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Assessing MLS offseason needs in the Western 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 finishes its two-part series (check out the Eastern Conference here) by examining the Western Conference and what each team needs to do to be a playoff contender in 2017.


Colorado Rapids

The league’s stingiest defense (32 goals conceded in 34 games) was just enough to finish second in the West during the regular season, but when push came to shove and they needed a goal (or two) against the Sounders in the playoffs, the cupboard was bare for Pablo Mastroeni. Thus, the lack creativity, in all of the four attacking positions, wide and central, must be addressed this winter. They’ll get by just fine without Jermaine Jones — Sam Cronin was fantastic this year — and hopefully fill his place in the starting lineup with a no. 10.


FC Dallas

What do you advise for the team that has it all (two deep at just about every position)? Mauro Diaz (torn achilles) will likely miss a sizable chunk of the early season, but the trio of Carlos Gruezo, Kellyn Acosta and Victor Ulloa should be able to bridge the gap until the Argentine magician returns. Former Swansea City winger Roland Lamah has already been inked to bolster FCD’s attack out wide — a glaring need prior to his signing this week — just as Ecuadorian left back Anibal Chala has done defensively — another would-be need. With the CONCACAF Champions League group stage on tap in 2017, Oscar Pareja will require a two-deep roster at every position, and he’s got two-plus months to spare with most of his squad already in place.


Houston Dynamo

Newly-named head coach Wilmer Cabrera has some work to do. Let’s work backwards here. Here’s a list of things the Dynamo don’t need: starting goalkeeper — Tyler Deric and/or Joe Willis are fine; one starting center back, in theory — Keyner Brown is expected to win a starting job; starting defensive midfielder, about half the time — Ricardo Clark and Eric Alexander are mostly fine, when they’re healthy, which isn’t all that often; attacking Swiss army knife — Andrew Wenger; legitimate star striker in the making — Mauro Manotas, when given a modicum of service, is a lethal goal-getter. That’s five-ish contributors Cabrera can count on from day one. They Dynamo are halfway to fielding a full starting 11.


LA Galaxy

With the departure of Robbie Keane this winter, it’s Giovani dos Santos’ team now. As such, a strong center forward capable of holding the ball up and bringing Dos Santos, who’ll be at his best when playing underneath a mobile monster, into play. Perhaps you think that’s Gyasi Zardes, who’ll be back after breaking his foot at the end of the summer, which, sure, maybe. That means the Galaxy need a winger or two. If Jones is the “answer” at defensive midfield, there’s still a question at defensive midfield. The 35-year-old played in nine (regular-season) games in 2016 (he played in 18 the year before last). Also of importance: finding a permanent positional home for Sebastian Lletget. Theory: we’re about to see a wave of signings from LA Galaxy II, the club’s southern California breeding ground of young talent, ushered in by former II head coach, and new Galaxy head coach, Curt Onalfo.


Minnesota United

Adrian Heath has plenty of building to do, again. Through the expansion draft and early-offseason trades, he’s managed to fill out the following spots on the field: two defensive midfielders, Collen Warner and Mohammed Saeid, who’ll fit perfectly into his 4-2-3-1 system. That’s just about it. The Tim Ream rumors are intriguing and would certainly fill a need at center back. As far as MLS veterans (and free agents) go, Marco Pappa, Chance Myers, Dominic Oduro, Will Johnson and Marvell Wynne would also be largely cost-effective options just about everywhere on the field.


Portland Timbers

A revolving door at the heart of defense was the Timbers’ most glaring weakness in 2016. Liam Ridgewell has been largely fine since arriving in 2014, but he endured nearly a half-dozen different partners at center back after Nat Borchers (ruptured achilles) was lost for the season. Steven Taylor wasn’t the answer, and he’s already left the club after three short months. Jack Jewsbury and Ned Grabavoy have retired, which means Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe (not that Caleb Porter will play him there ever again) are the only central midfielders capable of playing behind Diego Valeri. They’re two or three starting-caliber center mids from having a deep enough squad to get through a 34-game season. If Lucas Melano isn’t going to be the outside-in winger the Timbers have so handsomely paid him to be, they’ll have to figure out who starts opposite of a poorly miscast Nagbe on the wing. Advice: bring back Rodney Wallace.

Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi, Portland Timbers FC
Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi, Portland Timbers FC (AP Photo/Bob Levey)

Real Salt Lake

It’s time to rebuild the defense and midfield at Rio Tino Stadium. 19-year-old center back Justen Glad was one of the breakout stars of 2016, so there’s a solid building block in place in the back, just as Kyle Beckerman and Sunny provide in midfield. Glad reads the game and reacts extremely well, so RSL would do well to pair him with a strong physical presence who can dominate the game in the air and break up play in front of the backline. The departures of Javier Morales (expected) and Juan Manuel “El Burrito” Martinez (unexpected) mean a new no. 10 and a wide attacker capable of combing with Joao Plata and Yura Movsisyan, as Martinez did so well in 2016, likely sit near the top of Jeff Cassar’s wish list this holiday season.


San Jose Earthquakes

Goalkeeper David Bingham, midfielders Anibal Godoy and Darwin Ceren, and forward Chris Wondolowski are about the only players on the ‘Quakes’ roster whom you could say would start for half of the league’s teams. Translation: this might be the worst roster in MLS — worse than the Dynamo, because at least some of Houston’s promising talent is still young — and much work lies ahead for Dom Kinnear.


Seattle Sounders

Despite the fact they’ll be the defending champions, the 2017 Sounders will probably look quite a bit different than the 2016 edition. For starters, Clint Dempsey is expected to slowly return to the field beginning with the U.S. national team’s January camp, which means he’ll be in the starting lineup once healthy and fit, which means the “where does he fit in?” question must once again be addressed, this time by Brian Schmetzer. Andrea Ivanschitz and Nelson Valdez are gone, which leaves just Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Alvaro Fernandez as attackers returning from this year’s improbable title run. Beyond that, at some point Osvaldo Alonso is going to have to be replaced in the long-term — Cristian Roldan will extend his career by a year or two, if paired together — or, at the very least, a ready-made replacement must be added to the roster in the event of Alonso missing a month with injuries.

Alvaro Fernandez; Jordan Morris, Nicolas Lodeiro, Seattle Sounders (Photo credit: Seattle Sounders / Facebook)
Alvaro Fernandez, Jordan Morris, Nicolas Lodeiro, Seattle Sounders (Seattle Sounders / Facebook)

Sporting Kansas City

When Krisztian Nemeth left Kansas City a month before the start of the 2016 season, he took not only the 10 goals and six assists he tallied the season prior, but more importantly, the secondary scoring and creation threats to Dom Dwyer and Benny Feilhaber. With Feilhaber operating deeper and deeper as his career unfolds, Sporting desperately require an attacker who’s comfortable playing in between the opposition’s midfield and defensive lines. Midfield depth is also a serious concern after the retirement on Paulo Nagamura, who was the only reserve central midfielder on the roster in 2016. Will Johnson would be the perfect backup at multiple spot in Sporting’s midfield, which means he’d get the 20-24 appearances he presumably desires.


Vancouver Whitecaps

On paper, the Whitecaps possess quite an impressive, talent-rich roster. In practice, very few of those pieces actually fit together into anything resembling a cohesive unit. If they’re going to continue trying to play fast — why wouldn’t you with Kekuta Manneh and 16-year-old Alphonso Davies? — they’re going to need a striker who can, 1) finish from 12 yards and in, and 2) keep pace with those blazing fast wide players. Many of the pieces are in place to replicate the Montreal Impact’s counter-attacking juggernaut with three defensive-minded midfielders in the center and speedsters on the wings — Matias Laba is as good as the get right in front of defense, and Russell Teibert should be able to play as the most advanced of the three, pressing high and reducing the workload of those behind him. A new temper for hot-headed Kendall Waston probably wouldn’t hurt, either.

WATCH: Fort Lauderdale striker scores screamer from half

Fort Lauderdale screamer
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Every goalkeeper could use a reminder to be wary of adventuring too far from his box, and USL League One provides us our latest lesson for backstops.

Ricky Lopez-Espin scored a terrific insurance goal for Fort Lauderdale CF on Saturday night, a marker which would stand as the difference in 2-1 defeat of Georgian outfit South Tormenta FC.

[ MORE: Atletico Madrid confirms positive COVID tests ]

The win pulls FLCF, first called Inter Miami II, off the bottom of the League One table early in this restarted season.

It was quite a hit, a turnover near midfield allowing Lopez-Espin the chance to spy the keeper off his line and rip a rocket out of reach.

Miami-born Lopez-Espin played college soccer at Creighton and was a Real Salt Lake draft pick. The 24-year-old played twice for RSL and later suited up for Real Monarchs and Lansing Ignite.

Two positive COVID tests for Atletico Madrid ahead of Champions League

Atletico Madrid coronavirus
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Atletico Madrid announced two positive coronavirus tests from its crew set to travel to Portugal for this week’s UEFA Champions League quarterfinal against RB Leipzig.

[ MORE: JPW’s European predictions ]

The team says it will test all of its players and staff again to assure that there are no positive COVID-19 cases affecting the tournament.

Atleti asked for extreme privacy regarding the individuals who tested positive.

The match with RB Leipzig is Thursday in Lisbon, the second of four quarterfinals on the docket.

The positive tests are a stark reminder that while the top leagues in European soccer have done a very good job at isolating and keeping tests down, an incredibly contagious virus like COVID-19 can wreak havoc on the competition at any time.

From Atleti’s web site, via Sky Sports:

“Today, two positives appeared among the known results, which are now isolated in their respective homes and were reported immediately to the Spanish and Portuguese health authorities, UEFA, the Royal Spanish Football Federation, the Portuguese Federation and the Superior Council of Sports.

“As such, a corresponding protocol planned for these circumstances has been activated, which requires new tests to be undertaken to first team players, members of the Lisbon travelling party and those who are in close contact with the positive cases, and which will result in changes in the timings of training sessions, in the structure and development of the journey and the accommodation in the Portuguese capital.”

Atalanta plays PSG on Wednesday, while Barcelona and Bayern Munich meet Friday, and Man City battles Lyon on Saturday.

It will feel like smooth sailing once the tournament begins and players hit the proverbial bubble. Until then, though, this proves that there are no guarantees.

USWNT star Kelley O’Hara on NWSL restart, launching podcast

Kelley O'Hara
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When USWNT star Kelley O’Hara launched her own podcast, she didn’t mess around with the star power of her guests.

Launched in July, the “Just Women’s Sports” podcast has hosted three incredible guests including the first post-pregnancy interview with USWNT teammate Alex Morgan as well as talks with Olympic star Chloe Kim and WNBA hero Candace Parker.

A Stanford connection with fellow alum Haley Rosen put the two-time World Cup winner on the path to hosting the show, and O’Hara admits that she was driven by the chance to lift the lid on athletes’ true feelings beyond the shield that comes up while talking to reporters.

[ MORE: Champions League favorites ranked ]

“Even as an athlete I know that I have a little of my guard up when I’m talking to a reporter because sometimes they’ll take it and use it for their own narrative or agenda,” she said in a conversation with ProSoccerTalk. “There’s an ability to be vulnerable and be safe because you’re talking to someone who has a general idea of what it feels like to be an athlete. Nothing about it is trying to catch them.”

Part of that comes with O’Hara realizing she has a massive stage on account of her accomplishments. The USWNT is one of the most-watched teams in the world, on-and-off the pitch.

While she felt more like someone achieving a life goal when she first became a pro, the simultaneous life under a microscope and on a platform has inspired her to take advantage of her role model status.

“You come to realize that with the success that we have had, individually and with the national team, you do influence people,” O’Hara said. “You have an impact. You have this ability to be a role model and do good things in the world. That’s one of the reasons that I wanted to do this podcast; I have the ability to lend my platform to other athletes and give people a voice and a space.”

O’Hara was speaking as the National Women’s Soccer League put a bow on its return to the pitch with the NWSL Challenge Cup.

O’Hara’s Utah Royals fell to eventual champions Houston Dash in the quarterfinals, but the completion of the tournament in itself was a bright spot to a dark summer.

“I’m really proud about what the NWSL was able to create there,” O’Hara said. “There was a lot of uncertainty around the Challenge Cup because of COVID, but the fact that the NWSL was able to create an environment to get back on the field has been fantastic. Obviously you have Orlando that wasn’t able to come but since every team has arrived, not one player has tested positive so the NWSL deserves a lot of credit for designing this whole set-up.”

PST asked the 32-year-old how much credit should go to the players, considering how many other leagues have been thwarted by the negligence of athletes or staffers around COVID-19.

“When the NWSL was proposing everything, they told us it was built on trust. If players weren’t going to be responsible, it wasn’t going to work. It’s great that we all want to be competing, I feel we’re very lucky to be able to compete, but that’s contributed to people following the rules. You didn’t want to be the one person who ruins it.”

Learn more about the Just Women’s Sports crew, which includes Olympic heroes Kerri Walsh-Jennings, Hilary Knight, and Maggie Steffens as well as former WNBA No. 1 overall pick Nneka Ogwumike, at their official web site.

Champions League favorites ranked from eight to one

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Eight teams remain in the UEFA Champions League’s rapid-fire return, with one-legged ties promising high drama in Portugal.

The quarterfinals begin Wednesday, the bracket distinctly split into one deadly half and another with upset potential.

Because of this set-up, there’s a massive challenge in divining the true favorites to win the Aug. 23 in Lisbon.

[ MORE: JPW’s European predictions ]

If you were assembling a bottom-up power rankings in terms of the talent and toughness assembled by the eight remaining clubs, it might look something like this:

Longshots: Atalanta, Lyon
Puncher’s chance: Atletico Madrid, RB Leipzig
History-weighted powers: Man City, Paris Saint-Germain
Favorites: Barcelona, Bayern Munich

Here’s the rub: Three of the four biggest favorites will have to get through each other to get to the final, including the two top dogs. Barcelona and Bayern Munich will scrap Friday, and Man City’s slight advantage in facing Lyon is mitigated by one day’s less rest for a Bayern-Barca winner.

[ MORE: Man Utd – Copenhagen preview ]

Man City is the bookies’ favorites to win the whole thing. Do we see it that way? Spoiler alert: Nope.

And, by the way, despite changes to both outfits this is a Lyon that took four of six points from City in the 2018-19 UCL group stage. We don’t see an upset at that stage but it’s a way to note that anything is, indeed, possible.


8. Lyon

Seventh-place in Ligue 1 this season, Rudi Garcia’s men already have the beating of Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus on their resume. Moussa Dembele, Houssem Aouar, and Memphis Depay are all exciting attacking talents, but the bracket’s demands to take down Man City, then either Bayern and Barcelona just to get to the final sinks them to eighth.

7. RB Leipzig

Julian Nagelsmann is building a reputation as a man who can outwit anyone in a one-off — see two draws with Bayern in Bundesliga play this season — so it’s fitting that he’ll go tete-a-tete with Simeone in the next round. The absence of Timo Werner, who’s off to Chelsea, is a huge problem given the occasion(s). Asking three wins seems a lot, though there will be plenty of Americans pulling for Tyler Adams’ team.

Bayern Munich v. RB Leipzig recap and video highlights
09 February 2020, Bavaria, Munich: American midfielder Tyler Adams duels with Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski. (Photo by Matthias Balk/picture alliance via Getty Images)

6. Atalanta

The Bergamo-based side will have the support of many neutrals. For one thing, Atalanta is on a historic run for their club before taking into account their city’s status as one of the early epicenters of the coronavirus. For another, they are super fun. Gian Piero Gasperini’s men scored 98 goals in Serie A, 19 more than next-best Lazio, and lost the second-fewest games in Italy. They’ve lost once since January 25, a final day defeat to Inter Milan. Five players have scored double-digit goals in all comps this season.

5. Atletico Madrid

Ask Liverpool: Diego Simeone and Jan Oblak in knockout round football is reason to doubt anyone. Still, there’s an argument to be made that Atleti has punched well above its weight this season, even relative to El Cholo’s standards.

4. Barcelona

Lionel Messi means the club should be even higher on this list, and Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suarez are plenty battle-hardened in this spot. But Barca has made a mess of their last few ventures into the latter rounds of this tournament, and those ghosts combined with having to beat Bayern and perhaps Man City in consecutive weeks is brutal with several u’s.

Messi new contract
SEVILLA, SPAIN – JUNE 19: He’s good (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

3. Paris Saint-Germain

There’s a good argument to be made that PSG might hold the top spot on this list. Thomas Tuchel’s men are better rested and have a more straight-forward path to Lisbon, plus the Ligue 1 champs have played and won two Cup finals in the past three weeks. There are two reasons we’re keeping them below Man City and Bayern. One is the UCL-challenged history that has us as well as surely them seeing ghosts, and the other is the uncertain status of Kylian Mbappe. He’s in the squad, but at what percent?

2. Manchester City

The reason to consider putting City above Bayern is the men in charge. Hansi Flick has done oh-so-well at Bayern but is certainly not Pep Guardiola in terms of big-game acumen or reputation. But City’s defense has proven suspect, with John Stones falling off a cliff and Nicolas Otamendi not at the levels of previous seasons. Relying on Fernandinho, Aymeric Laporte, and Eric Garcia to shut down three top attacks in two weeks is a big ask, and left back is also a huge concern with the talented wingers set to test City.

1. Bayern Munich

No weaknesses aside from potentially having to beat Barcelona and Man City inside of six days. Boasting one of the only double-double men in Europe’s top leagues in Serge Gnabry, a played who doesn’t get mentioned as often as history-chasing Robert Lewandowski and history-making Thomas Muller. A midfield duo of Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich which is just plain stupid. Speed and composure to spare with Manuel Neuer at the back. The German keeper may no longer be the undoubted 1 or 2 in the world, but he’s still a monster.