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Assessing MLS offseason needs in the Eastern Conference

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The offseason is a time for change, and there are now 21 clubs gunning for the Seattle Sounders to take home MLS Cup in 2017.

[ MORE: MLS reveals timetable for teams 25, 26; expansion fee at $150 million ]

With the arrivals of Atlanta United and Minnesota United, MLS just became a bit more challenging and with the offseason in full swing teams must now gear up to add as much talent as possible before preseason begins.

[ MORE: PST ranks top DPs of past 10 years ]

PST begins the first of its two-part series (check out the Western Conference here) examining the Eastern Conference and what each team needs to do to be a playoff contender in 2017.


Atlanta United

As a first year team it’s easy to argue that Gerardo Martino and co. need to address a lot, however, Atlanta has already had an unprecedented offseason for an expansion organization. The additions of Kenwyne Jones, Miguel Almiron and others have already given the team an exciting vibe, and this is all before the SuperDraft has taken place.

While the club’s attack looks potentially threatening to the rest of the Eastern Conference, Martino will certainly be looking to the address the backline as 2017 nears. The offseason pickups of veterans Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz is a good start, however, Atlanta will have to add more talent behind the ball in order to keep goals from flying into net. Rumors of U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper Brad Guzan‘s arrival could certainly help with that aspect of the roster as well.


Chicago Fire

Finishing last in the East a year ago wasn’t unexpected but Year 2 of Veljko Paunovic’s tenure has to show improvement for a roster that boasts as much young talent as the Fire’s does. With Matt Polster, Brandon Vincent, David Accam and more already in place, the Fire need to attack this offseason to the best of their ability in order to become a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.

Vincent and Jonathan Campbell each showed promise in their rookie campaigns but the club would be wise to add another experienced veteran or two in the back in the event that their young players don’t progress, particularly after the defense conceded 58 times a season ago. Offensively, a striker should certainly be an area of need. Michael de Leeuw showed promise with seven goals in 18 matches, but he’ll need assistance up front, along with Accam, in order to make the attack a legitimate threat.


Columbus Crew

This is a team only two seasons removed from reaching the MLS Cup final, but 2016 surely wasn’t the year Greg Berhalter and his side expected. Between the exit of Kei Kamara and allowing just shy of 60 goals, the Crew have their work cut out for them next season despite boasting a roster mixed with experience and youth promise.

The Crew feature a solid core of players, so the gap between 2016 and 2017 should be focusing in on how to bring in some exuberance with youth, possibly through the draft, in order to wake this team up. Outside of Harrison Afful, the defense is lacking now that Parkhurst has moved on to Atlanta. The backline will surely be the biggest concern for Berhalter, while may be in the market for a backup to Ola Kamara.

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 27: Gyasi Zardes #11 of the Los Angeles Galaxy and Steve Birnbaum #15 of D.C. United chase after a ball during the second half against D.C United at StubHub Center on August 27, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

D.C. United

After making some midseason moves in 2016, D.C. United looked like a completely different team during the second half of the season. Patrick Mullins and Lloyd Sam reinvigorated the side’s attack, but there are still some questions regarding the strength of the roster.

While Mullins stepped up in a big way, it remains to be seen if he can become one of MLS’ top goalscorers, so expect Ben Olsen to look into another striker or two. With Steve Birnbaum’s name constantly thrown around in the transfer market, centerback is surely a concern for D.C. as well, especially as Bobby Boswell gets up in age.


Montreal Impact

This is a team ready-made to make a run in 2017 after already coming close to reaching MLS Cup this past season. Ignacio Piatti’s presence up front has made the Impact one of the league’s most dangerous attacks, while Laurent Ciman has established himself as a top defender in MLS.

Mauro Biello’s group could be one of the favorites heading into 2017, so a few pieces on the defensive side of the ball could be the difference between the conference final and the MLS final.


New England Revolution

Kei Kamara’s move to the Revs in 2016 wasn’t enough to bring the side back to the postseason but with the talent on this roster it should only take a few moves for them to return to the playoffs next year. Teal Bunbury and Juan Agudelo provide solid support up top, but it is the defense that could use some adjustments in 2017 if the Revolution are to be considered contenders.

Despite boasting a veteran backline last season, the Revs allowed 54 goals. Jay Heaps and co. will have to address the defense in order to stop the rest of the high-flying attacks in the East.


New York City FC

While David Villa remains one of the top goalscoring threats in MLS, NYCFC must attack this offseason in order to overcome the East’s elite. In addition to Villa, youngsters Jack Harrison and Khiry Shelton will be expected to emerge in the attack but the squad’s biggest concerns remain in the midfield and backline.

With Frank Lampard and Andoni Iraola gone from the midfield, NYCFC will be lacking a presence in the center, which is a major concern for manager Patrick Vieira. The backline was also one of the worst in MLS in 2016, making it a top priority for the Frenchman. Ronald Matarrita has been rumored for some time with a move away from the club, potentially leaving another gap in the team if he exits.

COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 22: Bradley Wright-Phillips #99 of the New York Red Bulls kicks the ball towards the goal after slipping past Tyson Wahl #2 of the Columbus Crew SC during the second half on November 22, 2015 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus defeated New York 2-0. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

New York Red Bulls

The side from just west of New York City still can’t get over the elusive hump that has burdened them for years. Despite boasting one of the league’s deepest and most talented squads, Jesse Marsch and the Red Bulls must retool in order to get to the MLS Cup.

The team will bring back the regular host of attacking threats like Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan, but another presence up front could be what the side is missing when it comes down to the postseason. Defensively, the Red Bulls need to address the central defense with Aurelien Collin and Damien Perrinelle out of contract and Chris Duvall shipped off to the Impact.


Orlando City SC

Jason Kreis will have the opportunity to manage his side at the start of the season, so he will have the time he needs in order to get things running down in Orlando. With solid pieces in place like Cyle Larin and Kaka in the attack the Lions must turn its attention to the backline, which features promising youngster Tommy Redding.

While the club netted the third most goals in the East a season ago, Orlando’s backline was the worst in the league and surely needs addressing if Kreis and co. can make a run at the postseason for the first time.


Philadelphia Union

After making the playoffs in 2016, Jim Curtin’s team has a lot of potential in the future given the squad’s young talent. With Keegan Rosenberry and Josh Yaro emerging on the team’s youthful backline and C.J. Sapong and Roland Alberg in the attack, the Union have the potential to be one of the most exciting teams in 2017 if they add the proper pieces.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

The team struggled at times a season ago keeping goals out of their own net, despite having one of the league’s top keepers between the bites. A veteran presence in the back could be what the side needs most while also seeking stronger options on the wings to help out in the attack.


Toronto FC

Greg Vanney’s side is likely still feeling heartbreak from their defeat in the final, but the good news for Toronto is that they have a side built to last. Led by Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, TFC is poised to make another run at a title in 2017 so long as the team can remain healthy.

TFC boasted the conference’s top defense a season ago, so some depth in the attack and midfield could potentially put this team over the top as they look to avenge the loss to the Sounders.

Gerrard reacts to Rangers’ Old Firm heartbreak in final

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Steven Gerrard lined his Rangers side up for success, but fate was cruel to the Liverpool legend.

Rangers lost the League Cup Final to their Old Firm rivals on Sunday despite out-shooting the Bhoys by a 16-5 margin, winning a penalty, and playing almost a half-hour up a man.

[ RECAP: Rangers 0-1 Celtic ]

“To a man we were very good … by much the better side,” Gerrard said. “But unfortunately that’s not what gets you a trophy.”

But Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster stopped Alfredo Morelos’ penalty, three minutes after goal scorer Christopher Jullien was offside on the lone goal of the game.

Scotland doesn’t yet use VAR, and Gerrard doesn’t love VAR but he likes it more than he likes Scottish officials.

“There were three Celtic players standing in offside positions but unfortunately we play in a country where there is no VAR,” he said, via the BBC. “I’d be a liar if I said I was 100% in favour of it, but the one thing I do know is that officials up here need support.”

Now he has the task of getting his men to rebound ahead of its biggest non-derby in ages, as Rangers need at least a draw against Young Boys at home on Thursday to advance to the Europa League knockout rounds

“It’s a bit raw right now… It’s up to me to pick the players up. One thing I will say is I’ll stay with these players on the evidence of today because they gave me absolutely everything. We might have to suffer a bit short-term. I need to pick them up a bit physically and mentally for Thursday which is huge but our day will come on the evidence of today.”

Gerrard has done a very good job with Rangers, who are two points back of Celtic in a two-horse race for the Scottish top flight title. Celtic has won eight-straight titles to improve their total to 50, four less than the Rangers.

Serie A: AC Milan on winning streak, Fiorentina woes deepen

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AC Milan secured its first winning streak since mid-September as Krzysztof Piatek and Theo Hernandez led the way to a 3-2 road win over Bologna.

Piatek was the first on the scoresheet, opening the scoring from the spot after the Polish striker was bundled over on the break by Mattia Bani. He utilized a heavy stutter in his run-up, but wrong-footed Bologna goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski for the conversion. Hernandez was next up, latching onto a perfect through-ball from Suso that sprung the former at the far post.

Bologna pulled one back before halftime on a Hernandez own-goal, but Giacomo Bonaventura restored the two-goal lead just seconds after the restart. Nicola Sansone’s late penalty made no difference in the result and Milan sits 10th in the league table, level on points with Torino.

Fiorentina slumped to its fourth straight loss as they fell at Torino 2-1. The visitors were soundly beaten on goals by Simone Zaza and Cristian Ansaldi, only able to grab a consolation strike from Martin Caceres in stoppage time. They put just four of their 17 shots on net and had very few true chances until Caceres’s late goal. With the loss, Fiorentina drops to 13th in the table, just five points above the relegation zone. Vincenze Montella’s job is on the line, having just returned to the club in April for a second stint in charge after the departure of Stefano Pioli.

Cagliari failed to pull away from Roma with a 2-2 draw on the road at 14th placed Sassuolo. A comeback was required after falling down 2-0 before halftime. João Pedro brought the visitors one back just six minutes after the break, and Daniele Ragatzu rescued the point as he snuck one in at the near post a minute into added time. They also survived what could have been the game-winning goal as Domenico Berardi clattered the crossbar from the penalty stop on a chance that would have put the home side 3-1. Instead, Cagliari moves level with Roma on 29 points, clinging to the fourth Champions League spot on goal differential.

Genoa survived the final 13 minutes with just nine men, securing a 2-2 draw with Lecce that keeps them in the hunt for Serie A safety. Goran Pandev and Domenico Criscito had put Genoa 2-0 up before halftime, but they had coughed up the lead by the 70th minute. Still, things could have been worse as Kevin Agudelo was sent off with 20 minutes to go after conceding a penalty, while Pandev was given his marching orders in the 77th minute. The goals in this game were spectacular, with Pandev’s opener coming from nearly 40 yards out as he chipped Lecce goalkeeper Gabriel who was off his line, while Filippo Falco scored a fine curler to mark Lecce’s first on the hour mark.

Brescia topped SPAL 1-0 to leave the latter at the bottom of the Serie A table, with the lone goal coming via Mario Balotelli in the 54th minute as he collected a bobbling ball on the break and fired it in at the far post. The win was critical, moving 19th-placed Brescia to 10 points on the year, two from safety.

Parma defeated Sampdoria 1-0 on a 21st minute goal from Juraj Kucka that left Claudio Ranieri‘s squad just a point off the relegation zone.

Nuno expresses pride in Wolves achievements after Brighton draw

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Nuno Espirito Santo has expressed his pride in what Wolves has achieved so far this season after the 2-2 road draw at Brighton & Hove Albion.

The team reclaimed sixth place in the Premier League table with the point from the Amex, and while Nuno knows there were moments to improve on, he still believes the team is headed forward and looks back fondly on where they’ve come from.

[ RECAP: Wolves, Seagulls draw ]

“We are very proud of what we are achieving day by day but we want to keep on going,” Nuno said after the match. “We need to compete and prepare ourselves for the last game in the Europa League.”

He pointed to mistakes that led to Brighton goals, ones he believes a little tactical instruction should snuff out. “I am proud of how we stayed organized. We did not do well when he had to restart the game after the 1-1, we should not have played a horizontal pass that was intercepted.”

The head man was frustrated by one key thing, as his winger Adama Traore was fouled four times, all coming in the second half. “He’s a strong boy,” Nuno said. “Everybody can see that. No matter how strong you are, if you are being kicked it’s impossible.” He was seen having an animated conversation with the fourth official during the later stages of the game, with two of the four fouls drawn in the final 10 minutes as the visitors pushed for a winner.

The draw against Brighton was no anomaly – Wolves has achieved its impressive table position despite just five wins on the season. The key for them has been avoiding losses, with just two defeats on the year. They have drawn a shocking nine games, with the previous eight all either 0-0 or 1-1 before Sunday’s 2-2 finish. That leaves Wolves with an 11-game unbeaten streak, with the last loss coming in mid-September.

Nevertheless, Nuno knows the toughest part of the season is on the horizon. “The hardest part of the fixtures is going to start now. It will be tough for everybody.” Wolves has a match against Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham next weekend before a festive season that sees the club play Norwich, Man City, Liverpool, and Watford between an eleven-day span.

Brendan Rodgers has Leicester City whirring

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Leicester City is a top Premier League club.

Say it again with me. We’re doing this Good Will Hunting style, until you truly believe the words you are repeating.

Leicester City is a top Premier League club.

Four years after winning the title against astronomical odds in one of the most historic seasons in sports history, Brendan Rodgers has cemented Leicester City as anything but a fluke. This club is for real.

[ MORE: Leicester City tops Aston Villa ]

After three mid-table finished that allowed the club to institute a sustainable model of player acquisition, talent development, and asset maximization, the Foxes are back near the top of the table and look a club that has the ability to secure itself as a leading force in the English top flight.

This summer, the club put the finishing touches on two critical components of the plan, two moments that may prove defining decisions in the club’s history. The first was selling Harry Maguire and replacing him with young Caglar Soyuncu, a move which not only netted the club a massive sum of money, but also cemented Leicester City as a talent development hub capable of producing talent, offloading for a huge profit, and not losing a step on the pitch.

The second was replacing Claude Puel with Brendan Rodgers. Puel, in charge of Leicester City for two years, was caught in between instituting his preferred possessional style of play and changing the culture of the squad, a hesitation which cost the Frenchman his job. Last season, Leicester City was seventh in the league in passes per game but fifth in accurate long-balls per game, a testament to his inability to decide the squad’s identity. This season, Leicester City is fourth in passes per game behind Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool, and fourth in total shots per game, all while sitting ninth in accurate long-balls (for what it’s worth, Liverpool is 1st in that category while Man City is third, largely down to their exorbitant possessional advantages). This team has completed the transformation Puel wanted but never achieved – they are a dominant Premier League side that wants to dominate its opponents.

Even deeper, the numbers agree. Jamie Vardy is scoring at otherworldly levels, especially for a player at 32 years old. His 16 goals lead the league by six, and even with his outrageous finishing ability (he has a +5.47 differential between actual goals scored and expected goals scored, nearly double anyone else – Harry Kane and Teemu Pukki are second at +2.92), he is still second in the league in total xG behind Marcus Rashford.

James Maddison, Ricardo Pereira, and Wilfried Ndidi are all among the top 5 in WhoScored player rating this season, while Vardy sits seventh. Soyuncu ranks sixth by in the league by WhoScored among central defenders in his first full Premier League season at just 23 years old, while his center-back partner Jonny Evans is eighth in his 13th campaign in the English top flight. Pereira is a tackling machine who gets far less screen time than new Manchester United signing Aaron Wan-Bissaka, owner of a reputation for that exact skill which earned him a big-money move. Ndidi, meanwhile, continues to rise in prominence as he leads the Premier League in tackles and ranks third in interceptions.

Sure, Rodgers inherited a fantastic squad, but the list of players falls well short of screaming “second in the table” and the former Liverpool manager has metamorphosed them from budding talents to world-class players. He has mixed young talent with veteran experience flawlessly, making sure to keep title veterans Wes Morgan, Cristian Fuchs, and Marc Albrighton involved despite their declining roles.

The club has also found itself the beneficiary of a few unique circumstances. Most notably, they have avoided significant injury to this point in the season. A large part of that has been Vardy’s international retirement which (at least, for the time being) has kept him fresher than most, whereas double duty has weighed down other top goalscorers in the league. Only Matthew James is currently sidelined for the Foxes who remain one of the healthiest teams in the league. They also don’t have European play to worry about, a proven ingredient for domestic success.

Still, Rodgers is the source of much of their continued improvement. The Foxes have conceded just nine total goals all year, the least of any English top flight side, and are the only team in the league not to have conceded from a set-piece this Premier League season, a testament to their rigid and well-drilled discipline. And they have scored gobs of late goals under the current boss – they scored 10 goals inside the final 15 minutes of his first eight games in charge of the club, and this season they lead the league with five goals inside the final five minutes (even with Manchester City). Against Aston Villa he managed to pair Vardy with Kelechi Iheanacho up front, a prospect that left Puel utterly baffled.

It’s a shame this team isn’t among those competing in Europe this campaign, as they could surely challenge the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich for a spot in the Champions League quarterfinals, but they will almost certainly get the chance next season. They get a chance to play with the Premier League big boys soon during the holiday season, with back-to-back matches against Liverpool and Man City just after Christmas Day.

Claude Puel just couldn’t get it right. Vardy said earlier this season that Puel’s training sessions were “too slow” to the point where it was consequently “difficult for us to be fast and aggressive in matches.” That’s not a problem any longer. Brendan Rodgers has this team absolutely soaring at breakneck speeds towards a long-term place among the Premier League’s elite. The Foxes’ transformation from one-hit wonder to sustainable elite-level success should be a case study for other clubs looking to is still in progress, but has reached the final phase.

Eight games in a row they have won now, the most in team history. Brendan Rodgers called Sunday’s win “a historic day for the club,” but the picture is much bigger than that.

“Leicester City is a top Premier League club.” Say it again until you believe the words you are reciting. Know that they are true.