The Reds record in those nine referenced matches doesn’t match their performances. Liverpool comes out of this one with a 3-1 win.

Report: Rangers sell one-time USMNT player Polster to New England

Matt Polster Rangers
Photo by Ian Rutherford/PA Images via Getty Images
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An American abroad is coming home after an uneven time in Scotland.

Former Southern Illinois and Chicago Fire mainstay Matt Polster will return to Major League Soccer this summer with the New England Revolution.

Bruce Arena’s Revs will reportedly pony up about $375,000 to buy Polster from Rangers, where he signed on a free transfer in January 2019 following three-plus MLS seasons that saw him earn a USMNT cap.

[ MORE: Pulisic reacts to Hazard comparisons ]

He was called up to two January camps for the U.S., going 90 minutes at right back against Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2018. Polster was also a contributor to the U.S. Olympic qualification push in 2015.

Polster, 27, finishes his time with 10 appearances and an assist Steven Gerrard’s Glaswegian set, getting Scottish Premiership and Europa League experience this season.

A defensive midfielder and right back in MLS, Polster played only the latter with Rangers thanks to Scott Arfield, Ryan Jack, Steven Davis, and Glen Kamara chewing up minutes in the middle of the park.

Transfer news: Saint-Maximin in demand, Norwich back to German giants

Saint-Maximin to PSG
Photo by Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images
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The Sunday morning papers are helping the transfer rumor mill buzz after a weekend of matches in Europe.

[ MORE: Pulisic reacts to Hazard comparisons ]

Newcastle is mentioned as a home for several players but the biggest Magpies name is one linked with a departure to big, big clubs.

Saint-Maximin to PSG, PL big boys

Newcastle supporters, avert your eyes and trust Steve Bruce (What a sentence and maybe a mantra).

Magpies talisman Allan Saint-Maximin has caught the eye of everyone on Tyneside and most of the Premier League but is being linked with a big money move back home.

Steve Bruce is flat-out denying there’s any chance of selling the Frenchman, 23, who is being linked with Paris Saint-Germain and “all of England’s current top six sides.”

“ASM” has four goals and seven assists in 25 appearances entering Sunday morning’s match versus West Ham and is one of just three players to average more than four dribbles per game, his 4.7 sandwiched between Adama Traore (5) and Wilfried Zaha (4.5).

It’s not just about the numbers with Saint-Maximin, though, whose magnetic dribbling and personality keep both a defense off-balance and a team hopeful and happy. Newcastle is 1W-3D-7L in the Premier League when Saint-Maximin plays, 10-6-5 when he’s out there.

Any sale, especially with Newcastle’s takeover looming, would have to be well over the approximately $20 million paid by the Magpies last summer.

Schick to Newcastle (amongst others)

The same report lays out a more realistic shopping list for the Magpies than many of the rumors since reports emerged of a big money takeover at St. James’ Park.

Newcastle is being linked with Roma’s Patrik Schick, Nice’s Arnaud Lusamba, Benfica’s Florentino Luis, Penarol’s Facundo Pellistri, and Norwich City’s Ben Godfrey.

Let’s focus on Schick and Lusamba.

Patrick Schick Leipzig Bundesliga
DORTMUND, GERMANY – DECEMBER 17: Patrik Schick (Photo by Jörg Schüler/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Schick was once among the most sought-after names in the game. The 24-year-old Czech striker has nine goals in 22 caps for his country.

Three seasons removed from his breakout season at Sampdoria, Schick has profound his footing on loan to RB Leipzig from Roma. The center forward has 10 goals in 22 matches despite Timo Werner carrying the water in fine fashion for Julian Nagelsmann’s Leipzig.

Like Saint-Maximin last season, Lusamba has been in- and out-of-favor with Nice boss Patrick Vieira. But it’s worth noting that the manager has tried to find a place on the pitch for the 23-year-old center midfielder, deploying him at center forward and right mid at times.

Lusamba averaged 1.2 key passes and 1.3 dribbles per Ligue 1 appearances this season.

Godfrey to Borussia Dortmund

Speaking of Godfrey, could he be going from the bottom of the Premier League table to the upper reaches of Germany? For close to $30 million, to boot?

Two of the Bundesliga’s top clubs continue to monitor top young Premier League talent including the aforementioned Godfrey, with Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig eyeing the 22-year-old.

A center back in Norwich’s maligned and injury-battered defense, England youth international Godfrey has played the seventh-most minutes for Daniel Farke’s Canaries.

Relegation victims have often yielded incredible value for bigger clubs, two great cases in point being ex-Hull City man Andrew Robertson and former Aston Villa force Idrissa Gana Gueye. We don’t need to tell you where they wound up.

Sheffield United snares late point at Burnley

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John Egan’s late goal gave Sheffield United a 1-1 draw with Burnley at Turf Moor on Sunday.

James Tarkowski had put the Clarets ahead in the first half.

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Blades stay above Burnley by two points but both will lament not strengthening their Europa League stock.

Sheffield United’s point gives it 48 points and eighth place, two points and one spot above the host Clarets.

BURNLEY – SHEFFIELD UNITED FULL MATCH REPLAY

Burnley has lost just once in 11 outings including a win over Manchester United and draws with Tottenham and Arsenal.


Three things we learned

1. Blades never say die: Burnley will lament not putting the game to bed with some promising chances but don’t take credit for the point away from Chris Wilder’s Blades. A late short corner routine involved four players on its way to goal, the last moves a clever Billy Sharp flick to the back post for Egan to finish with style. There were some stumbles out of the coronavirus pause and this result can fit in that camp but the resolve of United is real.

2. Burnley’s hopes of a Europa return take a hit: The Clarets booked a pair of 1-0 wins after a blowout loss to Man City and looked very much set for the same on Sunday before the late Blades corner kick. Burnley would’ve loved to directly affect a rival’s point total but has a lot of points available on the docket even considering upcoming matches with Liverpool and Wolves. And might success keep Sean Dyche around his beloved Turf Moor a bit longer despite recent drama with the board?

3. Deputizing skipper as Man of the Match: Tarkowski was quite good apart from his rare goal despite usual center back partner Ben Mee’s absence from the lineup. It was fitting that Tarkowski took the arm band in Mee’s stead, making nine clearances, an interception, two tackles, winning myriad duels including 13 in the air, and completing four of nine long balls (SofaScore).


Burnley – Sheffield United recap

Sheffield United had the best of the first 20 minutes, though Burnley had one solid chance that Matej Vydra was unable to convert.

Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope had a rare rough moment when a long throw-in made its way into the goal but he was saved by a foul in the build-up

VAR did not see an unknowing Erik Pieters handball off a corner kick reason to send Blades to the spot.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ]

So it follows that, in Burnley fashion, the hosts went ahead of a set piece. Tarkowski slid onto Jay Rodriguez’s flick of a free kick to give the Clarets a 43rd-minute lead.

Burnley kept the game in control and nearly doubled its advantage with a classic Rodriguez rip from distance, which Dean Henderson parried in a good place for a misfiring Dwight McNeil.

It was a really good goal to make it 1-1, a well-worked corner kick routine flicked to the back post for Egan to finish with authority.