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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.

Report: USMNT keeper Steffen to be Man City No. 2 next season

Zack Steffen Man City
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United States men’s national team starting goalkeeper Zack Steffen will not be loaned by Manchester City next season, according to ESPN.

Steffen, 25, is set to back up Ederson for Pep Guardiola’s side next season after a year on loan to Fortuna Dusseldorf in the Bundesliga.

Steffen needed the loan because he had not yet qualified for a work permit in the United Kingdom. Instead, he starred in plenty of games for promoted Fortuna before suffering a nagging knee injury. Fortuna was relegated to 2.Bundesliga on the final day of the season.

[ MORE: Man City sets a very Pep record ]

There were rumors earlier this year that Claudio Bravo might head for New York City FC in MLS in order to make way for Steffen.

The 17-times capped USMNT bolted for Freiburg in Germany after making his name at the University of Maryland. He returned to the U.S. and became a star with savvy penalty-stopping ability with now-USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter and the Columbus Crew.

Guardiola has usually given his No. 2 plenty of time to shines in cup matches, and City expects to compete for every trophy it can. If the club’s European ban is upheld, however, there will far fewer matches on the schedule for the serial Champions League qualifier.

Sheffield United – Chelsea preview: How to watch, start time, stream, prediction

Sheffield United - Chelsea preview
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Sheffield United – Chelsea preview: Frank Lampard’s Chelsea begins life defending third place on the Premier League table when it visits Sheffield United at Bramall Lane on Saturday (Watch Live at 12:30 pm ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The Blues’ 60 points are one more than Leicester City and two clear of old rivals Manchester United.

Also of interest to Chelsea and USMNT fans: The Blues have posted a 20-minute video of every Christian Pulisic touch since Project Restart began earlier this Summer.

Sheffield United beat Wolves at midweek to pull within a point of sixth-place. If Blades stumble, there are three teams within a win of pushing them back beneath the Europa League places.

STREAM SHEFFIELD UNITED – CHELSEA LIVE


Team news

Billy Gilmour is a doubt for Chelsea while Mateo Kovacic is back in training and could be available to Frank Lampard. N’Golo Kante remains out and Jorginho may get a Starting XI recall on Saturday.

John Fleck, Luke Freeman, and John Lundstram are out for Sheffield United while David McGoldrick is a question mark.

What they’re saying

Blades boss Wilder to our own JPW after a 1-0 win over Wolves: “We like to think we’ve brought something in terms of our attitude and our performances to get the results that we’ve got. We had a stretched squad and really had to dig in to get a result. I don’t think you get the result and the performance tonight if you haven’t got something with the ball and I think we did have something with the ball and out of it everybody did a job and tried to stop a very, very talented side from gaining momentum and dominating us. Second half, especially, we looked and it felt like we were really desperate to go and get a winner. Regardless of how late its come, we’ve been rewarded for that attitude.”

Chelsea’s Frank Lampard on Christian Pulisic earning Eden Hazard comparisons: “Having played with Eden, he had special talent straight away and draws players towards him to open up space to others. Christian is more direct. He has the ability to break a line and run forward which is a great trait in the modern game. Why I shy away from it the other night is because Eden has been here and done it over a period of time to an incredible level. Christian has it in his hands to make a real impact over time. It’s great to see him [doing well] but there’s a lot of development to come. Christian is taking responsibility to change games.”

Odds and ends (Full matchweek odds here)

The Blades are +575 underdogs according to DraftKings, with Chelsea -167.

A two-goal game for Tammy Abraham was only enough for a Chelsea point at Stamford Bridge when the sides met in a 2-2 draw earlier this season.

Prediction

Chelsea’s had one more days’ rest than the Blades and that seems plenty given the congestion this time of year. Give the Blues a 2-1 win.

How to watch Sheffield United – Chelsea

Kickoff: 12:30 pm ET Saturday
TV Channel: NBC
Online: Stream via NBCSports.com

Man United’s fear factor, title hopes return

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Manchester United have regained their fear factor since ‘Project Restart’ arrived.

The Red Devils beat Aston Villa 3-0 to become the first team in Premier League history to win four consecutive games by a margin of three of more goals.

[ MORE: New PL TV schedule ]

Manchester United is an attacking juggernaut once again with Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford firing on all cylinders.

They are 17 games unbeaten in all competitions and this run means they are two points off third place and one point off fourth-place Leicester (who they play on the final day) as their quest for the Champions League looks likely to be successful.

Speaking after the game, Paul Pogba told Sky Sports that challenging for the Premier League has to be the standard Manchester United sets for itself.

After the win at Villa, ProSoccerTalk asked Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for his reaction to those comments.

“I’m sure Man United will mount a challenge and get back to winning the league. When that is going to happen, that is up to every single person here and how quickly we can make this process go. We are definitely improving as a team, developing but we have to remember we’ve come a long way in one season. Let’s just take Paul’s words into the dressing room and expect and demand more from each other every single day,” Solskjaer said.

This team is brimming with confidence and hunger, as they’ve scored 100 goals in all competitions this season and have playmakers and forwards who are creating 10 or 15 chances every game and have a largely sturdy defense.

When Manchester United turn up to play an opponent, there is now an inevitability they will win. Solskjaer knows all about that fear factor from his playing days, but does he feel other teams now fear them again?

“I don’t know about how teams feel when they want to play us but we scored three today and talking about goal difference, the defenders have done their job. We created chances and could have scored three, four or five more. Of course, you are happy with the way we create chances but we need to be more clinical though,” Solskjaer told ProSoccerTalk.

“Coming into half time 2-0 up, I don’t think our performance warranted a 2-0 lead but I thought second half we played really well. Of course we had the game where we wanted. They had to press and leave gaps and space but it is not easy, there is game after game  after game. We have to keep doing the right things on the pitch and off the pitch.”

Manchester United could easily finish this season by winning eight of their final nine games and it is these results against teams they ‘should’ be beating that will make the difference. Yes, they have a long way to go to reach the levels of Liverpool and Manchester City but they are on that path and making progress.

Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired the fear factor around Man United disappeared. Almost overnight teams felt like they could beat them, and did, under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.

There have been shock defeats under Solskjaer too, but this feels different now. This feels different to brief winning spells and FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League trophies won under LVG and Mourinho.

This Man United side is relentless and Solskjaer not only wants to keep winning, but keep scoring goals too.

“We could have scored many, many more goals and we keep keeping clean sheets. We go into every game wanting to win. If you win 1-0, 2-0 or 3-0, it doesn’t matter, you get the points. Hopefully the goal difference won’t be the deciding factor in the end because we should have had 10 more goals the last few games,” Solskjaer said.

With Leicester City to come on the final day of the season in what could be the pivotal clash in deciding whether or not the qualify for the Champions League, the hunger and belief is evident among the Manchester United squad based on Pogba’s reaction.

“We are really pleased with ourselves but know we have to carry on. We talked before the game, we talked in training that we have to carry on. That’s what Manchester [United] is it is a big club. We want to keep the level up, always, and the performance today and the past few weeks, they are very good and they are the standards of Manchester United,” Pogba said. “We didn’t win the Premier League and that is the goal. We didn’t win anything this year. We have to keep working and there is a lot to do. A lot.”

Pogba: Manchester United hoping to win FA Cup, Europa League

Aston Villa - Manchester United recap
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Paul Pogba and Manchester United are cruising through matches and sending a message to the Premier League.

The Red Devils won by three-or-more goals for the fourth-straight match, something that hasn’t been done in the history of the PL, and moved within a point of fourth place thanks to a 3-0 demolition of Aston Villa at Villa Park on Thursday.

[ RECAP: Aston Villa 0-3 Man Utd ]

Injured for most of the year, Pogba scored his first goal of the season in the win. He’s been looking tremendous in the midfield since returning from the coronavirus pause, and has even triggered hope that he’ll sign a new long-term deal with United.

Pogba was asked how he’s feeling about his time at Old Trafford and where it may run:

“Right now I’ve been injured for a very long time,” Pogba said. “I focused on myself to get back and help the team as much as I can. This year I have two goals, to go for the Europa League and the FA Cup so we focus on that.”

United faces Chelsea in the FA Cup semifinal and has one foot, well, most of its body in the Europa League quarterfinals.

The Frenchman says it’s good that the Red Devils are playing as well as they have been, but he’s not getting carried away with accolades.

ASTON VILLA – MANCHESTER UNITED FULL MATCH REPLAY

“We didn’t win the Premier League,” he said. “That’s the goal. We didn’t win anything this year so obviously we have to keep working. There’s a lot to do.”

Pogba thinks United can achieve all of their season goals regardless of what the top four chasers do, but cautioned that the Red Devils cannot ignore their poor start to Thursday’s win.

“We are our own enemy. We have to play not like we did the first 15 minutes but how we finished the game.”