Major League Soccer team previews: TORONTO FC

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Each day from now until the beginning of Major League Soccer’s 18th season, we will preview one Eastern Conference team and one from the West. First kick is March 2.

No. 10 in the East is Toronto FC:

Significant additions and subtractions: Ryan Nelsen took over for Paul Mariner (who had taken over just a few months earlier from Aron Winter) in one of the truly bizarre coaching shifts yet seen in MLS. New club president Kevin Payne, the polarizing architect of so much that was good and so much that went wrong previously at D.C. United.

Canadian international Kyle Bekker was the third overall MLS draft pick.

Julio Cesar has moved north from Sporting Kansas City, and may play a significant role in the center of the park.

Strengths: Torsten Frings is a skillful, determined leader who adds valuable versatility – so long as he keeps himself healthy and motivated. The German veteran has only recently returned to Toronto, where he was either in rehabilitation, sorting out personal business or perhaps … well, who knows what? There seemed to be some whispers of discontent, and isn’t that just what this team in high transition needs?

TFC gets a huge boost if goalkeeper Stefan Frei is back to his 2011 form (after missing most of the 2012 season due to injury).

Pressure points: The roster isn’t where it needs to be, even Payne admits it. That’s why he’s been gathering up allocation money for the next move. Or moves. Let’s go with “moves.”

Reading too much into preseason results is always a dangerous thing. That said, it was not been a good preseason for TFC. And then some. Perhaps unfavorable results aren’t a surprise considering the teams’ top two players remain on the mend. And Justin Braun’s injury over the weekend is alarming, especially considering how much of the scoring burden he needed to tote pending Danny Koevermans’ healthy return (which isn’t happening anytime soon).

Cesar is a useful player, but he’s not anything close to Frings in terms of leadership and gumption.

None of these preseason woes would resonate as loudly if not for the club history, for the yawning gap that has always existed between TFC and the field. In a league where over half the teams make the playoffs each year (well over half in some of those seasons), TFC has failed to qualify for all six years of existence. The ongoing organizational flailing has been a huge beat-down for TFC supporters, who once showed up in waves. We see more and more empty seats around BMO Field, which is a doggone shame.

source: Getty Images

Jeremy Hall has a central midfielder? Hmmm. He’s been a right-sided guy through his entire career, and he’s been adequate at best there. It seems like a big stretch to play the man on the inside now – and it probably says something about TFC’s that flagging roster strength at the moment.

Difference maker: It’s Koevermans, but there is a huge asterisk here. The Dutch striker (pictured right), sizable and skillful, looks like a Golden Boot candidate when at his best. He has 17 goals in 26 appearances for the club, which is righteous production. But can he be at his best coming off major knee surgery? He’s not even expected to be on the field until June – and the Reds could be too far behind by then.

Potential breakout player: The club expects big things of Bekker, the third overall pick in January’s draft. He has played in the middle (as Bekker does for Canada) but also on the flanks for Ryan Nelsen’s team.

Bottom line: Given the injury concerns with Frings, Koevermans and Braun, it’s hard to be optimistic, especially over the season’s first 90 days.

Follow Live – Texas Derby, Cascadia Cup headline busy night of MLS action

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Welcome to MLS Rivalry Week.

The surging Houston Dynamo could move to first place in the Western Conference with a win over rivals FC Dallas while the current first-place side, the Seattle Sounders travel north and across the border to face Vancouver Whitecaps FC.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

The Dynamo have made an impressive turnaround under coach Wilmer Cabrera and he’ll have the trio of Ricardo Clark, Alberth Elis and star forward Erick Torres available to face Dallas after missing the Dynamo’s match at Vancouver last weekend, which ended 2-1 in favor of the Whitecaps.

FC Dallas are in its worst form of the season, winless in its last four games, but the team will be extra motivated to beat its rivals.

El Capitan is on the line after draws between FC Dallas and the Dynamo in two matches earlier this season.

Meanwhile up in Vancouver, the Whitecaps host a Sounders squad that pulled out a last-gasp victory last weekend over Minnesota United. While the team is in great form on the road recently (two wins and two draws), the top story heading into the game is the unexpected absence of Joevin Jones, who left the Sounders for his home in Trinidad and Tobago ahead of the upcoming international break.

[ FOLLOW: Live MLS scores ]

On the other side, Fredy Montero faces his former club and carries an interesting record into Wednesday’s match. Of his 35 MLS goals, 11 have been scored against Cascadia Cup competition.

Here’s a look at Wednesday’s action:

Full schedule

Columbus Crew vs. LA Galaxy – 7:30 p.m. ET

D.C. United vs. Atlanta United – 7:30 p.m.ET

FC Dallas vs. Houston Dynamo – 8 p.m. ET

Toronto FC vs. Philadelphia Union – 8 p.m. ET

Real Salt Lake vs. San Jose Earthquakes – 10 p.m. ET

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Seattle Sounders – 10 p.m. ET

Portland Timbers vs. Colorado Rapids – 10:30 p.m. ET

UCL Playoff Wrap: Liverpool, Sporting CP, CSKA advance to group stage

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It was another memorable European night for Liverpool in front of the Kop at Anfield.

Lifted by three goals in the opening 21 minutes, the Reds cruised to a 4-2 win over Hoffenheim 1899 in the second leg of the UEFA Champions League playoff stage Wednesday evening. With the win, Liverpool returns to the Champions League group stage for the first time since the 2014-2015 season.

[ MORE: Champions League scores ]

Sadio Mane set up Emre Can twice and both Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino chipped in with goals of their own to lead Liverpool to victory. After Can’s double and Salah’s goal gave Liverpool a three-goal lead, Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann brought Mark Uth off the bench onto the field and he promptly scored in the 28th minute to draw within two.

Firmino again put Liverpool ahead by three goals with a goal into an open net in the 63rd minute. Hoffenheim recorded a consolation goal in the 79th minute through Sandro Wagner but Liverpool was resolute and held on for victory.

Liverpool, and the rest of the winning clubs, will learn their fates for the group stage on Thursday.

Here’s a look at the rest of the Champions League playoff scores:

Slavia Prague 0-0 APOEL (APOEL advances 2-0 on aggregate)

FC Copenhagen 2-1 Qarabag FK (Qarabag advances on away goals, 2-2 on aggregate)

FCSB (Steaua București) 1-5 Sporting CP (Sporting CP advances 5-1 on aggregate)

CSKA Moscow 2-0 BSC Young Boys (CSKA advances on aggregate, 3-0)

VIDEO: A sneak peek of Everton’s Europa League journey – Part 2

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In Part 2 of Everton Unseen, European football returns to Goodison Park as Everton host MFK Ruzomberok in the qualifying round of the Europa League.

Click play on the video below to get a feel for how Goodison Park will be in the second leg of the Europa League in Part 2 of this videos series.

[ MORE: Live Europa League scores

[ WATCH: Part 1 of Everton Unseen ] 

http://www.nbcsports.com/video/everton-unseen-part-2-everton-host-mfk-ruzomberok-europa-league

FIFA to send in emergency team to run Cameroon football

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ZURICH (AP) FIFA says it is sending in an emergency management team to run the troubled Cameroon football federation.

The panel to be appointed by FIFA and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) will oversee elections by next March to replace disputed polls in 2015 for the Cameroon federation board.

FIFA’s intervention comes amid speculation Cameroon could be stripped of hosting the next African Cup of Nations in June-July 2019.

CAF President Ahmad this month cast doubt on Cameroon’s ability to prepare for the expanded 24-team tournament.

FIFA says Wednesday it acted after “recent failed attempts … to reconcile the football stakeholders in Cameroon and overcome the current impasse.”