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2018 MLS Eastern Conference preview

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Ah, the return of Major League Soccer.

It feels like forever ago that Toronto FC captured its first MLS Cup title in franchise history, although it was only a mere two-plus months ago.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

In that time, though, a lot has changed, including the preparation for yet another expansion side entering into the league and several MAJOR transfer moves that have sent reverberations throughout MLS.

We’ll get to Los Angeles FC and the rest of the Western Conference on Wednesday, but for now, here is everything you need to know about the Eastern Conference heading into the 2018 season.


Atlanta United

Record in 2017: 15-9-10 — Fourth in the Eastern Conference (qualified for MLS playoffs)
Offseason evaluation: 
The loss of Yamil Asad was certainly a big one, but when you can replace a player like him with Ezequiel Barco, Darlington Nagbe and a plethora of young talent waiting in line it’s safe to say you’re in a good position. Defensively, one of the best back lines in MLS arguably got better with Franco Escobar’s arrival and depth provided by veteran Sal Zizzo.
Key player: 
Miguel Almiron — He was my Player to Watch heading into 2017, and it’s safe to say the Paraguayan lived up to the billing… and then some for Atlanta. His brilliance goes beyond just scoring goals, and his vision is almost unmatched on an MLS scale. It’s quite likely that 2018 will be Almiron’s last season in the United States, so take in his excellence while he’s still in our presence.
Coach: 
Gerardo “Tata” Martino – The former Barcelona manager did just about everything right in Year 1, but it’s time for this Atlanta club to take the next step in its progression. Martino has succeeded on the highest of levels, and it’s hard to believe that track record won’t translate to an MLS crown at some point in the near future.
Vague 2018 prediction: 
If watching Atlanta was fun in 2017, then this season is going to be a treat for those attending matches at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It’s MLS Cup or bust for this talented group.


Chicago Fire

Record in 2017: 16-11-7 — Third in Eastern Conference (Qualified for MLS playoffs) 
Offseason evaluation: 
When David Accam was traded to the Philadelphia Union this offseason it raised some questions about the Fire’s intentions for the 2018 campaign. Losing the veteran attacker was certainly a damaging blow, however, the club did well to equip itself rookie talents Jon Bakero and Mo Adams — both selected in the first round. Meanwhile, a loan move for Alaves midfielder Aleksandar Katai went as an underrated move for the team.
Key player: 
Jon Bakero — The rookie midfielder may have been the best player in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft, and the Fire are expected good things from the young player from the beginning. 
Coach: 
Veljko Paunovic — The Serbian has done a fantastic job integrating youth with a veteran core in his short time with the Fire, and he and his staff appeared to have one of the the 
Vague 2018 prediction: 
The Fire lost a fair deal of players this offseason, including Accam, so they’ll be banking on a younger group in 2018.


Columbus Crew

Record in 2017: 16-12-6 — Fifth in Eastern Conference (Qualified for MLS playoffs)
Offseason evaluation: 
With Ola Kamara and Justin Meram no longer in the fold, the Crew attack is going to look drastically different this season. Veteran presences like Gyasi Zardes and Mike Grella will step in to try to fill the void, but the expectations for the Crew have surely changed.
Key player: 
Gyasi Zardes — The ex-Galaxy attacker is going to play a big role up front for this team, and with Ola Kamara gone, Zardes will have to pick up the slack in the goalscoring department.
Coach: 
Greg Berhalter — The former MLS player has been one of the best coaches in the league since taking over, and he’ll need to do a special job this season if the Crew are to contend. 
Vague 2018 prediction: 
This club was very close to reaching MLS Cup in 2017, but a plethora of exits this offseason have the Crew looking up at the major contenders in the East.


D.C. United

Record in 2017: 9-20-5 — Last in Eastern Conference (Missed MLS playoffs)
Offseason evaluation: 
The addition of Yamil Asad was the biggest add in terms of name recognition, but D.C. managed to get a very good goalkeeper in David Ousted as well, after losing Bill Hamid last year when he left for Europe. Throw in veteran MLS players like Darren Mattocks and Frederic Brillant, and D.C. has some good guys to build around.
Key player: 
Yamil Asad — Atlanta’s loss will surely be D.C.’s gain this season. Asad was brilliant in 2017 playing with Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and Atlanta’s dynamic attack, so we’ll see how the Argentine transitions into his new club.
Coach: 
Ben Olsen — On paper, Olsen has a really strong group of talent. It’s up to the former USMNT player to get his side back into the playoffs.
Vague 2018 prediction: 
Olsen and Co. had a sneaky good offseason, and they could very well be in the playoff mix this season.


Montreal Impact

Record in 2017: 11-17-6 — Ninth in Eastern Conference (Missed MLS playoffs)
Offseason evaluation: 
The shocking move to send Laurent Ciman to LAFC was not on anybody’s radar in Canada, but it caused a big shakeup within the Impact defense. While losing the center back was massive, it was coupled by seeing Blerim Dzemaili also leave when his loan deal expired. The Impact managed to acquire a few foreign players to try and make up for losses, with Bologna’s Saphir Taider and Canadian defender Michael Petrasso entering the picture.
Key player: 
Raheem Edwards — The versatile wing player was acquired through a trade with LAFC, and he’s shown that he can be one of the most promising young players in MLS. With the ability to play wing back and in the midfield, expect Edwards to garner some serious minutes with his new club.
Coach: 
Remi Garde — The former Lyon defender has joined a squad in transition mode, so his first season at the helm will likely involve seeing what he has for future campaigns.
Vague 2018 prediction: 
A new manager in place and a drastically different roster will likely see 2018 serve as a transition period for the Canadian side.


New England Revolution

Record in 2017: 13-15-6 — Seventh in Eastern Conference (Missed MLS playoffs)
Offseason evaluation: 
The Lee Nguyen saga dominated the headlines throughout the layoff from action, but with the USMNT midfielder still in New England, the Revs can regain their focus. Kei Kamara‘s departure this offseason could create a bigger role for Kristian Nemeth in 2018, while the back line will rely on several new faces from the SuperDraft, including Brandon Bye and Nicolas Samayoa.
Key player: 
Krisztian Nemeth — The ex-Sporting KC man will be counted on a lot in 2018 with Kamara no longer at Gillette Stadium. With a solid group of attacking options around him, including Nguyen and Diego Fagundez, Nemeth will have to find his form after netting just one goal in six appearances last year.
Coach: 
Brad Friedel — The first-year manager has already had a lot to deal with during the Nguyen saga, but his on-field job will be just as difficult after losing several key players this offseason.
Vague 2018 prediction: 
The Revs appear to be in a similar position to 2017. There’s enough talent to make the playoffs, but it’s probably not expected.


New York City FC

Record in 2017: 16-9-9 — Second in Eastern Conference (Qualified for MLS playoffs)
Offseason evaluation: 
The loss of Jack Harrison dominated the offseason news for NYCFC, and now the Bronx side will be looking at a host of new faces to help revamp the attack. Young DP Jesus Medina, Ismael Tajouri, Ebenezer Ofori and Jo Inge Berget have all joined the pack for Patrick Vieira’s squad, and are expected to fill Harrison’s shoes and help aid top goalscorer David Villa. 
Key player: 
Jesus Medina — The young South American player has been brought in to replace Jack Harrison on the wing, and the 20-year-old will be on a short leash given the number of players NYCFC has brought in to compete in the attack. 
Coach: 
Patrick Vieira — The third-year coach has had the chance to put his stamp on this NYCFC roster, and he’ll be expected to take the next step in 2018 with a group that features many talented names. 
Vague 2018 prediction: 
NYCFC supporters will be hoping that preseason isn’t any indication of how the club looks in the regular season. A number of attacking signings should keep this team near the top of the East, though.


New York Red Bulls

Record in 2017: 14-12-8 — Sixth in Eastern Conference (Qualified for MLS playoffs)
Offseason evaluation: 
It was an offseason of turnover for the Red Bulls, and one where notable players Sacha Kljestan, Mike Grella, Gonzalo Veron and more were sent packing. With that said, the club has brought in young reinforcements with big promise, including Alejandro “Kaku” Gamarra, Cristian Casseres Jr. and Amando Moreno (who previously played for the club).
Key player: 
Alejandro “Kaku” Gamarra — With Kljestan gone, Gamarra has great expectations bestowed upon his shoulders this season. The Red Bulls waited awhile to secure the former Huracan midfielder, but he should pay dividends with his pace and vision in the attacking third.
Coach: 
Jesse Marsch — Make no mistake about it. Marsch and his staff have a plan, and they’re sticking to it. A younger roster is exactly what they’ve been trying to establish, and now it’s time to see what kind of steps they can take.
Vague 2018 prediction: 
A young, feisty roster is what Marsch has on his hands. Could easily see Red Bulls contending for an East crown or falling short of the playoffs due to lack of defensive depth. Hit or miss.


Orlando City SC

Record in 2017: 10-15-9 — 10th in Eastern Conference (Missed MLS playoffs)
Offseason evaluation:
Cyle Larin’s departure wasn’t a surprise, although the way that it went down was anything but amicable. With the Canadian gone, Orlando now has to find a new way to bag goals in the attack. After missing out on the playoffs in each of their first three seasons, the Lions have done big things this winter by acquiring Justin Meram and Sacha Kljestan. The club also brought in solid veterans like RJ Allen and Stefano Pinho, as well as Jose Villareal from the Galaxy.
Key player: 
Sacha Kljestan — The creative attacker was brought in to do what he’s done for the Red Bulls in the past, which is create. Everywhere he’s gone, Kljestan has managed to influence the attack in a positive manner, and with Kaka’s departure, the American has a big role.
Coach: 
Jason Kreis — The former NYCFC manager certainly wasn’t shy this offseason with his roster moves, but now it’s time for Orlando to step up and make use of its newfound talent.
Vague 2018 prediction: 
The Lions have gone all in, and the roster is shaping up to at the very least be a playoff squad.


Philadelphia Union

Record in 2017: 11-14-9 — Eighth in Eastern Conference (Missed MLS playoffs)
Offseason evaluation: 
Outside of acquiring David Accam from the Fire, it was a quiet offseason in Chester. The attack should be able to latch onto another gear with the Ghanian present in the lineup, but several key losses, including Charlie Davies, Chris Pontius and Roland Alberg, could hurt the team’s short-term plans.
Key player: 
David Accam
Coach: 
Jim Curtin — The 38-year-old has had his share of ups and downs with the Union, and with a predominantly young roster in 2018, he’s going to need his players to play hard on a weekly basis if Curtin is to last.
Vague 2018 prediction: 
There aren’t many positive expectations for the Union, nor should there be. Hard to see this club making the playoffs.


Toronto FC

Record in 2017: 20-5-9 — First in Eastern Conference (Qualified for MLS playoffs, Won MLS Cup)
Offseason evaluation: 
The defending champions somehow found a way to make their roster better, and did so without spending a ton of money. Bringing in midfielder Axel Aketxe from Spain and Holland defender Gregory van der Wiel has added another dimension to TFC’s deep roster, despite losing Raheem Edwards, Steven Beitashour and Benoit Cheyrou this offseason.
Key player: 
Gregory van der Wiel — The club’s attack is certainly the least of Toronto’s concerns, so that turns the attention to the back line. Van der Wiel was brought in to fill the spot left by Beitashour, and the veteran Dutchman should be a strong fit for the club.
Coach: 
Greg Vanney — It’s amazing to see what the club has transformed into over the last several years, and Vanney has played a big part in how TFC has become an elite MLS side. 
Vague 2018 prediction: 
Last year, PST said 2017 could be the first of many MLS titles for this club. Toronto is the favorite once more.

Mark Clattenburg heads to China as head of officiating

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Mark Clattenburg left England last year at the peak of his refereeing career for a big-money move to Saudi Arabia, and it appears he has his next high-profile move sorted as well.

The recognizable referee announced he has signed on to become Head of the Referee Division and Future Development of Referees for the Chinese Super League after the expiry of his contract at his previous role. He will return to the field in this new role, refereeing Chinese Super League matches as well as overseeing the league’s officials.

“I am excited by the new challenge,” Clattenburg said in the announcement. “The Chinese Super League has grown markedly in recent years and they want the standard of refereeing to grow with it.”

The Chinese Super League has been a popular destination for big-name players nearing the end of their peak years and looking to cash in on one final contract, with players like Javier Mascherano, Paulinho, Graziano Pelle, Oscar, Hulk, and Yannick Carrasco all currently plying their trade in the Far East. Marouane Fellaini and Mousa Dembele both just recently moved from Premier League clubs to the Chinese league. “I’m looking forward to being part of [the league’s growth],” Clattenburg said. “You look at the quality of the players, so many in the peak of their career, and it is clear to see the ambition of the league and the clubs within it.”

Clattenburg was considered the top Premier League official when he retired from on-field duties in 2017, having previously taken charge of both Champions League and Euro finals, and was in line to represent England at the World Cup before abruptly calling time on his career. He transitioned to an overseer role in Saudi Arabia where he replaced Howard Webb and was able to coach officials and also give his opinion on on-field matters. He will now return to the field as part of his new role in China, a surprising development given it seemed he was finished with active refereeing when he departed the Premier League. That leaves the door open to a possible return to officiating in England down the road, and maybe in continental competitions as well.

The move also opens the door to foreign officials refereeing domestic matches outside their home country, not something previously thought of as a common occurrence.

Watch Live: Tottenham-Brighton, Watford-Southampton

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Two Premier League matches with European implications take the field on this Tuesday afternoon as Tottenham hosts Brighton & Hove Albion while Watford welcomes Southampton to Vicarage Road.

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE HERE

Spurs will look to rebuild its lead in the race for the Champions League places in the table’s top four. With Spurs, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United all neck-and-neck vying for two spots, the other 3 teams all dropped points this round, leaving Tottenham with a brilliant opportunity to gain ground in third. They’ll go against a desperate 17th-placed Brighton, fighting for its life at the bottom of the table. The Seagulls sit as the last team safe, three points above Cardiff City looking for any kind of a result in a tough road matchup to build the lead over the drop to two games.

Watford, meanwhile, will look to keep pace with Everton in the race for the final Europa League position. The Hornets could guarantee themselves a spot in Europe should they finish seventh, knowing that they would qualify either via the FA Cup or their position in the table. They currently sit eighth, level on points with the Toffees, but back on goal differential. A win or draw against Southampton would restore the slim lead over a red-hot Everton side that is finishing the season strong and pressuring Watford for that final European spot. Southampton sits in 16th on 36 points, five above the relegation zone, and a win today would all but ensure Premier League survival.


Tottenham Hotspur v. Brighton & Hove Albion — 2:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN [ STREAM ]

Tottenham: Lloris, Trippier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose, Wanyama, Eriksen, Dele, Son, Lucas, Llorente.
Bench: Gazzaniga, Davies, Foyth, Sanchez, Dier, Skipp, Janssen.

Brighton: Ryan, Montoya, Duffy, Dunk, Bernardo, Stephens, Bissouma, Gross, Jahanbakhsh, Andone, Locadia.
Bench: Button, Burn, Bong, Balogun, Kayal, March, Murray.


Watford v. Southampton — 2:45 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold [ STREAM ]

Watford: Foster, Janmaat, Cathcart, Kabasele, Masina, Capoue, Doucoure, Hughes, Deulofeu, Pereyra, Gray.
Bench: Gomes, Britos, Mariappa, Success, Femena, Chalobah, Sema.

Southampton: Gunn, Bertrand, Bednarek, Yoshida, Stephens, Romeu, Hojbjerg, Armstrong, Ward-Prowse, Redmond, Long.
Bench: Forster, Vallery, Ramsay, Lemina, Sims, Ings, Austin.

Newcastle focused on extending Bentiez despite interest from others

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According to a report by the Newcastle Chronicle, Newcastle United is desperately trying to lock down manager Rafa Benitez before the expiration of his contract at the end of June, and is rejecting any and all contact from interested parties in a show of good faith to the club’s current boss.

The report states that the latest interested party to have intermediaries make contact has been former United States head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, but the club has to this point turned down his advances while it continues to push towards an extension with Benitez. The report by the Newcastle Chronicle followed up an earlier report by France Football stating the same.

Sporting director Lee Charnley has been attempting to sign Benitez to an extension for nearly two years, but the Spaniard has reportedly turned down all advances to this point. However with Newcastle United over the 40-point threshold usually required for safety, talks have restarted. Benitez has been reportedly asking for more control over the club’s transfer and recruitment process and wants assurances on financial backing in that department.

Still, should talks break down and Benitez moves on, a number of individuals including Klinsmann have made their interest known. Also linked with the position are David Wagner, Bruno Genesio, and Jorge Jesus.

The relationship between Benitez and the front office has not always been rosy, and Mike Ashley’s stinginess has repeatedly been a point of contention for the Spaniard. Still, Benitez is rightly seen as one of Newcastle’s most valuable assets, and if they can convince him to stick with the club through a season in the Championship, they can certainly figure out a way to keep him aboard as they target a top-half finish in the future.

How will Man City and Man United line up for critical derby?

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There is as much on the line in Wednesday’s Manchester derby than anyone could have hoped for, and the enormous stakes will only feed the excitement on the pitch.

Whereas these big matches often end in cagey draws in the first half of the season with little incentive for the teams to do anything other than avoid losing, a draw won’t do for either side this time around, and there could be goals on the cards. So with everything on the line, how will these teams line up on the field?

[ MORE: Hudson-Odoi injury renews contract talks ]

There are injuries to consider on both sides. Pep Guardiola confirmed that Kevin De Bruyne will not be available tomorrow for Manchester City after his injury against Tottenham left the rest of his season in doubt. Manchester United, meanwhile, will reportedly be without defender Phil Jones after he was withdrawn in the heavy defeat to Everton last time out. Other than that, both squads are fully healthy minus the long-term injury to City goalkeeper Claudio Bravo.

The biggest question for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be how to deploy his back line against the vicious Manchester City attack – particularly on the flanks. He left Ashley Young on the bench each of the last two matches, with natural center-backs Victor Lindelof and Marcos Rojo deputizing at full-back, but that experiment could come to an end with Luke Shaw returning from suspension. In Jones’ absence, Rojo or Lindelof could be moved back to the middle, or Solskjaer could bring Eric Bailly back into the fold after failling to see the field in the last two months. The midfield has also been a conglomeration, with the third spot up in the air next to Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic. Fred and Juan Mata have both seen time, but Ander Herrera will be reportedly returning from his injury and could see the field.

[ MORE: Solskjaer hoping for turnaround ]

For Manchester City, Guardiola’s headache will be constructing his midfield without De Bruyne. He has had Fernandinho in and out of the lineup over the last few weeks due to nagging injuries, and it remains to be seen if he utilizes the defensive midfielder to anchor the formation. Ilkay Gundogan has played deeper when Fernandinho has been absent, and he’s played well in that spot, but at times they still seem to be missing a natural anchor, and it was Fernandinho who came in to replace De Bruyne after his injury.


MANCHESTER UNITED

—– De Gea —–

— Dalot — Rojo — Smalling — Shaw —

—- Matic —- Herrera —-

—- Martial —- Pogba —- Rashford —-

—– Lukaku —–


MANCHESTER CITY

—– Ederson —–

— Walker — Stones — Laporte — Zinchenko —

—– Fernandinho —–

—- Gundogan —- Foden —-

— B Silva —- Aguero — Sterling —