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Twenty-Three: Each team on the eve of a new MLS season

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Major League Soccer begins its league season Saturday, though we’ve spent some time watching its CONCACAF Champions League contenders continue their chases for a spot in the Club World Cup.

[ MORE: MLS Roundtable | Predictions ]

In honor of that, here’s one observation, thought, or quip for each of the 23 teams in the top flight for Canada and these United States.

Atlanta United — In some sort of Malkovich way, there’s only one way to talk about the Five Stripes season and it’s only use the surname of hyped acquisition Ezequiel Barco.

Barco? Barco Barco. Barco!

Chicago Fire — All eyes on goalkeeper Richard Sanchez, the Mexican youth national teamer who came up through the academies of Atletico Madrid and FC Dallas. The well-traveled 23-year-old is going to be asked to do a lot at a young age.

Colorado Rapids — Head coach Anthony Hudson is a top prospect when it comes to coaching, and how he sorts the Rapids will tell us a lot about his intention. A 3-5-2 with Marlon Hairston as a wing back, though, could very well have American national team implications. We’re watching with wide eyes.

Bonus: If Senegal isn’t going to use Dominique Badji, at some point can the U.S. get a look at the Boston University product. He arrived here two years before debuting at BU in 2011, and is the type of exciting player we wouldn’t mind seeing in a January or Gold Cup camp.

Columbus Crew — I promise to use more than three words in future “Twenty Three” posts, but I only need a trio for this debut post: Save the Crew.

FC Dallas — Is this a mess? I mean, this really could be a mess. FCD somehow imploded last season despite dreams of a treble, and center back Walker Zimmerman was sent packing this offseason. Given their talent and acumen, part of me wants to predict a run at the Supporters’ Shield. A bigger part thinks FCD is going to miss the playoffs and possibly cost Oscar Pareja his job.

DC United — Ben Olsen feels untouchable, and he’s getting a new stadium bump this season in addition to a full season of USMNT sparkplug Paul Arriola. Yamil Asad and Frederic Brillant are inspired intraleague acquisitions, and the Black-and-Red are a prime candidate to surprise a la the 2017 Chicago Fire.

Houston Dynamo — Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto are pound-for-pound as powerful and entertaining as any other international duo on the same club in Major League Soccer, and “Random Dynamo Game” remains the hidden gem of any viewing weekend. Welcome back, gens.

LA Galaxy — The worst year in club history featured a lot of bad luck, so at the minimum it’s fair to expect a bounce back in terms of bounces. Beyond that, this team is very deep in attack and replaced mixed-up striker Gyasi Zardes with in-form Norwegian attacker Ola Kamara. He just may lead the league in chances, if not goals altogether.

Los Angeles Football Club — Bob Bradley knows the league and the first XI looks very decent, but LAFC looks like they’ll need an incredible run of health to contend as a first year club. Beyond that, it’s betting that Benny Feilhaber’s decline was greatly exaggerated and we’re not sure if he’ll reclaim prime SKC form.

Minnesota United — Loons goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth likely left last season with confidence Minnesota would address the sad defending in front of him. Heck, we all did. But Minnesota still has more questions than answers when it comes to keeping balls out of their goal. The good news? The names are there to score plenty of goals.

(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Montreal Impact — Last season was a major letdown considering the potent combination of Blerim Dzemaili and Ignacio Piatti, and that cost a man his job. Enter Remi Garde, who will attempt to find similar magic between Piatti and new DP wizard Saphir Taider. For all of that, it’s going to be the defense which needs to solidify Montreal’s postseason hopes. Looking at the roster, it’s going to take a workmanlike performance from a star-free bunch.

New England Revolution — Brad Friedel has his hands full. Already saddled with the Lee Nguyen saga, the Revs roster is steady but not spectacular. Maybe Diego Fagundez can find another gear and Friedel can organize the unit through Kelyn Rowe and captain Chris Tierney, but it feels like 2018 could feel like a long one.

New York City FC — How long is Patrick Vieira going to stick around Stateside? One of the biggest names in football, his having found his footing in MLS is a great thing for the league. Is he holding out for Cup glory? The Arsenal job? Either way, while I was confident he’d succeed in the gig, I’m surprise he’s still around for Year Three. How special can NYCFC make this third voyage?

New York Red Bulls — The Red Bulls Academy is a monster, and has produced a verifiably threatening batch of players. While the city is big enough for two MLS clubs to develop youth, let’s take a minute to honor RBNY for remarkable production at a tricky and growing time for U.S. Soccer: Tyler Adams, Sean Davis, Matt Miazga, Juan Agudelo, Amando Moreno, Timothy Weah, and on and on. Cheers to one of the best.

Orlando City SC — Jason Kreis thinks he has a contender in Central Florida, but putting a bunch of new and wonderful pieces together quickly is a challenge for a club in any league. Kaka is gone, and was better than many expected. Sacha Kljestan has been dynamite in New York, but has to take up the boots of a legend (albeit at a nascent club). How fast will the Lions find their collective roar? Better put: Can they fake it long enough to find it?

Philadelphia Union — There are a lot of pieces in Philadelphia, but so much of this season hinges on the interplay between CJ Sapong and David Accam. Looking at the roster, the Union have what it takes to become a playoff team under the direction of Jim Curtin but could be a legit contender if the attack is firing on all cylinders. Is the chemistry there for these two?

Portland Timbers — Look: I recognize that to fly in the face of seemingly everyone’s conceptions of a coach reeks of a contrarian nature, something I don’t deny. But Portland’s inconsistency during Caleb Porter’s time in charge — some of it injury-driven, some not — feels like it had a lot to do with the nature of the coach. Giovani Savarese will have no problem at the helm of a favorite, and the departure of Darlington Nagbe opens the door to a number of tactical worlds for the new boss. The Timbers Army has every reason to be excited for a new campaign.

Real Salt Lake — I’m unsure whether Real Salt Lake has what it takes to make a charge to the top of the West, but I do know that the hiring of Mike Petke was an inspired move by the Utah club. More than anything, the idea of his lifting a major trophy with Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando would feel like a fitting moment for their careers and the league.

San Jose Earthquakes — Mikael Stahre is a very interesting hire, one of those names who feels feast or famine enough to lay claim to the Coach of the Year crown or wash out by the Fourth of July. How his new DP and countryman Magnus Eriksson mingles with Chris Wondolowski matters, as does his skill in deploying Tommy Thompson, Nick Lima, and Vako Qazaishvili others.

Seattle Sounders — The Jordan Morris injury stinks because he’s a fine U.S. prospect, a relentless worker, and gives Seattle a different dynamic from Will Bruin and others. While I think his injury hampers Seattle’s chances of being a Top Two seed in the West, I don’t think it’s as big a loss as many have said. Seattle’s midfield is going to cue up any number of players for goals, and Morris is a couple of years removed from inevitable superstar status (which tells you something about the use of words like inevitable). He’s good, but this is not the end of the world.

Seattle Sounders midfielder Magnus Wolff Eikrem (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Sporting KC — In an alternate universe, Peter Vermes is handed the keys to the United States men’s national team instead of Bruce Arena. He’s guiding the Yanks’ preparation for a Group G with Belgium, Tunisia, and England. What does this have to do with Sporting KC? The U.S. will hire a new general manager soon, and if that GM wants an MLS-experienced and USMNT-passionate boss, he could take Vermes away in the middle of a season (or at least hire him and allow double duty through October).

Toronto FC — The treble-winning Reds are going to do just fine in the Eastern Conference pending a horrific run of injuries, but I cannot help but view their entire 2018 through the lens of their status as MLS’ best possibility to win the CONCACAF Champions League in some time. They are two-deep in nearly every spot, and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko has proven adept at scouting both big and small.

Vancouver Whitecaps — There so much mystery in British Columbia this season, and a club which flirted with the Western Conference’s top spot for most of the season. Perhaps no player is more enigmatic and emblematic of the 2018 ‘Caps fortunes than Kei Kamara. Three seasons removed from his 22-goal season, he’ll have to prove he’s more than an (approximately) 10-goal mainstay.

Chicharito seizes chance to be center of the Galaxy

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Carson, Calif. — Javier Hernandez has been to the top of the soccer world. He spent the last 10 years in Europe’s top leagues, winning trophies and representing some of the biggest clubs.

Yet from Manchester United to Sevilla, the Mexican striker better known as Chicharito often struggled to get consistent playing time.

Whether his path was blocked by Wayne Rooney‘s brilliance or a manager’s lack of confidence in him, Hernandez rarely got to show his full talent. When he wasn’t fighting injuries, he often served as a key backup instead of a centerpiece.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

That’s the main reason the 31-year-old Hernandez agreed to return to North America with the LA Galaxy, who introduced their latest superstar acquisition Thursday.

Chicharito is the center of the Galaxy now, and he is thrilled.

“I just want to play,” Hernandez said in his distinctively rapid bilingual delivery. “This league and this team, it’s giving me that opportunity (to show) that I’m one of the best players around the world. That’s why they want me to be here, to try to improve this league and this team. … It’s a win-win-win-win. I know I’ll be on the pitch most of the time if I keep working hard for the club. I’m going to be doing what I loved since I was in the belly of my mother.”

With Chicharito playing in only nine games so far this season for Sevilla, the timing was finally perfect for this long-rumored combination of player and club.

While the Galaxy made major improvements and reached the playoffs last season behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s franchise-record 30 goals, they desperately needed another topflight striker at the center of coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s attack when Ibrahimovic chose to return to Europe. Unlike most Major League Soccer clubs, the Galaxy have the money to go get elite talents, even in the January transfer window.

Hernandez is well aware of the five-time MLS champions’ history of landing world-class players, reeling off his own list of favorites: “Robbie Keane. Steven Gerrard. Giovani Dos Santos. Jonathan Dos Santos. Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Landon Donovan. David Beckham, that’s the most iconic one, obviously. And then my name is over those. I’m just so blessed and so humble that I can be a part of all this.”

The speedy, shifty Chicharito likely fits Barros Schlelotto’s style even better than the hulking Zlatan, and the Argentine coach worked aggressively behind the scenes to land Hernandez.

While Chicharito’s European career got off to a strong start at Manchester United under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson, he repeatedly struggled elsewhere when managers clearly didn’t believe in his abilities.

[ MORE: Premier League Club Power Rankings ]

“More than anybody, Guillermo was involved in making it happen,” said Galaxy general manager Dennis Te Kloese, who has known Chicharito since the player’s childhood. “In the end, it had to do with Javier’s interest in being a part of this organization because he’s going to be in a team and with a coach who has a lot of trust in him.”

That clearly wasn’t always the case in Hernandez’s European career. After four years in Manchester, Chicharito spent one season at Real Madrid and two more at Bayer Leverkusen, followed by two seasons back in the Premiership at West Ham. He scored goals at every stop, but never landed a permanent, consistent role matching his importance to the Mexican national team.

“I think what makes a lot of the world-class players even better is (how) they get used to their circumstances,” Chicharito said. “That’s something that I think I can bring. I want to show them that I’ve never been a selfish player – even though strikers are going to be in front of everyone, and I’m probably going to take the shot. I’m completely motivated.”

The top goal-scorer in the history of the Mexican national team already knows Los Angeles from many trips representing El Tri, which is invariably treated as the home team at the Rose Bowl by California’s massive Mexican-American population. Chicharito was greeted at the airport by hundreds of noisy fans when he arrived with his young family Wednesday night.

“I’ve been playing in this country since I was 16 years old,” Chicharito said. “I’ve won a lot of games here, and I’ve been treated with a lot of value and respect. I want that, and it’s coming from the best club in the USA. They came to get me, and that speaks of what they think of me.”

While the MLS is an undeniable step back in overall exposure and competition, Hernandez knows he will deal with even more scrutiny on his home continent from the fans and Spanish-language media based in Los Angeles.

That extra scrutiny has already started: When Chicharito’s YouTube reality show released an episode Wednesday in which Hernandez told his father that moving to the Galaxy was “like the beginning of my retirement,” fans and critics immediately seized on the term often used to denigrate MLS.

Chicharito explained himself with a smile before he held aloft his Galaxy jersey and formally began his next chapter.

“In my country, we love and we are, like, obsessed with drama and excess,” Hernandez said, clarifying that he only meant he had finished the European portion of his career.

“They don’t really listen to what I said at the beginning of the retirement (comment). This retirement could last 10 years. That word is strong for them when I mention (retirement), but it’s just the beginning of that. Hopefully this beginning is going to last so long.”

Simeone has no plans to leave Atletico Madrid despite setbacks

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It might seem insane, the idea that anyone other than Diego Simeone would manage Atletico Madrid any time soon.

And if the 49-year-old Argentine manager comes available, the market for his services is going to be active.

Simeone was answering questions about his future following Atleti’s stunning 2-1 loss to third-tier Cultural Leonessa in the Copa del Rey’s Round of 32 on Thursday.

“I have the desire to work like every day since I arrived,” Simeone said, via Marca. “The penalties or the extra time in the Champions League didn’t change me, nor will going out in this round. I have an important squad and results will come soon.”

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Simeone has led Atleti to a La Liga crown, two Europa League titles, and a pair of Champions League finals.

He’s a three-time La Liga coach of the year, and Atleti has finished Top Three in all of his seasons at the club except 2011/12. He was hired in December of that year and won Europa.

The third-place run is at risk this season, and not because Simeone hasn’t been able to marshal his back line (Come on, obviously). The club has struggled to find goals without Antoine Griezmann, though massive signing Joao Felix has shown signs. After Alvaro Morata’s 10 goals, only Angel Correa (5) and Felix (4) have more than two.

Hence all the Edinson Cavani talk. And the Alexandre Lacazette talk.

If Simeone were to be looking for a job, it would be interesting to see how many jobs would almost instantly become available.

PL Club Power Rankings: Week 24

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What are we supposed to do when the form table says there are about four teams playing well across the Premier League, and one conceded two stoppage-time goals to draw their last match?

It’s nutty, dear reader.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Liverpool is a team of destiny and Man City unbeaten in seven across all competitions. After that, there’s a lot of long exhalations and ponderous glances at the form table.

Things might get nutty in our first power rankings since Week 22.

Green: New season-high ranking
Red: New season-low

[ MORE: PL Club Power Rankings archive ]

20. Norwich City — The Canaries have this awful penchant for getting no points when they should get one, and one when they should get three. The former happened against Spurs, and now they simply have to sweep Newcastle by winning at St. James’ Park in two weeks.
Last week: 20
Season high: 10
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 2-1 at Spurs
Up next: 10 a.m. Feb. 1 at Newcastle United

19. West Ham United — All David Moyes does is win, he says, though he hasn’t done it since pounding moribund Bournemouth. No Felipe Anderson for a month is brutal.
Last week: 16
Season high: 5
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 4-1 at Leicester City
Up next: 2:45 p.m. ET Wednesday v. Liverpool; 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 v. Brighton
18. Brighton and Hove Albion — Losing to Bournemouth after drawing at home to Villa leaves the Seagulls just two points above the drop zone.
Last week: 12
Season high: 6
Season low: 18
Last match: Lost 3-1 at Bournemouth
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 at West Ham

17. Bournemouth — The Cherries faithful needed that. Now it needs health… and Jacob Bruun Larsen?
Last week: 18
Season high: 6
Season low: 18
Last match: Won 3-1 v. Brighton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 v. Aston Villa
16. Burnley — They’re doing it again. They’re unkillable.
Last week: 17
Season high: 5
Season low: 17
Last match: Won 2-0 at Manchester United
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Feb. 2 v. Arsenal
15. Watford — Going out of the FA Cup is probably a good thing.
Last week: 13
Season high: 13
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 2-1 at Aston Villa
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Everton
14. Aston Villa — A big win meets a big swing: Will Mbwana Samatta adjust seamlessly to the Premier League and give Jack Grealish some aid in attack?
Last week: 19
Season high: 6
Season low: 19
Last match: Won 2-1 v. Watford
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 at Bournemouth
13. Crystal Palace — Winless in five, though four were draws. Need health in a bad way after getting controlled by Saints at Selhurst Park.
Last week: 14
Season high: 5
Season low: 18
Last match: Lost 2-0 v. Southampton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 v. Sheffield United
12. Newcastle United — Getting a half-decade’s worth of good fortune in one season, and adding Nabil Bentaleb (for sure) and Valentino Lazaro (pending Friday medical) on loan-to-buy deals fill big holes. Watch the highlights from the match below and pretend you didn’t know the final score; Stunning turnabout.
Last week: 15
Season high: 11
Season low: 20
Last match: Drew 2-2 at Everton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 v. Norwich City
11. Manchester United — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer saw “very many positives” in a poor display versus Liverpool, then repeated his “biggest club in the world” trope after bumbling versus Burnley. He’s in an impossible spot without Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford and not a terrible boss, but he’s certainly not the right man for the job right now. Light into them!
Last week: 3
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Lost 2-0 v. Burnley
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Feb. 1 v. Wolves
10. Everton — The back line (and keeper) provided a point at West Ham, then gave away two versus Newcastle in what was otherwise a complete performance from Carlo Ancelotti‘s men. Otherwise.
Last week: 10
Season high: 5
Season low: 19
Last match: Drew 2-2 v. Newcastle United
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 at Watford
9. Liverpool — Just kidding… wanted to see if you were still reading.
Last week: 1
Season high: 1
Season low: 3
Last match: Won 2-1 at Wolves
Up next: 2:45 p.m. ET Wednesday at West Ham
9. Tottenham Hotspur — Family is good. A striker would be better.https://soccer.nbcsports.com/2020/01/21/sheffield-united-man-city-premier-league-aguero-de-bruyne-video/
Last week: 7
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Lost 1-0 v. Liverpool
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Feb. 2 v. Man City
8. Arsenal — Nicolas Pepe hasn’t been so good the past couple of weeks, but how about this for a number? His 62 successful dribbles are 39 more than anyone else on the team despite playing only 1,345 minutes. Unique.
Last week: 11
Season high: 4
Season low: 13
Last match: Drew 2-2 at Chelsea
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Feb. 2 at Burnley
7. Southampton — James Ward-Prowse is getting England talk, and he deserves it. Saints are flying.
Last week: 9
Season high: 7
Season low: 20
Last match: Won 2-0 at Palace
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 at Liverpool
6. Sheffield United — Again, how remarkable is it that the newly-promoted Blades are letdown from only getting a point from Man City and Arsenal?
Last week: 6
Season high: 5
Season low: 17
Last match: Lost 1-0 v. Man City
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 at Crystal Palace
5. Chelsea — Judging from the Mixed Zone, Chelsea isn’t too worried about its disappointing draw with Arsenal. Will they be happy with a point at the King Power Stadium in two weeks?
Last week: 4
Season high: 2
Season low: 12
Last match: Drew 2-2 v. Arsenal
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Feb. 1 at Leicester City
4. Wolves — What if Diogo Jota finished that late chance versus Liverpool? You’d have to think it would’ve been richly deserved for their second half. Willy Boly‘s return is better than any result, though, as he rejoined the bench after a long absence.
Last week: 8
Season high: 3
Season low: 17
Last match:Lost 2-1 v. Liverpool
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Feb. 1 at Man Utd
3. Leicester City — Jamie Vardy’s injury is a concern, but the Foxes’ four-star showing versus West Ham was a refreshing result.
Last week: 5
Season high: 2
Season low: 10
Last match: Won 4-1 v. West Ham
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday v. Chelsea
2. Manchester City — How long will Sergio Aguero stay in Manchester? All of the goal records are asking after his super sub showing. He’s one behind Vardy in the Golden Boot race.
Last week: 2
Season high: 1
Season low: 6
Last match: Won 1-0 at Sheffield United
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Feb. 2 at Spurs
1. Liverpool — Just magnificent, this guy. The commitment and fitness he’s provoked from his men are simply stunning.
Last week: 1
Season high: 1
Season low: 3
Last match: Won 2-1 at Wolves
Up next: 2:45 p.m. ET Wednesday at West Ham; 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 v. Saints

2 Robbies podcast: Robbie Earle and Derek Rae talk Liverpool, Man Utd

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Robbie Earle is joined by Derek Rae to discuss the current state of Manchester United after their defeat to Burnley at Old Trafford (0:55), 10-man Arsenal fighting back to draw with Chelsea (11:55) and Liverpool’s historic run to start the season that just won’t seem to end (21:15).

Plus, Robbie and Derek share their thoughts on Sergio Aguero’s greatness at Manchester City (29:35), Tottenham under Jose Mourinho so far (35:05) and how things are shaping up at bottom in the fight for Premier League survival (37:35). Finally, Derek shares his Underappreciated Performers of the Premier League Season (41:55).

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

And you can follow them on Twitter @The2RobbiesNBC here.

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]