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2016 MLS Western Conference preview: Upsetting the establishment

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Have you heard of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference. Apparently it’s a murderer’s row of incredibly deep and talented squads yet again ahead of the 2016 season.

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Year after year, it’s been the likes of the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders residing atop the West, with the likes of the Portland Timbers and FC Dallas following close behind, and Sporting Kansas City making their way westward last year.

If you’ve not already done so, check out our Eastern Conference preview. With that, let’s dig into the West.

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Colorado Rapids

Colorado Rapids logoThe story: 2010 MLS Cup winners; missed the playoffs the last two years; finished last in the West in 2015.

In/Outs: 15 departures, including Gabriel Torres, Marcelo Sarvas, Lucas Pittinari, Drew Moor, Clint Irwin and Michael Harrington; 9 newcomers, including Marco Pappa, Shkelzen Gashi, Eric Miller, Zac MacMath (permanently) and Conor Doyle.

3 Key Player/DPs: FW Kevin Doyle (5 goals in 20 appearances in 2015); FW Shkelzen Gashi (27 years old; 27 goals in 43 appearances for Swiss side Basel); MF Dillon Powers (2013 Rookie of the Year; 13 goals, 21 assists in 92 career games)

Head coach: Pablo Mastroeni. The early favorite to be the first coach fired in 2016, since he somehow survived the winter, and the year before, and the year before that. No new mustache.

Outlook: They can’t possibly be any worse than they were last year… right? Then again, we said that this time last year, and they were. If MLS had — gasp — relegation, they’d be early favorites to go down.

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FC Dallas

FC Dallas logoThe story: 2010 MLS Cup runners-up; 2006 and 2015 Supporters’ Shield runners-up; made the playoffs each of the last two years; finished 1st of the West in 2015.

In/Outs: 11 departures, including Blas Perez, Ezequiel Cirigliano, David Texeira, Michel, Je-Vaughn Watson and Dan Kennedy; 10 newcomers, including Maximiliano Urruti, Carlos Gruezo, Juan Esteban Ortiz, Maynor Figueroa and Mauro Rosales.

3 Key Player/DPs: MF Fabian Castillo (23 years old; 9 goals, 9 assists in 2015); MF Mauro Diaz (24 years old; 8 goals, 10 assists in 2015); FW Maxi Urruti (25 years old; 14 goals in 60 appearances in 2014 and 2015)

Head coach: Oscar Pareja. The youth whisperer. Not afraid to play his kids ahead of veteran players who cost three, four or five times as much. Because of this, he’s got the deepest squad to work with in MLS.

Outlook: Missed out on the Supporters’ Shield due to goal differential in 2015, and they’re much better heading into 2016, at least on paper. Consider them contenders (favorites?) for every trophy this season.

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Houston Dynamo

Houston Dynamo logoThe story: Back-to-back MLS Cup winners (2006, 2007); back-to-back MLS Cup runners-up (2011, 2012); missed the playoffs each of the last two years; finished 8th in the West in 2015.

In/Outs: 11 departures, including Brad Davis, Kofi Sarkodie, Jermaine Taylor and Luis Garrido; 11 newcomers, including Cristian Maidana, Andrew Wenger, Jalil Anibaba, Collen Warner and Abdoulie Mansally.

3 Key Player/DPs: FW Erick “Cubo” Torres (23 years old; 15 goals in 29 appearances in 2014 – Chivas USA; 0 goals in 11 appearances in 2015); MF Cristian Maidana (15 assists in 28 appearances in 2015 – Philadelphia Union; 11 assists in 26 appearances in 2014); DF DaMarcus Beasley (33 years old; made 28 starts in 2015)

Head coach: Owen Coyle. By all accounts, the players adore the former Bolton manager. 2016 will be his second season in charge, and a marked improvement will be necessary on his debut campaign. He’s got the talent to do it.

Outlook: Fighting for the 5th or 6th seed in the playoffs. The requisite talent is there this time around.

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LA Galaxy

LA Galaxy logoThe story: Five-time MLS Cup winners (2002, 2005, 2011, 2012, 2014); made the playoffs each of the last seven years; finished 5th in the West in 2015.

In/Outs: 13 departures, including Omar Gonzalez, Juninho, Donovan Ricketts, Dan Gargan and Todd Dunivant; 9 newcomers, including Nigel de Jong, Ashley Cole, Jelle van Damme, Mike Magee, Jeff Larentowicz and Emmanuel Boateng.

3 Key Player/DPs: FW Robbie Keane (35 years old; 116 goals and assists combined in 108 MLS appearances); MF Giovani dos Santos (26 years old; 3 goals, 5 assists in 10 appearances in 2015); MF Nigel de Jong (32 years old; enforcer to hold down the midfield behind Steven Gerrard)

Head coach: Bruce Arena. What’s there to say? He’s won five MLS Cup (two with D.C. United, three with LA) and three Supporters’ Shields (one with United, two with LA). He’s the greatest figurehead in MLS history, and he’s likely to win himself another trophy in 2016.

Outlook: Contenders (favorites?) for every trophy this season. There’s arguably never been a better collection of top-end talent in MLS history, and Arena’s just the man you want in charge of such a squad.

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Portland Timbers

Portland Timbers logoThe story: The defending champs – 2015 MLS Cup winners.

In/Outs: 9 departures, including Will Johnson, Rodney Wallace, Jorge Villafaña, Maxi Urruti and Noberto Paparatto; 8 newcomers, including Jack McInerney, Ned Grabavoy, Chris Klute, Jermaine Taylor and Zarek Valentine.

3 Key Player/DPs: MF Darlington Nagbe (25 years old; 23 goals, 20 assists in 160 career appearances); FW Lucas Melano (23 years old; 1 goal, 3 assists in 10 appearances in 2015; now a starter in his first full season in Portland); DF Liam Ridgewell (31 years old; made 32 starts in 2015)

Head coach: Caleb Porter. He got the monkey off his back in December, and would be playing with house money with any other fanbase and/or owner in MLS. At 41 years old, he’s already accomplished more than most coaches in MLS history.

Outlook: MLS Cup contenders once again, assuming they don’t fall into complacency and suffer the dreaded championship hangover.

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Real Salt Lake

Real Salt Lake logoThe story: 2009 MLS Cup winners; 2013 MLS Cup runners-up; missed the playoffs in 2015 for the first time in eight years; finished 9th in the West in 2015.

In/Outs: 8 departures, including Luis Gil, Chris Schuler, Luis Silva and Sebastian Jaime; 6 newcomers, including Yura Movsisyan and Chris Wingert.

3 Key Player/DPs: MF Javier Morales (36 years old; 122 goals and assists combined in 211 MLS appearances); FW Yura Movsisyan (28 years old; returned from Europe this winter; scored 80 goals since leaving MLS in 2009); FW Juan Manuel “El Burrito” Martinez (30 years old; 1 goal, 1 assist in 8 appearances in 2015)

Head coach: Jeff Cassar. A rocky second season as RSL’s top dog, when he was tasked with building his own squad, rather than furthering the work of Jason Kreis.

Outlook: They’ll be much better and competing for a playoff spot, but with the West so top-heavy once again, they’re still on the outside looking in.

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San Jose Earthquakes

San Jose Earthquakes logoThe story: Two-time MLS Cup winners (2001, 2003); two-time Supporters’ Shield winners (2005, 2012); missed the playoffs each of the last three years; finished 7th in the West in 2015.

In/Outs: 7 departures, including Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi, JJ Koval, Khari Stephenson and Mike Fucito; 6 newcomers, including Simon Dawkins, Chad Barrett and Alberto Quintero.

3 Key Player/DPs: FW Chris Wondolowski (33 years old; 102 goals in 176 appearances from 2010-2015); FW Innocent Emeghara (27 years old; 1 goal in 7 appearances in 2015; tore his ACL on May 1, 2015); MF Anibal Godoy (26 years old; 2 goals in 10 appearances in 2015; 6W-3D-1L in his 10 appearances in 2015)

Head coach: Dominic Kinnear. A two-time MLS Cup champions (in Houston) and two-time runner-up (also in Houston); back with the Quakes for the second season of his second stint.

Outlook: Would be competing for a playoff if they were in the East, but the West is simply unforgiving.

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Seattle Sounders

Seattle Sounders logoThe story: 2014 Supporters’ Shield winners; four-time U.S. Open Cup winners (2009, 2010, 2011, 2014); made the playoffs all seven seasons in MLS; finished 4th in the West in 2015.

In/Outs: 13 departures, including Obafemi Martins, Lamar Neagle, Marco Pappa, Gonzalo Pineda, Leo Gonzalez and Chad Barrett; 7 newcomers, including Jordan Morris, Joevin Jones and Michael Farfan.

3 Key Player/DPs: FW Clint Dempsey (32 years old; 26 goals, 20 assists in 55 appearances since joining Seattle in 2013); FW Jordan Morris (21 years old; most heralded homegrown signing in MLS history; U.S. national team regular); MF Andreas Ivanschitz (32 years old; 1 goal, 1 assist in 6 appearances in 2015)

Head coach: Sigi Schmid. Two-time MLS Cup winner (2002 – LA, 2008 – Columbus Crew); three-time Supporters’ Shield winner (2002 – LA, 2008 – Columbus, 2014 – Seattle); five time USOC winner (2001 – LA; 2009, 2010, 2011, 2014 – Seattle).

Outlook: Contenders for every trophy up for grabs, as always.

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Sporting Kansas City

Sporting KC logoThe story: Two-time MLS Cup winners (2000, 2013); 2000 Supporters’ Shield winners; three-time USOC winners (2004, 2012, 2015); made the playoff each of the last five years; finished 6th in the West in 2015.

In/Outs: 6 departures, including Krisztian Nemeth, Erik Palmer-Brown, Jalil Anibaba, Mikey Lopez and Amobi Okugo; 6 newcomers, including Brad Davis, Justin Mapp and Nuno Andre Coelho.

3 Key Player/DPs: FW Dom Dwyer (25 years old; 12 goals in 30 appearances in 2015; 22 goals in 33 games in 2014); MF Graham Zusi (29 years old; 2 goals, 5 assists in 25 games in 2015; 21 goals, 38 assists in 116 appearances from 2011-2014); DF Matt Besler (29 years old; averaged 28.4 starts per season since 2011; anchored league’s stingiest defense in 2012 and 2013)

Head coach: Peter Vermes. Already an MLS Cup-winning and two-time-USOC-winning head coach, Vermes has built the empire that is the entire Sporting KC soccer system. He also serves as the club’s technical director.

Outlook: Contenders for every trophy up for grabs, as always. Avoiding the late-summer swoon and rash of injuries of the last two seasons will be priority no. 1 in 2016.

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Vancouver Whitecaps

Vancouver Whitecaps FCThe story: 2015 Canadian Championship winners; two-time Cascadia Cup winners (2013, 2014); made the playoffs each of the last two years; finished 2nd in the West in 2015.

In/Outs: 8 departures, including Gershon Koffie, Steven Beitashour, Mauro Rosales and Robert Earnshaw; 5 newcomers, including Masato Kudo, Christian Bolaños, Blas Perez and Fraser Aird.

3 Key Player/DPs: MF Kekuta Manneh (21 years old; 7 goals, 6 assists in 32 appearances in 2015); MF Matias Laba (24 years old; 62 appearances in two seasons with Vancouver); DF Kendall Waston (28 years old; 4 goals in 38 appearances in a season and a half with Vancouver)

Head coach: Carl Robinson. Under Robinson’s guidance, the 2015 Whitecaps conceded the fewest goals in the league (36). Unlocking Manneh’s potential and helping him to realize his invisible ceiling will see Vancouver go from competitive to champions.

Outlook: Contenders for every trophy up for grabs. Bringing their home form (8th in the West) up to par with that of their road successes (1st in the West) could see them lift the Supporters’ Shield in October.

Sarri to miss 2 Juventus matches including against Napoli

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TURIN, Italy (AP) New Juventus coach Maurizio Sarri will not be on the bench for the club’s first two Serie A matches, including against former team Napoli.

Sarri is recovering from pneumonia and underwent further tests on Thursday.

Juventus says they “showed a good clinical improvement” but the 60-year-old Sarri needs to be absent “to completely recover.”

Sarri has still been going to Juve’s training ground and watching the sessions on video link and coordinating with his staff.

Juventus kicks off its bid for a record-extending ninth straight Serie A title at Parma on Saturday, before hosting Napoli the following week.

Sarri spent three seasons at Napoli before moving to Chelsea in 2018.

UEL Recap: Wolves earn huge road victory, and more

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Wolverhampton Wanderers has one proverbial foot back in a European competition, potentially breaking a 40-year drought for the club.

Wolves defeated Torino on the road, 3-2, in the first leg match between the two sides on Thursday at the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino. Mexican international Raul Jimenez continued his red-hot form with another goal, while Diogo Jota scored as well for Wolves.

The Premier League side took the lead late in the first half thanks to an own goal, as Gleison Bremer headed in a Wolves free kick expertly into the side netting. Jota then added the second for Wolves in the 59th minute after an individual moment of brilliance from Adama Traore down the right side of the box, completely bamboozling his defender.

Torino’s Lorenzo di Silvestre answered just two minutes later off a late run into the box and a powerful header, but Jimenez then gave Wolves another two-goal advantage, as well as another crucial away goal. Jimenez ran with the ball from midfield and with Nicolas N’Koulou retreating, Jimenez took the space and scored.

Torino striker Andrea Belotti gave the Italians some late hope with a penalty kick goal in the 89th minute, but it wasn’t enough to complete the comeback. Anything but a defeat by more than two goals for Wolves will be enough for the club to make it to the Europa League group stage.

Here’s more results from around the Europa League on Thursday afternoon:


Celtic top AIK at home

The Scottish champions appear to have brushed off the disappointment of exiting the UEFA Champions League with a solid 2-0 win at Celtic Park against AIK Solna on Thursday evening.

James Forrest scored the opener for Celtic, taking advantage of a ricochet on the edge of the box to unleash a strike that AIK goalkeeper Oscar Linner couldn’t parry away. Odsonne Edouard then put the icing on the cake with a tremendous free kick from 30-yards out to give Celtic it’s 2-0 lead.

Neil Lennon’s side then held off AIK late to secure the shutout.

Thursday’s Europa League Playoff Round first leg qualifying matches:


Astana 3-0 BATE
Ararat Armenia 2-1 F91 Dudelange
Malmo FF 3-0 Bnei Yehudah Tel Aviv
Suduva 0-0 Ferencvaros
Feyenoord 3-0 Hapoel Be’er Sheva
Ludogorets 0-0 Maribor
FC Copenhagen 2-1 Riga
AEK Athens 1-3 Trabzonspor
Legia Warsaw 0-0 Rangers

Crossroads: What if Arsenal hadn’t gone unbeaten?

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The 2003-2004 Premier League season will forever be remembered for Arsenal’s Invincibles, the first team in history to go an entire 38-game season undefeated.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

But what if they hadn’t?

On the latest episode of NBC Sports’ new series Crossroads, host Aaron West dives into the Invincible season for Arsenal, and what would have happened if Arsenal lost along the way. Of course, we know that didn’t happen, and it wasn’t until the next season against Manchester United that Arsenal’s unbeaten run of 49 games was ended.

Watch the latest episode of Crossroads above, and check out previous episodes on Manchester City and Liverpool on NBC Sports‘ Youtube Page.

 

Oxlade-Chamberlain signs contract extension at Liverpool

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While Liverpool hasn’t been busy in the transfer market, it continues to be busy upgrading its first team contracts.

The club announced on Thursday that it had signed midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to a new, undisclosed long-term contract. The BBC reported that the new contract tied Oxlade-Chamberlain to Liverpool through 2023, after his last deal was set to expire in 2022.

[READ: JPW’s Premier League Picks]

“I’m really, really excited – it’s been in the pipeline for a little while, so it’s nice to finally get it done and just extend my time here, which I am really looking forward to,” Oxlade-Chamberlain told Liverpool’s website in a statement. “I feel like I missed out on a year, which I obviously did, so it’s really exciting for me to be able to sign. It’s something that I feel is an opportunity to give that year back and make up for lost time – and hopefully put in some good performances to make amends for not being around last year.

“You’ve got to count your blessings every time you get an opportunity like this, you don’t get the chance to play for Liverpool Football Club every day. I am really excited to be able to extend my time here.”

Oxlade-Chamberlain is finally healthy after a long, long recovery from a horrific knee injury suffered in April 2018. The England international missed out on the World Cup as well as the Champions League final, though he was able to make the field off the bench towards the end of last season, eventually making the bench for Liverpool’s Champions League victory in June.

With some injuries and fatigue to other players, Oxlade-Chamberlain made his first Premier League start in more than a year last Saturday against his former club Southampton, playing 89 minutes in Liverpool’s 2-1 victory. He also started and played the first half in Liverpool’s UEFA Super Cup win over Chelsea on penalty kicks.

This deal is ultimately a good-will gesture from both sides, making up for the year lost that Oxlade-Chamberlain endured after the knee injury in the Champions League semifinal. It could take him more time, but Liverpool is certainly hoping that he can make a full recovery and come good for the Reds as it looks to win its first Premier League title, and first top league title in England since 1990.