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MLS 2017 Eastern Conference preview

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Toronto FC nearly hoisted MLS Cup on its home turf in 2016 but Greg Vanney’s side won’t be the only Eastern Conference contender this season.

[ MORE: MLS 2017 season previews

With the 2017 campaign set to kick off on Friday (yes, just two days away), 11 teams in the East will have the opportunity to reach the postseason as MLS continues its expansion.

Some of you may be thinking “11”? Yep. Welcome Atlanta United to the mix!

[ MORE: MLS 2017 schedule

Below is everything you need to know about the Eastern Conference heading into the 2017 season.


Atlanta United

Twitter/@ATLUTD

Record in 2016: N/A
Offseason evaluation:
It was about as good as any new club could have hoped for, and the team has already showed flashes of brilliance in preseason. With three quality, young Designated Players, savvy veterans like Kenwyne Jones and Michael Parkhurst and a crop of young studs led by first round draft pick Miles Robinson, Atlanta is already off and running.
Key player:
Miguel Almiron — The Paraguayan has made a name for himself in South American football, and now it’s his turn to live up to the billing in MLS. In addition to his club services, Almiron has made an impact for the Paraguayan national side at both the Copa America Centenario and also during 2018 CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.
Coach:
Gerardo “Tata” Martino – He’s coached at the highest levels of the game, including at Barcelona, but Martino takes his talents to an expansion side that has arguably won the offseason. There’s no questioning his resume, however, in a league with as parity as MLS, the savvy manager will have to prove himself once again in the United States.
Vague 2017 prediction: 
This is a deep, deep roster and although expansion sides of the past have struggled to come out firing from the gate, this Atlanta side could very well buck that trend.


Chicago Fire

BRIDGEVIEW, IL - AUGUST 14: John Goossens #7 of Chicago Fire celebrates a goal against Orlando City FC with teammate Brandon Vincent #3 during an MLS match at Toyota Park on August 14, 2016 in Bridgeview, Illinois. The Fire and Orlando City SC tied 2-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Record in 2016: 7-17-10 – last in MLS’ Eastern Conference, last overall record in MLS (didn’t qualify for playoffs)
Offseason evaluation:
The East Conference bottom dwellers had themselves a strong winter, clearly highlighted by their blockbuster trade for veteran midfielder Dax McCarty from the New York Red Bulls. Add in Hungarian attack Nemanja Nikolic and one of the league’s youngest rosters and this has strong potential in the offing. 
Key player:
Nemanja Nikolic — The 29-year-old starred in Europe with clubs like Legia Warsaw Videoton, and the Fire hope he can bring his goalscoring presence to a team that just 42 goals all season in 2016.
Coach:
Veljko Paunovic — The young Serbian manager is still learning the ropes of MLS but he’s surely built a strong roster in just his second season in the U.S.
Vague 2017 prediction: 
Will the Fire make the playoffs? It looks a lot more likely than a season ago.


Columbus Crew

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 12: Ethan Finlay #13 of the Columbus Crew SC and Fabinho #33 of the Philadelphia Union battle for control of the ball in the first half on March 12, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Record in 2016: 8-14-12 – 9th in MLS’ Eastern Conference, 18th overall in MLS (Did not qualify for playoffs)
Offseason evaluation:
The Crew didn’t bring about too many changes during the offseason but their strong core of players, led by Ola Kamara, Ethan Finley and Federico Higuain should pose a great threat to opposing defenses in 2017. Meanwhile, Jonathan Mensah’s addition should fill a void in the back after the exit of veteran defender Michael Parkhurst.
Key player:
Ola Kamara – The striker filled in nicely after Kei Kamara‘s move to the Revolution but he’ll have to avoid a sophomore slump in MLS if the Crew are to contend in the East once again.
Coach:
Gregg Berhalter – As he enters his fourth full season with the club, Berhalter must regroup and his get his side focused after missing the playoffs in 2016. 
Vague 2017 prediction: 
The Crew fell off big time from their MLS Cup appearance in 2015 but this is still a roster full of talent and will surely compete for a playoff spot in the East.


D.C. United

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)

Record in 2016: 11-10-13 – 4th in MLS’ Eastern Conference, 9th overall in MLS (Knocked out in MLS Cup Conference semifinals)
Offseason evaluation:
The Eastern Conference side has found a solid mix of youth and veteran pieces to help be in the mix for a playoff spot again in 2017. Ian Harkes will be one of the most watched youngsters this season after signing a Homegrown contract, while Luciano Acosta hopes to continue his impressive play in his second season with the club.
Key player:
Patrick Mullins – After getting a new contract this offseason, Mullins will have some high expectations to carry over his goalscoring form from a season ago.
Coach:
Ben Olson – Historically, D.C. has been one of the most successful franchises, but it’s been over 13 years since the club’s last MLS Cup. Olson knows that feeling back from his playing days, but it’s now his job to step up and help deliver one as a manager.
Vague 2017 prediction: 
This is a squad that is built to win now, particularly at the back, so Olson and co. will have to take advantage of the current roster.


Montreal Impact

Montreal Impact players celebrate Matteo Mancosu's goal against Toronto FC during the first half of an MLS Eastern Conference final soccer match in Montreal, Tuesday, Nov.22, 2016. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP)

Record in 2016: 11-11-12 – 5th in MLS’ Eastern Conference, 11th overall in MLS (Knocked out in MLS Cup knockout round)
Offseason evaluation:
There’s no more Didier Drogba but the Impact still boast a squad that nearly qualified for MLS Cup last season. 
Key player:
Ignacio Piatti – He’s easily one of MLS’ most dynamic attackers, and without Drogba, Piatti will be able to influence this Impact side that much more. 
Coach:
Mauro Biello – Biello knows the club in and out, and he’s done everything right to this point. 2017 looks to be the season where the team can take the next step and contend for an MLS Cup title.
Vague 2017 prediction: 
The Impact have reached the postseason two consecutive seasons, and look to be on pace for a third and potentially have bigger sights set.


New England Revolution

Juan Agudelo & Diego Fagundez, New England Revolution

Record in 2016: 11-14-9 – 7th in MLS’ Eastern Conference, 14th overall in MLS (Did not qualify for playoffs)
Offseason evaluation: 
The Revs were relatively quiet during the winter period, suggesting the club is content with its current core. There’s unquestioned talent on the roster, especially in the attack, but the Eastern Conference side has to back up its lack of moves early in the season.
Key player:
Kei Kamara – Considering his track record in MLS, seven goals after joining the Revs was surely a disappointing season for Kamara. He’ll have to do better in 2017 to compete with the beasts in the East.
Coach:
Jay Heaps – The Revs have made the postseason in three of their last four campaigns, but with the attacking group that the team boasts, Heaps will surely feel some pressure if the club doesn’t start off right.
Vague 2017 prediction: 
Kamara, Nguyen and Fagundez. If those guys click, this could be a top four side in the East.


New York City FC

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13: David Villa #7 of New York City FC celebrates his first half goal with teamate Andrea Pirlo #21 againd the Toronto FC at Yankee Stadium on March 13, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Record in 2016: 15-10-9 – 2nd in MLS’ Eastern Conference, 4th overall in MLS (Knocked out in MLS Cup knockout round)
Offseason evaluation:
Losing Frank Lampard was a big blow, but Patrick Vieira and co. have done a fantastic job of bringing in younger options around the squad. The jury is still out on how the backline will look on opening day, but there isn’t really any question regarding how good the attack will be again.
Key player:
Maxi Moralez – The club’s third DP has big boots to fill after Frank Lampard’s production last season, but the South American attacker has already brought big expectations and is expected to help easy David Villa’s load.
Coach:
Patrick Vieira – The Frenchman has done everything he said he would in terms of bringing in a younger core. Now, it’s up to Vieira to grind out results for NYCFC in the regular season and beyond.
Vague 2017 prediction: 
This is surely a playoff team barring injury, but the backline will once again be the area to watch if they are to make a run.


New York Red Bulls

HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 6: Sacha Kljestan #16 of New York Red Bulls dribbles past Steven Beitashour #33 of Toronto FC during their match at Red Bull Arena on March 6, 2016 in Harrison, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Record in 2016: 16-9-9 – 1st in MLS’ Eastern Conference, 3rd overall in MLS (Lost in MLS Cup knockout round)
Offseason evaluation:
The Dax McCarty trade is still mind-boggling to some, but the Red Bulls were simply looking to get younger in the midfield. Sean Davis is a suitable replacement at defensive mid, and it’s now just up to the rest of the attacking players to support Bradley Wright-Phillips during the critical junctures.
Key player:
Gonzalo Veron – It’s safe to say the DP hasn’t lived up to the billing just yet, but there is promise. Veron’s speed and technical abilities are fun to watch, and a potential partnership up front with BWP could be what the Red Bulls need to make a deeper run in the playoffs.
Coach:
Jesse Marsch – Some of the events that transpired during the offseason are still a bit unclear, but Marsch has fully proven himself as a manager in his two seasons with the Red Bulls. Now, he just has to be focused on getting the team over the hump and into MLS Cup.
Vague 2017 prediction: 
Like NYCFC, this is a playoff team. How far they can go is left to be determined.


Orlando City SC

BRIDGEVIEW, IL - AUGUST 14: Cyle Larin #9 of Orlando City FC controls the ball in front of Jonathan Campbell #16 of Chicago Fire during an MLS match at Toyota Park on August 14, 2016 in Bridgeview, Illinois. The Fire and Orlando City SC tied 2-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Record in 2016: 9-11-14 – 8th in MLS’ Eastern Conference, 15th overall in MLS (Did not qualify for playoffs) 
Offseason evaluation:
 Adding veterans like Will Johnson and Jonathan Spector this offseason will do wonders for the Lions defensively, but now the club just needs to hold up without injury to prevent opposition from breaking down their backline after conceding a league-leading 60 goals a year ago.
Key player:
Cyle Larin — One of the most exciting young attackers in MLS, Larin has done everything to entice the Orlando City fan base thus far. It’s up to the rest of his team to help support the Canadian to help the club reach its first postseason.
Coach:
Jason Kreis – The former U.S. striker has the chance to manage from the start of the season, so this will be a real opportunity to see how he can take charge of the Lions. 
Vague 2017 prediction: 
Again, it’s on the defense. If they can keep goals out, this is a playoff-worthy team.


Philadelphia Union

CHESTER, PA - MARCH 20: Diego Fagundez #14 of New England Revolution kicks the ball away from Keegan Rosenberry #12 of Philadelphia Union at Talen Energy Stadium on March 20, 2016 in Chester, Pennsylvania. The Union won 3-0. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

Record in 2016: 11-14-9 – 6th in MLS’ Eastern Conference, 13th overall in MLS (Knocked out in MLS Cup knockout round) 
Offseason evaluation:
Giliano Wijnaldum was one of the more underrated signings during the offseason for the Union, who can bring European experience to the backline, while Fafa Picault will be an intriguing American prospect to watch over.
Key player:
Keegan Rosenberry – The Union struggled to keep goals out last season, largely due to injuries at the back. However, Rosenberry’s presence was a resounding bright spot, and his second MLS season could surely propel his USMNT stock further.
Coach:
Jim Curtin – The Union boss has built a very strong roster both with youth and veterans, so it’s time to take the next step in 2017.
Vague 2017 prediction: 
Curtin and co. will be expected to reach the postseason, but they might still be a step behind the likes of Toronto, Red Bulls and NYCFC.


Toronto FC

Toronto FC defender Nick Hagglund, center, celebrates his goal against the Montreal Impact with teammates Michael Bradley, right, and Steven Beitashour (33) during the second half of the second leg of MLS Eastern Conference championship series, in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

Record in 2016: 14-9-11 – 3rd in MLS’ Eastern Conference, 5th overall in MLS (Lost in MLS Cup final on penalty kicks)
Offseason evaluation:
Losing a veteran presence such as Will Johnson is definitely a significant loss, but look at the rest of this Toronto roster and say it’s not scary. Can’t do it, right?
Key player:
Jozy Altidore – The only question regarding Altidore over recent years has been his health. We saw last year what he can do when he is on the pitch, especially with someone like Sebastian Giovinco playing alongside him. 
Coach:
Greg Vanney – It’s pretty easy when you have the most dynamic player in MLS on your team, but Vanney has built a team that can last. 
Vague 2017 prediction: 
Expect Toronto to be a contender to win the East for years to come. Oh yeah, and they should be among the favorites to hoist MLS Cup too.

Cruzeiro relegated from Brazilian top flight for first time

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Brazilian side Cruzeiro was relegated from the top flight for the first time in the club’s 98-year history following a 2-0 defeat to Palmeiras on the final day of the season.

Cruzeiro required victory and a loss by Ceara at Botafogo to stay safely in the Brazilian Serie A, but neither came to pass.

Palmeiras midfielder Ze Rafael scored in the 58th minute to send the visitors on their way, with fellow midfielder Dudu finished things off in the 84th minute. Referees ushered the players off the field immediately after the conclusion of the match as Cruzeiro fans rioted in the Mineirao stadium, ripping out seats, setting off smoke bombs, and clashing with police.

Cruzeiro finished 17th in the 20-team table, three points back of Ceara in 16th. In the Brazilian top flight, the bottom four teams are relegated. CSA, Chapecoense, and Avai were also relegated. Cruzeiro had won the Brazilian Serie A as recently as 2013 and 2014, winning four titles in its history. They also have six Copa do Brasil titles, most recently winning the league cup in 2017 and 2018.

Flamengo ran away with the championship, finishing on 90 points, 16 points clear of second-placed Santos and third-placed Palmeiras who both finished level on 74 points. Palmeiras had challenged for the title, but fell off at the end of the season with a five-match winless run through November.

Premier League Preview: West Ham United v. Arsenal

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Two struggling London sides meet Monday when West Ham United hosts Arsenal (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The sides might’ve expected they’d be within close proximity at this point on the fixture list, but two wildly disappointing seasons means the three points between the Gunners and Irons comes with the former in 11th and the latter 16th.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

It’s been nine matches since Arsenal beat someone, 11 since it happened in the Premier League. West Ham hasn’t been much better, winning once in its last 10.

Freddie Ljungberg has yet to win as Arsenal interim boss, while West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini could see his current stint in London end without more results like the Nov. 30 win at Chelsea.

Monday versus Arsenal would qualify.


Injuries/suspensions

West Ham United: OUT —  Jack Wilshere, Lukasz Fabianski, Manuel Lanzini, Winston Reid. QUESTIONABLE — Michail Antonio.

Arsenal: OUT — Dani Ceballos. QUESTIONABLE — Rob Holding.


Probable lineups

West Ham United: Martin; Cresswell, Ogbonna, Balbuena, Fredericks; Rice, Noble, Yarmolenko, Anderson, Snodgrass, Haller.

Arsenal: Leno; Kolasinac, Sokratis, Luiz, Bellerin, Xhaka, Torreira, Ozil, Pepe, Aubameyang, Lacazette.


What they’re saying

West Ham’s Antonio sees an opportunity: “The only three teams that are really performing are Liverpool, Leicester and Man City. Everyone else is getting beaten, and it means we’ve had a missed opportunity so far this season. We started the season off brightly, the best start we’ve had for four years, but then we’ve had a slump. Everyone’s having a slump and this is our slump. Now it’s time for us to start turning up. We’ve been in this situation before and we know how to dig in and pull ourselves up again.”

Arsenal’s Ljungberg on setting targets: “I don’t think we should stop talking about the top four, but for us it’s about concentrating on what we’re doing here now and not look up, down, sideways. We just need to work on our own game and our own confidence.”


Prediction

Really, you wouldn’t want to predict anything from these sides right now besides goals. We’ll give an edge in desperation to the hosts and a 2-2 draw.

La Liga: Sevilla held at Osasuna, Getafe maintains UCL fight

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Sevilla was held to a 1-1 draw at 10-man Osasuna on Sunday, giving both Real Madrid and Barcelona space at the top of the La Liga table.

Munir El Haddadi put the visitors 1-0 up just 11 minutes in, but Ezequiel Avila struck just before halftime to share the points. Sevilla was held to just two total shots through the opening 45 minutes, and despite Osasuna defender Oier Olazabal being shown a second yellow card with 29 minutes to go, Sevilla still managed just 11 total efforts through the 90 minutes, with four on target.

Getafe continued its battle for a top four spot as they won 1-0 on the road at Eibar. Angel Rodriguez bagged his eighth goal of the season to secure the win, cropping up in the 67th minute to finally put Getafe through. They had been turning the screw for some time, forcing Marko Dmitrovic into a pair of big saves just before the opener which came from an absurdly tight angle after Angel had rounded the goalkeeper. The win leaves them fourth, level with Real Sociedad on 27 points.

They were allowed to close the gap after Real Sociedad was held scoreless in a 0-0 draw at 14th placed Real Valladolid. The visitors put just two of their 14 shots on net, and dropped to fifth thanks to Getafe holding the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Athletic Club also fell back in the race for a top four spot, dropping a 3-2 decision on the road at Real Betis. Joaquin scored a first-half hat-trick, with all three goals coming in the opening 20 minutes to give him five in his last three games. Inaki Williams brought Athletic Bilbao one back before halftime from the spot, and Yuri Berchiche made things interesting with a minute to go, but that was all they could muster as the visitors fell to sixth on 26 points, above Atletico Madrid on goal differential with the two yet to play head-to-head.

Celta Vigo made it interesting as Iago Aspas scored a man-down goal, but Leganes held on for a 3-2 win over the 10-man visitors. Oscar Rodriguez had a first-half brace to help the hosts to a 3-0 lead, but Nestor Araujo and Aspas helped Celta Vigo make things interesting. Still, a 71st minute second yellow card for halftime substitute Gabriel Fernandez hampered the visitors in their efforts for a comeback, leaving Celta Vigo in the relegation zone, a point back of safety, with Leganes is four points behind them in 19th.

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.