Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP

2018 MLS Western Conference preview

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The countdown is at three days until the MLS season returns.

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Yesterday, we took a look at the Eastern Conference ahead of the new campaign.

Now, Pro Soccer Talk shifts its focus to the West, where a new club will be introduced into the 23-team MLS fold this season.


Colorado Rapids

Record in 2017: 9-19-6 — 10th in Western Conference (Missed MLS playoffs)
Offseason evaluation: 
This club has bulked up defensively, adding onto what was already a pretty strong backline, with players like Edgar Castillo, Tommy Smith and Danny Wilson entering the fold. Meanwhile, Wolves forward Joe Mason was brought in to provide assistance up front, although the Englishman has struggled to find consistency throughout his career.
Key player: 
Niki Jackson — A SuperDraft selection from this January, Jackson will probably have a lot asked of him during his rookie campaign given Colorado’s lack of attacking options. He notched 16 goals last year at Grand Canyon University, so the Rapids will be hoping that translates to MLS.
Coach: 
Anthony Hudson — The first-year MLS manager has his work cut out for him, but in a short time with the Rapids it looks like his formula will mimic what Pablo Mastroeni used to when he was in charge. A heavy emphasis on defense.
Vague 2018 prediction: 
The Rapids will likely have a hard time scoring goals, yet again, but opponents won’t just waltz in and beat up on the Colorado club.


FC Dallas

Record in 2017: 11-10-13 — Seventh in Western Conference (Missed MLS playoffs) 
Offseason evaluation: 
The departure of Walker Zimmermann was a big blow to the team’s back line, but Dallas has stocked up defensively with a number of Homegrown talents and CSKA Sofia’s Anton Nedyalkov this offseason. Dallas also made the most of its early SuperDraft selections, nabbing midfielder Ema Twumasi and forward Francis Atuahene in the first round to bolster a strong attack.
Key player: 
Cristian Colman — The Paraguayan was brought in last season to help the FC Dallas attack reach another level, with just two goals in 26 appearances Colman was far below the mark that many expected. He’ll need to improve drastically in 2018, especially with rookie Atuahene waiting to get on the field.
Coach: 
Oscar Pareja — With a rejuvenated roster, Pareja’s first priority should be getting back into the postseason. His side is simply too good to not be in the playoffs.
Vague 2018 prediction: 
It’s difficult to imagine this club not making the playoffs given the talent throughout the roster, but then again, last season proved to many that this Dallas side can be exploited.


Houston Dynamo

Record in 2017: 13-10-11 — Fourth in Western Conference (Qualified for MLS playoffs) 
Offseason evaluation: 
Losing Erick “Cubo” Torres certainly wasn’t a shock given his up-and-down tenure in MLS, however, he was a key piece in the Dynamo attack last season, and his goal production will be missed. The club failed to go out and seek refuge with replacements in the attack, so it will be intriguing to see how Houston responds.
Key player: 
Tomas Martinez — The Young DP signed midway through 2017, and had some difficulty getting acclimated to his new side. The former Braga man will key for the buildup play in the Dynamo attack this season, if the team is to find success.
Coach: 
Wilmer Cabrera — Cabrera did a fantastic job in 2017 getting the most out of his roster, and he’ll need to do an equally as good job this year if the Dynamo are to get back into the playoffs.
Vague 2018 prediction: 
It’s very easy to see this team taking a step back, especially with other clubs in the West improving this offseason.


Los Angeles Galaxy

Record in 2017: 8-18-8 — Last in Western Conference (Missed MLS playoffs)
Offseason evaluation: 
Ola Kamara, Chris Pontius and David Bingham were three additions for the Galaxy that automatically upgraded three positions this offseason. Call it a success. Not to mention nabbing Perry Kitchen, who will be out to prove himself in his return to MLS> Meanwhile, the Galaxy selected one of the best defensive players in the SuperDraft with Stanford product Tomas Hilliard-Arce. 
Key player: 
Ola Kamara — The former Crew forward could very well be the best offseason transaction from any club. He’s in the prime of his career and surrounded by talented attackers like Giovani dos Santos. Kamara will thrive in LA.
Coach: 
Sigi Schmid — This man has found success everywhere he has gone, and with the offseason that the Galaxy have had, it’s difficult seeing this club miss out on the postseason.
Vague 2018 prediction: 
The Galaxy are used to having success in MLS, and they’ll almost certainly be back in the playoffs in 2018.


Los Angeles FC

Record in 2017: N/A
Offseason evaluation: 
Atlanta set the bar in their 2017 debut season, and now LAFC is looking to equal, or potentially top, anything that the Eastern Conference side did. Carlos Vela, Benny Feilhaber, Latif Blessing and Diego Rossi are just a few of the names that LA can feature up front. Then, the club’s ability to go out and sign arguably the best defender in MLS with Laurent Ciman’s introduction added another dimension to the team. He’ll partner with another promising talent in Walker Zimmerman from Dallas.
Key player: 
Carlos Vela — His form in La Liga was sporadic at times, but when Vela is at his best he’s a scary threat for any opposition. The El Tri forward has the weapons around him to thrive in his first MLS campaign.
Coach: 
Bob Bradley — The former USMNT coach is in a great spot with current roster, and it doesn’t look like the expansion side is done in the transfer market.
Vague 2018 prediction: 
It takes a lot to get integrated as a new club, but this team has the makings of one that will make a run in the West. The perfect combination of MLS experience and foreign talent.


Minnesota United

Record in 2017: 10-18-6 — Ninth in Western Conference (Missed MLS playoffs) 
Offseason evaluation: 
The addition of Tyrone Mears defensively will provide some stability, but Minnesota still looks to be inept at the back. The good news for this club is that they remain an attacking threat, and have added Wisconsin forward Mason Toye in the draft.
Key player: 
Abu Danladi — After a tremendous rookie campaign, the Loons will be looking for the former UCLA striker to pick up where he left off in 2017. Minnesota undoubtedly boasts a strong attack, it’s definitely more about the defense that is worrisome.
Coach: 
Adrian Heath — We saw a number of coaches fired in 2017, and if things don’t go the right way early for Minnesota it’s very likely that Heath is sacrificed at the second-year MLS side. 
Vague 2018 prediction: 
This team will be fun to watch at times in the attack, but after conceding 70 goals a season ago and showing little sign of defensive improvement, the Loons will probably be on the outside looking in once again in the playoff picture.


Portland Timbers

Record in 2017: 15-11-8 — First in Western Conference (Qualified for MLS playoffs) 
Offseason evaluation: 
This is a club that still boasts the reigning league MVP with Diego Valeri, however, losing Darlington Nagbe this offseason cannot be overstated. The Timbers did well to bring in Benevento forward Samuel Armenteros, Cristhian Paredes and Andy Polo, though, so they’ll still be a strong side in 2018.
Key player: 
Andy Polo — The Peru international has big expectations resting on his shoulders after joining MLS from Mexican side Morelia on loan. With the ability to play up front and on the ing, the 23-year-old gives new manager Gio Savarese flexibility as to where he plays the dynamic player.
Coach: 
Giovanni Savarese — It was only a matter of time until the ex-Cosmos manager ended up in MLS, and the situation that Savarese has been granted is almost as perfect as it could be for a first-time MLS boss.
Vague 2018 prediction: 
Definitely envision this club at the top of the West once again, and should be in the thick of things when it comes closer to MLS Cup.


Real Salt Lake 

Record in 2017: 13-15-6 — Eighth in Western Conference (Missed MLS playoffs) 
Offseason evaluation: 
This club continues to get younger and younger, and while the biggest concern will be where the goals come from, RSL is building towards a bright future. The club secured the rights to Brooks Lennon this offseason, while San Luis midfielder Pablo Ruiz also entered the fold for the Claret and Cobalt. Re-signing Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando added the veteran presence that has sustained the club for years.
Key player: 
Jefferson Savarino — The Venezuelan notched six goals in his first season with the Western Conference side, and he’ll be expected to build off of that as he’s with RSL for his first full campaign. 
Coach: 
Mike Petke — The former Red Bulls coach has done everything right since taking over RSL. He’s utilizing one of the top academies in MLS, while bringing in the proper pieces to supplement the squad.
Vague 2018 prediction: 
RSL might still be a year away from really challenging in the West, but don’t be surprised if they make the leap into the playoffs. After all, they finished just a point outside of the postseason in 2017.


San Jose Earthquakes

Record in 2017: 13-14-7 — Sixth in Western Conference (Qualified for MLS playoffs) 
Offseason evaluation: 
Yeferson Quintana and Joel Qwiberg were brought in to help improve the back line this season, while Eric Calvillo and Magnus Eriksson can help improve an attack that features one of the greatest goalscorers to ever play in MLS, Chris Wondolowski.
Key player: 
Magnus Eriksson — The 27-year-old has scored double-digit goals five times in his career, and the Quakes will be banking on their new DP to come in and help take some of the pressure off of Wondolowski, and perhaps become the heir apparent.
Coach: 
Mikael Stahre — The first-year MLS manager has already put his stamp on the Quakes with several Swedish signings, and his club looks improved from a season ago.
Vague 2018 prediction: 
After getting thrashed in the first round of the playoffs last season, this team will be out to prove that they can take another step forward.


Seattle Sounders

Record in 2017: 14-9-11 — Second in Western Conference (Qualified for MLS playoffs, Reached MLS Cup final) 
Offseason evaluation: 
The news couldn’t have been worse for the Sounders when word came down that Jordan Morris will miss the entire season with an ACL tear. The Sounders didn’t add any more depth up top, or at least not yet, so while the club is still wildly talented, they will likely be without one of their top finishers for all of 2018.
Key player: 
Will Bruin — The veteran MLSer knows what he needs to do now that Morris has gone down with an injury. His 11 goals in 2017 was one short of a career-high, so the West winners will want him to recreate that brilliance.
Coach: 
Brian Schmetzer — Two straight MLS Cup appearances, and a title in one of those seasons, isn’t too shabby from the long-time Sounders employee. He’s already one of the best managers in the league.
Vague 2018 prediction: 
The Morris injury is massive, but considering the Sounders played great without him for much of last season, the loss isn’t a deal breaker. They’re still very much a title contender.


Sporting Kansas City

Record in 2017: 12-9-13 — Fifth in Western Conference (Qualified for MLS playoffs) 
Offseason evaluation: 
This squad lost a number of big names this offseason, highlighted by Benny Feilhaber, Latif Blessing and Erik Palmer-Brown. Not to mention having lost Dom Dwyer to Orlando City during the middle of last season. Now, SKC will be relying on a bunch of new faces, including Frenchman Yohan Croizet and Derby County midfielder Johnny Russell.
Key player: 
Yohan Croizet — The DP midfielder enters the fold for Sporting KC as he looks to fill the void left by the departed Benny Feilhaber. Croizet will have to replace one of the top playmakers in the league, which isn’t a small task.
Coach: 
Peter Vermes — The long-time manager has struggled to find success in the postseason over the last several years, and with a host of new additions this season, the former MLS Cup champions could be on track to rebuild.
Vague 2018 prediction: 
This is a club searching for its identity. They’ll always be well-coached and a tough out, but the playoffs aren’t a guarantee in 2018.


Vancouver Whitecaps

Record in 2017: 15-12-7 — Third in Western Conference (Qualified for MLS playoffs) 
Offseason evaluation: 
Kei Kamara, Brian Rowe and Anthony Blondell from Monagas are just a few of the big-time names that the Whitecaps have added this offseason, despite losing Christian Bolanos and Fredy Montero. Additionally, the Whitecaps have lost Tony Tchani in a trade to the Chicago Fire, which creates a void in front of the back line.
Key player: 
Kei Kamara — The veteran has been a streaky scorer throughout his career, but he’ll be the main option up top for the Whitecaps in 2018, and he should be good for at least 10 goals.
Coach: 
Carl Robinson — The manager will have to deal with a host of departures this offseason, but he’s proven to be one of the better coaches in MLS when dealing with change.
Vague 2018 prediction: 
They’ll be in contention in the West once again, especially after nabbing one of the better strikers in MLS.

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.