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MLS Western Conference Preview

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Major League Soccer returns this weekend, kicking off the 24th year of the ever-growing North American league. As usual, there’s a plethora of storylines to follow, especially in the Western Conference.

Can Matias Almeyda make the San Jose Earthquakes into a playoff contender? Is Sporting Kansas City even better than last year, when it won the conference? And what do we think of the tandem of Guillermo Barros Schelotto on the sideline and Zlatan Ibrahimovic up top for the LA Galaxy.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

We’ll dive into all that and more, in our Western Conference preview (teams are listed by order of their 2018 regular season finish):


Sporting Kansas City – The Western Conference’s best team over the course of the regular season may be even better now. The club acquired MLS veterans Kelyn Rowe and Rodney Wallace, and added Hungarian international defender Botond Barath while keeping the core of the squad together.

Star player: Matt Besler. It’s hard to pick just one player but Besler is definitely the first player on the team sheet every week thanks to his rock solid defending.

Realistic expectation: Competing for the treble: the U.S. Open Cup, Supporters Shield and MLS Cup.


Seattle Sounders – Jordan Morris returns to a squad that kept its very talented core together and seems likely to challenge for the best in the West again.

Star player: Raul Ruidiaz. The Peruvian striker scored 10 times in 14 games after coming last summer. With Jordan Morris and Nico Lodeiro, they can be a feared front three.

Realistic expectation: Seattle should contend for the Western Conference and even MLS Cup. They’ll go as far as Chad Marshall can take them.


LAFCBob Bradley led LAFC to one of the best expansion seasons ever, and they’re set up for another strong season. Eddie Segura replaces Laurent Ciman and the front three of Diego Rossi, Adama Diamonde, and Carlos Vela should produce plenty of goals.

Star player: Carlos Vela. The Mexican hasn’t always performed for El Tri but last year he scored 14 goals and had 13 assists for LAFC.

Realistic expectation: Contending for the Western Conference title, and it should host a  playoff game or two.


FC Dallas – It’s the start of a new era as Luchi Gonzales takes over the helm. FC Dallas is expected to use a lot of young, homegrown players this season, which will be exciting for the future. But it could lead to some tough times in the present.

Star player: Jesse Gonzalez. The USMNT goalkeeper became the team’s regular starter, and with Matt Hedges and Reto Ziegler in front of him, they form a formidable foe in the box.

Realistic expectation: FC Dallas will probably miss the playoffs this year, as young potential stars get more first team minutes.


Portland Timbers – Like most of the Western Conference contenders, the Timbers didn’t make wholesale changes. Should Diego Valero continue his MVP-level form and Giovanni Savarese continue his strong management, the Timbers can make another run at the title.

Star player: Diego Valeri. There are plenty of talented players on the Timbers but none comes close to Valeri’s level. He’s been a consistent star for the last five years and Portland will always have a chance to win as long as he’s on the field.

Realistic expectation: Savarese always seems to get the best out of his teams, and the Timbers can certainly compete for MLS Cup once again.


Real Salt Lake – Mike Petke’s side has one of the league’s best attacks, with potential to score from anywhere across the front three. However, there are still questions of how far those attackers can take this team, which includes the aging but ever steady Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando.

Star player: Albert Rusnak. The Slovakian international was slightly less productive last season, but perhaps with a full offseason he’ll be able to raise his level again. He’s one of the most dangerous left wingers in the league.

Realistic expectation: Miss the playoffs. RSL didn’t make any major signings this offseason, and considering how they barely snuck in last season, it will be a tougher road ahead for them in 2019.


LA Galaxy – There’s a new head coach – Barros Schelotto – a new general manager – Dennis te Klose – and Zlatan has a new contract. The Galaxy upgraded in central midfield and at centerback, and look primed for a winning season.

Star player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The big Swede is now 37-years old, but he proved last year he can still be one of the world’s best goalscorers. Don’t take your eyes off this man.

Realistic expectation: Host a playoff game. The Galaxy should be back in the playoff picture with a new coach, mentality and some better players in the side.


Vancouver Whitecaps – The Whitecaps are in full rebuild mode, with a new coach, Marc Dos Santos, and 15 new signings. While LAFC and Atlanta proved that finding chemistry can occur quicker than expected, it still could be a tough season in Vancouver as some players adjust to a new system and teammates.

Star player: Hwang In-beom. The South Korean midfielder joined the Whitecaps this offseason on a Young Designated Player contract. While playing in MLS will be a test, his experience with the South Korean National Team at such a young age should give him a leg up when settling into the competition. In-beom could be the league’s next great attacking midfielder. 

Realistic expectation: Missing the playoffs. It’s likely going to be a tough season in Vancouver, but perhaps a piece or two will prove they’re worth holding onto in the future.


Houston Dynamo – The Houston Dynamo secured the 2018 U.S. Open Cup, but their league form last season was much worse. They recorded just two away wins, a mark Wilmer Cabrera will look to improve upon. The Dynamo have added two new defensive pieces, but will it be enough.

Star player: Alberth Elis. The young Honduran attacker is one of the best strikers in MLS, and he even had double-digit assists last season. He’ll need to up his goal tally this year though to bring Houston back to the playoffs.

Realistic expectation: Missing the playoffs. The Dynamo have some new pieces but it’s unclear if it’s enough. On the back line, Maynor Figueroa and DaMarcus Beasley are both older than 35 and new signing Aljaz Struna is untested.


Minnesota United – The Loons, ahead of the opening their new soccer specific stadium, made significant upgrades defensively and to their spine. Jan Gregus signed as a Designated Player and the team added Ozzie Alonso and Ike Opara.

Star player: Darwin Quintero. One of the top attackers in the league, Quintero will be the central point of Minnesota United’s attack, with his pace and dribbling ability a nightmare for defenders.

Realistic expectation: Fighting for the last playoff spot. Minnesota’s acquisitions are impressive but it’s unflear whether they can form a successful unit.


Colorado Rapids – Anthony Hudson’s first season in Colorado was pretty much a disaster, and it appears he’s learned that MLS experience is more important than talent from abroad. However, his new star signings Kei Kamara and Benny Feilhaber are on the wrong side of 30.

Star player: Benny Feilhaber. The former USMNT midfielder is on his 3rd team in as many years, but in Colorado he’ll be relied on to connect the lines of defense and midfield as well as play wingers into space.

Realistic expectation: Miss the playoffs. Colorado didn’t make the investments needed to push for a playoff spot.


San Jose Earthquakes – The ‘Quakes are the most intriguing team in the league this season. With Almeyda in charge, the squad has a fresh look and a new mindset.

Star player: Christian Espinoza. The young Argentine attacker joined from Villarreal in the offseason.

Realistic expectation: Fighting for a playoff spot. Almeyda likely won’t be able to flip the script completely, but the Quakes should make significant strides this season.

Valverde under pressure after dismal end to Barcelona’s season

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MADRID (AP) A couple of weeks ago, few questioned Ernesto Valverde as Barcelona coach.

The team had just won a second straight Spanish league title under his command and was close to making it to the Champions League final after beating Liverpool 3-0 in the first leg of the semifinals.

The team was also through to the Copa del Rey final, where it would try to win an unprecedented fifth straight title in the competition.

Valverde seemed to be comfortably in control as the club moved closer to winning the treble.

Things quickly took a turn for the worse, though, and Valverde woke up on Sunday under added pressure and facing increased criticism.

Barcelona lost 2-1 to Valencia in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday, a result that followed the disastrous elimination against Liverpool in the Champions League and added to the team’s woeful end to what had been a great season.

“A month ago we were celebrating the league title. Fifteen days ago we were thinking we had a chance at a treble,” Valverde said. “And we came up short in the decisive moments in both the Champions League and the Copa del Rey.”

The disappointing ending brought out a wave of criticism of Valverde, who last year also finished the season under a cloud after another humiliating Champions League elimination – that time it squandered a big first-leg lead against Roma in the tournament’s quarterfinals.

The criticism seems more pronounced this time, with some fans and local media calling for a change at the helm.

It didn’t take long after Barcelona’s loss to Valencia in Seville for club President Josep Bartomeu to come out and defend the coach.

“Ernesto has a contract and he remains the team’s coach,” Bartomeu said. “This loss was not the coach’s fault. The team created a lot of scoring chances but the ball didn’t go in, and what counts is how many times you score.”

Bartomeu had already defended Valverde after the demoralizing 4-0 loss to Liverpool in the Champions League, saying the club was not considering a change in command for next season.

Valverde said he was not worried and felt supported by the club despite the disappointing ending.

“It’s a bad feeling, we won’t deny it, but we have to stay strong,” he said. “What we want as coaches is to have a chance to come back. It’s tough to lose, it means something went wrong. We have to take the responsibility for it.”

Even if Valverde stays as expected, it doesn’t mean there won’t be changes for Barcelona.

Several players played below expectations this season, especially former Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho, who was regularly jeered by fans and whose place with the club remains uncertain.

Bartomeu will likely have to go shopping in the offseason to try to improve the supporting cast for Lionel Messi, who had a fantastic year but wasn’t able to save the season by himself. When Messi looked ordinary, no one was able to take over his role as protagonist, and it proved costly in the decisive moments.

Young midfielder Frenkie de Jong is joining from Ajax and he should significantly boost the midfield, but Barcelona will definitely need to add to its attack, as Luis Suarez was the only true striker who performed consistently well. He couldn’t play in the Copa final after undergoing knee surgery and his absence was felt as the team struggled to capitalize on its scoring chances.

Veteran Gerard Pique is set to return for another season in defense, but there are still doubts about the fitness of Samuel Umtiti, who missed several matches this season because of injuries.

“We’ve been thinking about next season for a while, but it’s not the time to discuss the future,” Bartomeu said. “We ended with the Spanish league title, it was important. We couldn’t win the Copa, but we’ll just move on.”

Suarez defends surgery decision after Barca lose Copa del Rey final

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Luis Suarez has defended himself from criticism for undergoing knee surgery that prevented him from playing for Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final.

The Uruguayan released a statement Sunday saying he had no option despite the timing of the final, which Barcelona lost 2-1 to Valencia on Saturday.

Suarez said he had to undergo surgery “against my will” after rupturing his meniscus against Liverpool in the Champions League semifinals.

He said the surgery earlier this month had nothing to do with a cartilage issue that he had been nursing since the beginning of the season.

Barcelona won the Spanish league but finished the season on a low after being eliminated by Liverpool in the Champions League and losing the Copa final to Valencia.

Suarez scored 25 goals in 49 matches this season, second only to Lionel Messi on the scoring charts for Barcelona.

U-20 WC roundup: Mexico hammered by Japan; Italy top Ecuador

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action at the U-20 World Cup in Poland…

[ MORE: USWNT wins final match before World Cup (video) ]

Mexico 0-3 Japan

Mexico’s heavy defeat at the hands of Japan means El Tri‘s stars of tomorrow, who have zero points from their first two games, cannot finish top-two in Group B and can only advance to the knockout rounds as one of four third-place teams.

Taisei Miyashiro (21st and 77th minutes) and Kyosuke Tagawa (52nd) bagged the goals on Sunday, as Japan picked up its first victory and set up an all-important finale with Italy to decide who finishes top of the group on Wednesday.

Ecuador 0-1 Italy

Andrea Pinamonti scored the only goal in Italy’s 1-0 victory over 10-man Ecuador to reach the six-point mark and guarantee themselves a top-two finish and a place in the round of 16.

Elsewhere in the U-20 World Cup

Senegal 2-0 Colombia [ HIGHLIGHTS ]
Poland 5-0 Tahiti [ HIGHLIGHTS ]

Monday’s U-20 World Cup schedule

Honduras v. Uruguay — 12 p.m. ET
Qatar v. Ukraine — 12 p.m. ET
USA v. Nigeria — 2:30 p.m. ET
Norway v. New Zealand — 2:30 p.m. ET

Serie A: Atalanta, Inter snatch UCL places on wild final day

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s final-day action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Chelsea, Real Madrid remain $38 million apart on Eden Hazard deal ]

Sampdoria (9th) 2-0 Juventus (1st)

With their eighth straight scudetto long since clinched, Juve slumped their way to the season’s finish line without a win in their final five games (three draws), including Sunday’s 2-0 loss away to Sampdoria. It was 0-0 for 83 minute, until Gregoire Defrel (84th) and Gianluca Caprari (91st) bagged late goals for the victory.

Atalanta (3rd) 3-1 Sassuolo (11th)

Atalanta completed their fairytale season and finished third in a hugely dramatic, chaotic way befitting their rapid rise to Champions League relevance. They finished 17th and avoided relegation by three points in 2015.

First, they fell behind when Domenico Berardi scored in the 19th minute. They were level by the 35 minute, thanks to Duvan Zapata’s equalizer. Then, things got weird.

Berardi was sent off during a massive skirmish between the two sides while leaving the field for halftime. With the score 1-1, and both Inter Milan and AC Milan ahead after 51 minutes, Atalanta were headed for a fifth-place finish.

Alejandro Gomez put Atalanta ahead three minutes later, though, and Mario Pasalic doubled the advantage in the 65th.

Inter Milan (4th) 2-1 Empoli (18th – relegated)

At that 51-minute mark, Keita Balde’s opening goal put Inter ahead of Empoli, but the visitors equalized in the 76th, briefly dropping them to fifth.

That lasted all of five minutes, as Radja Nainggolan put Luciano Spaletti’s side back in front, where they would finish the season. The top-four finished the day exactly as it began — Atalanta in 3rd and Inter Milan in 4th, each on 69 points.

SPAL (13th) 2-3 AC Milan (5th)

For those five glorious minutes, AC Milan were headed back to the Champions League for the first time since 2014, and were set to do so at the expense of their local rivals.

Finishing fourth, but behind Inter, would have been fine, but finishing fourth and ahead of Inter would have been a dreamland outcome. Alas, it’s a fifth-place finish on 68 points and another season in the Europa League for the Rossoneri.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Bologna (10th) 3-2 Napoli (2nd – Saturday)
Frosinone (19th – relegated) 0-0 Chievo (20th – relegated – Saturday)
Roma (6th) 2-1 Parma (14th)
Torino (7th) 3-1 Lazio (8th)
Cagliari (15th) 1-2 Udinese (12th)
Fiorentina (16th) 0-0 Genoa (17th)