NICK LEYDEN - Thursday, August 16, 2012
Oguchi Onyewu, Tony Taylor and Caleb Patterson-Sewell all have different opportunities and challlenges as they are prepare for the opening of Portugal's Primeira Liga
Sporting Clube de Portugal
After a fourth place finish last year Onyewu and Sporting are preparing to mount a serious challenge to Porto and Benfica for their first league championship since the 2001-2002 season.
Despite the retirement of Anderson Polga, who regularly partnered Gooch in the center of Sporting's defense last year, there is no guarantee that Onyewu will retain his starting spot.
The additions of Dutch international Khalid Boulahrouz from Stuttgart and Marcos Rojo, who has nine caps for Argentina, combined with the return of the towering duo of Xandão and Onyewu mean Ricardo Sa Pinto has a glut of talented and experienced center backs to choose from.
Add Daniel Carriço, who has been deployed as both a holding midfielder and a central defender in his time with Sporting, and the competition for playing time will be even more intense.
Through the preseason games Sa Pinto rotated his lineups, giving all five contenders significant action, though Gooch was typically used as a substitute in the second half.
The Lions' most notable offseason departure also came along the backline as Portuguese international right back João Pereira moved to Valencia, though the Sporting faithful will be confident that they were able to add more than they lost.
In addition to the center backs, Sporting also welcomed Croatian veteran Danijel Pranjić from Bayern Munich, Swiss midfielder Gelson Fernandes, who has played in the first divisions in England, Italy and France, as well as young Moroccan attacker Zakaria Labyad from PSV.
Returning hitman Ricky van Wolfswinkel should once again lead the Sporting forward line.
The Lions will begin their season with a visit to Vitória de Guimarães on 8/19.
They will also hope to make noise in the Europa League, a competition in which they've found relative success in recent years. But first they will have to see off Danish club Horsens in the playoffs, with the first leg on 8/23.
GD Estoril Praia
After its first place finish in the Liga de Honra last year, Estoril was promoted to the top division for the first time since 2004-2005.
Following that season seven years ago the team from Lisbon's coastal suburb was sent right back down to the second division, but Tony Taylor and the Canarinhos are hopeful that this time will be different.
"Our primary goal is to stay in the first division so we are going to take it one step at a time," he recently told YA. "With our team's quality and the leadership of Marco Silva and the coaching staff we believe we can accomplish the task."
A successful preseason in which they have won five games and lost only two, to Spanish club Celta Vigo and Sporting, has further emboldened the promoted team.
By the tail end of last season Taylor had become a key cog in the Estoril attack along with Licá, who led the team in goals. This offseason they were re-joined by Luis Leal, an attacker from São Tomé and Principe, who scored eight goals for Estoril two seasons ago before moving to Leiria. And as Taylor told YA, the trio has worked well together this preseason.
"I have been playing very well and have been a threat in the attack, setting up goals and scoring chances as well. Me, Licá and Luis Leal have been leading the attack and it has been tough for teams to handle us," he said.
The midfield will be led by stalwart João Coimbra, Carlos Eduardo and newcomer Hugo Leal, who Taylor said has impressed in the preseason.
In the back the powerful Steven Vitória will once again be counted on to patrol the center of Estoril's defense, while two other regulars, Anderson Luis and Tiago Gomes, also return. Another Brazilian reinforcement, Jefferson, has likely earned the starting job at left back.
Vagner, last season's starting goalkeeper, will also retain his spot.
According to Taylor the team is undaunted by the spotlight and the step up in competition. As a matter of fact they believe the first division just might suit them better than the second.
"There is a different quality of play in the first division with more focus on ball possession. And there is more space to play which is a plus for us because we have always tried to be a ball possession team and that will give me more space to work with when attacking," Taylor explained. "The pace is a little faster in first division but we have a quality team so we haven't needed to adjust much," he finished.
After a couple weeks of training in northern Portugal, Estoril has returned home for their final preparations before opening the season away to Olhanense on 8/19.
Vitória de Setúbal
A strong season for Atlético CP last year led to Caleb Patterson-Sewell's offseason transfer to first division Setúbal. The Australian-American had 12 shutouts in his debut season in Portugal, and will hope to continue that success in Setúbal's quest to better their 11th place finish in 2011-2012.
Patterson-Sewell has been the primary ‘keeper throughout the preseason, playing 90 minutes in all but the most recent game against Casa Pia, in which he played 45.
Despite the early playing time the former New York Red Bull told YA that Coach Jose Mota has not yet communicated whether he or last year's starter, Diego, would assume the starting role when the season begins, hinting that the competition is not yet over.
"We didn't speak about my role," Patterson-Sewell said. "Everyone at the club is equal and you have to earn your spot and the respect of your teammates and I think this provides a great environment for everyone."
Setúbal's preseason results have been mixed, and even Patterson-Sewell will admit he was not always at his best, though he is relieved to finally be over a nagging leg injury.
"I picked up an injury in the second week of preseason that stayed around for quite a while. It was very annoying and frustrating. I played just about all the games with an injury and it was limiting me quite a lot in the games and in the training," he told YA.
"This is football and I just had to deal with it even though I was very frustrated," added Patterson-Sewell. "I am now 100%, and I'm looking forward to what lies ahead and I hope that all the little niggles are behind me."
Regardless of who starts in net, Mota's biggest problem may be fielding a squad that can consistently produce an offensive threat, as the Sadinos were shut out twelve times in the league last season.
One player of note who may be counted on to create some offense is Alex Zahavi, who has joined Setúbal on loan from Maccabi Haifa.
When asked about preparing for his maiden season in the first division of a major European league the humble Patterson-Sewell played down his individual role but also expressed the excitement of playing on a bigger stage.
"It's all relatively the same. You get your fitness work in at the start and then the games come quick and fast and you just work as hard as you can on the field to hope your name is called on the opening day," he explained.
"There is definitely more attention from the media in the first league but that's to be expected," he went on to say. "And we have great great fans at Setubal and they have been very supportive."
Those fans will have their first meaningful chance to cheer on Patterson Sewell and the Sadinos when they visit Nacional on 8/19.