Here are 15 top soccer stories we’re following today:
1. CHAMPIONS LEAGUE RETURNS
The CONCACAF Champions League returned last night, complete with a new sponsor, and Panamanian club Árabe Unido earned a 0-0 road tie against Costa Rican power Alajuelense in the first leg of the only quarterfinal that does not feature a US vs. Mexico matchup. Those pairings kick off tonight, as the San Jose Earthquakes host Toluca (10 pm ET, FOX Sports 2, Univision Deportes). San Jose are making their first quarterfinal appearance in the regional championship since 2004. It also marks San Jose’s first game of the new season, and, while he won’t be available, the Quakes took another big step in improving their squad with the news that they’ve signed Benfica winger Yannick Djaló on a year-long loan.
2. SKC ADDING DEPTH?
The Earthquakes might not be the only CCL club on the verge of securing a player on loan from an Iberian club. Evidence suggests that Sporting Kansas City could be on the verge of signing Antonio Rodríguez Dovale (Spanish), known simply as Toni, from La Liga side Celta Vigo. The 23-year old left back, who spent some of his youth career with FC Barcelona, would add to the influx of Spanish players to MLS this offseason, but a bigger name -- goalkeeper Pepe Reina -- has become yet another Spanish player open to one day playing in the US.
3. PITCH PERFECT
Toronto FC head coach Ryan Nelsen was asked about the availability of his players ahead of their season opener against the Seattle Sounders on Saturday and, in giving his reply, Nelsen opened the grass vs. turf can of worms. For while Jermain Defoe say's he's ready to go, as does Michael Bradley, Nelsen’s answer was that the Sounders' playing surface may affect his decision, labelling it “not just an artificial turf, it’s a bad artificial turf.” This prompted a response from Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid, who seemed to agree with at least some of what Nelsen said.
4. JOHNSON RE-UPS WITH THE TIMBERS
Staying in the Pacific Northwest, the Portland Timbers officially announced on Monday that Will Johnson has signed a new multi-year extension to his contract. The move is another big step for the Timbers as they continue to build on last season’s successful transformation and, while the Timbers may be one of the favorites to win the MLS Cup this season on paper, head coach Caleb Porter insists "You gotta earn the right to raise a trophy."
5. YOUR CITY, YOUR VOTE
New York City FC have entered the final stages of selecting their new crest. The club has unveiled two choices, and it’s now up to fans to decide which one they prefer. You can take part in the decision right here, but hurry -- you only have until Thursday to cast your vote.
6. THE CAPTAIN’S CAPTAIN
As Pablo Mastroeni gets set for his first competitive game as head coach of the Colorado Rapids, he’s been busy making some changes to the team. Mastroeni named experienced center back Drew Moor as his captain, a role Moor has already held since last June when the new head coach himself vacated the armband, and Moor will now be reunited with Marvell Wynne at the center of defense, which appears to move US youth international Shane O'Neill out to right back.
7. CREW PLAYERS GOING DUTCH
The Columbus Dispatch reports on which Columbus Crew players will be sent to the Dayon Dutch Lions as part of the Crew's affiliation with the USL PRO side. Ryan Finley is perhaps the most notable name being sent out, but he’ll be joined by defender Kevan George and Homegrown rookies Ross Friedman and Matt Walker. Meanwhile, some of the team's more established members spent Monday working as a very different type of crew.
8. WORKING TOGETHER: GARBER’S LESSONS FROM THE NFL
MLS Commissioner Don Garber is down in Austin, Texas, for SXSW (South by Southwest Music and Media Conference and Festival) and, while there, he took the time to chat with HuffPost Live about what makes a good expansion market, helping David Beckham bring MLS back to Miami and what he learned from 16 years spent in the NFL.
9. A TALE OF TWO DRAFTS
The New England Revolution have parted ways with second-year player Paolo DelPiccolo, less than four months after selecting him in the 2013 Waiver Draft. Meanwhile Jossimar Sanchez, one of the Revs' 2013 picks in a different draft -- the Supplemental Draft -- overcame a broken leg and a year's delay to make this year's Revolution roster.
10. SPOILED FOR CHOICE IN VANCOUVER
After Saturday’s strong performance against the New York Red Bulls, the Vancouver Whitecaps find themselves with some serious attacking depth, which could lead to selection headaches for first-year head coach Carl Robinson. Not surprisingly, the Whitecaps see that as a good thing because, as Kenny Miller points out, “You can’t take anything for granted. You have to go out and keep performing, and not just in the games but in training as well.” Pedro Morales is one of the 'Caps' new superstars, but it seems he isn't worried about the competition, choosing instead to help mentor one of the team's most promising residency players.
11. WIN THEM AROUND
Chivas USA may have beaten the Chicago Fire 3-2 on Sunday, but the game had an announced crowd of 8,320. Low crowds became a hallmark of Chivas USA’s 2013 season, but new club president Nelson Rodriguez has plans to right the ship as soon as possible. In other Chivas news, it seems those new LA trademarks from a few weeks ago have now passed into MLS’ hands.
12. DIFFERENT PATHS, SAME GOALS
With a goal less than 60 seconds into his MLS debut, 20-year-old Benji Joya made a dream start to his MLS career on Sunday. His return to the United States is a departure from the path taken by long-time teammate and fellow US Under-20 national team star Daniel Cuevas. Who took the better option? US U-20 coach Tab Ramos has some thoughts on the matter.
13. MLS AND THE WORLD CUP
MLS players are likely to form a crucial part of this summer’s World Cup squad, and the league's latest advertising campaign is quick to highlight the link between MLS and soccer’s biggest tournament. With that in mind, FOX Sports' Leander Schaerlaeckens writes that MLS will be judged, rightly or wrongly, depending on the US’ success in Brazil. There’s also good news for the national team and their fans, as the World Cup stadium in Manaus was officially opened on Sunday and ESPN is set to air a series, starting in May, that goes behind the scenes with the national team during their World Cup preparations.
14. SHEA’S STAY CUT SHORT
Despite having three weeks left on his extended loan with Barnsley, the English Championship club have chosen to send Brek Shea back to Stoke City following a recent incident in which he cast an obscene gesture toward Barnsley supporters.
15. DO IT FOR THE KIDS
Of Major League Soccer’s 19 teams, only four of them do not have mascots. Yet that could be about to change in one market, as the Philadelphia Union are reportedly considering creating one. It is a process the Union have not taken lightly.
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