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Three swoops for Dynamo Kyiv help close the gap with Shakhtar Donetsk

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Dynamo Kyiv, one of the two traditional powers in Ukraine, seemed to have other things to worry about than Shakhtar this summer. While the Donetsk club were making waves in last year’s Champions League and winning their league by 13 points (losing only once in 30 games), Dynamo was fighting emerging challengers Metalist Kharkiv and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk for second place. Ultimately, Myron Markevych’s Metalist claimed the league’s second Champions League spot, relegating Dynamo to the relative indignity of Europa League.

I say relative indignity because while European soccer has its own charms, it’s not where Dynamo’s supposed to be. At least, it’s not where they’re supposed to be at the beginning of a campaign. They’re one of Ukraine’s big two. One of those Champions League spots should be theirs on renown alone. It’s bad enough that they’d become a notable second behind Shakhtar, but to be passed by Metalist? And have Dnipro on their heels? It’s a concerning if subtle fall.

Dynamo clearly realize their plight and are solving it the way all club soccer troubles are solved: With money and new players. With three swoops, Dynamo have not only started to address the growing talent gap between themselves and their rivals, they’ve also lured three talents who had been linked with bigger leagues.

The most renown of the trio is Montpellier’s Younes Belhanda (pictured), a 23-year-old Moroccan attacking midfielder who had been linked with moves to England, Italy and Turkey. The specOne of the best players on the MHSC team that claimed Ligue 1 in 2011-12, Belhanda has been linked with higher profile moves for the last six months. That he ended up in Kyiv (for a speculated $13/€10 million) is a minor coup for Dynamo.

So is the capture of 27-year-old Dieumerci Mbokani, a DR Congo striker who scored 34 goals in 53 league games during his two years at Anderlecht. Thought Mbokani struggled during spells at Monaco and Wolfsburg, he has improved since his 2011 return to the Juliper League, where he’d previously stared for Standard Liege. That improvement, also seen for a DR Congo side the qualified for the last Cup of Nations, will complement Brown Ideye and Belhanda in Dynamo’s attack, albeit for another $13 million.

But that attack will feature a third surprising addition, that of 25-year-old Dutch winger Jeremain Lens, who agreed with Dynamo two weeks ago. The former PSV man makes the move to Ukraine after his most productive season in the Eredivisie, scoring 15 goals in 30 league games, production that made for another $13 million fee, according to reports. Where most Dutch league stars with that kind of production make their way to Germany or England, Lens has instead been lured to Kyiv, rounding out an attack that may more than rival Shakhtar’s.

The defending champions will line up with Luiz Adriano up top, some trio pulled out of their grab bag of Brazilian attacking midfielders: Alex Teixeira, Ilsinho, Douglas Costa, Taison, Wellington Nem, Fred, and Alan Patrick behind. With Henrik Mkhitaryan (and Fernandinho, deeper in midfield) all but gone, Mirseau Lucescu will have to adjust. What that adjustment looks like, it’s too early to say.

That adjustment could be brilliant, given all the talent Lucescu has at his disposal. But with Razvan Rat also gone (having left for West Ham United), this can be seem as a minor regroup for Ukraine’s champions. And if that’s the case. Dynamo’s attack of Lens, Mbokani, and Ideye being supported by Belhanda may make up that gap.

It will be fun if Metalist and Dnipro can somehow keep up. Even if they don’t, this year’s Ukrainian Premier League looks to be more interesting than last’s.

Dempsey returns to training after second heart procedure

SAN JOSE, CA - JULY 28:  Clint Dempsey #2 of MLS All-Stars chases after the ball up field against the Arsenal FC during the second half of the AT&T MLS All-Star Game at Avaya Stadium on July 28, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
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Many were concerned about USMNT and Seattle Sounders attacker Clint Dempsey‘s future when he underwent a pair of heart procedures in 2016.

The 33-year-old Dempsey took another step to allay those fears when he hit the pitch for Seattle’s first day of preseason camp.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

The Sounders won the 2016 MLS Cup despite the absence of Dempsey, and his return would further strengthen the side. General manager Garth Lagerwey said Dempsey won’t be rushed, but could be nearing a return.

EFL Cup second legs preview: Liverpool, Hull City aim for comebacks

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 11:  Divock Origi of Liverpool battles with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (L) and Ryan Bertrand of Southampton during the EFL Cup semi-final first leg match between Southampton and Liverpool at St Mary's Stadium on January 11, 2017 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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Manchester United and Southampton are 90 minutes from Wembley Stadium.

Hull City and Liverpool would prefer to change that.

After first legs a fortnight ago, the EFL Cup semifinals play out on Wednesday and Thursday ahead of Feb. 26’s final at Wembley.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

First up is Southampton‘s trip to Liverpool, with the Saints nursing a 1-0 lead from the first leg at St. Mary’s. The Wednesday kickoff sees Saints hoping the Reds’ poor run of form will continue at Anfield. Liverpool has one win 2017, and that was an FA Cup replay victory over Plymouth Argyle.

Southampton boss Claude Puel knows the Reds will be ornery:

“We know Liverpool. They lost against Swansea at home, and I am sure they will want to react against us, but it’s important to keep all of our focus about our play.

“We know they are fantastic, a great team, with great players, but you saw in the first leg we have the ability to produce a strong game against them. It will be important to make a strong game – a perfect game – I think.”

Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United got a terrific result in the first leg at Old Trafford, scoring twice and holding Hull City from scooping up a valuable road goal. Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini scored the goals in the 2-0 win, but the KC Stadium will be rocking on Thursday as the Tigers look to reverse the result.

United midfielder Michael Carrick says the Red Devils will play as if they are starting from scratch:

“It’s definitely not over, we all know that. We are telling ourselves that. I think we’ll be pretty much full strength and will approach the game like it’s a 0-0 and starting from scratch.

“It’s dangerous when you go in there defending a lead to tell yourself this result will do or that result will do, or we can afford to do this or that.”

Report: China tempting TFC’s Giovinco with big offer

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Union during the first half of an MLS soccer playoff match in Toronto, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Could Sebastian Giovinco’s chances of another MVP award be diminishing?

It wouldn’t be on account of a lack of production, rather massive money coming his way from the Chinese Soccer League.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

Great, and right when we were daydreaming about how Toronto FC’s Italian attacker could run a revenge tour on the folks who somehow left him out of the MVP finalists last year.

Giovinco turns 30 on Thursday.

From The Toronto Sun’s Kurtis Larsson:

“The Chinese club seems to be very interested, but I don’t think it’ll be easy to take him away from Toronto,” Giovinco’s agent, Andrea D’Amico, told the broadcaster.

“We received an important offer from China and we’ll talk to Toronto to decide, along with Sebastian, what to do.”

Giovinco is with Toronto FC for preseason training camp, and both the club and player have shown no interest in moving on from the diminutive winger and 2015 MVP.

But if China comes calling with crazy money, say a $25-30 million transfer fee, shouldn’t TFC think twice? Any figure above $25 million would be more than the sum of the three biggest incoming transfer fees in MLS history (Miguel Almiron, Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe).

AFCON wrap: Ivory Coast bounced, DR Congo wins Group C

Congo's soccer players celebrate after scoring a goal against Togo during the African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match between Congo and Togo at the Stade de Port-Gentil, Gabon, Tuesday Jan. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
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Down went another knockout round mainstay from the Africa Cup of Nations, as the Ivory Coast failed to capture one of the top two spots in Group C.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Morocco 1-0 Ivory Coast

Needing a win to move on, the Ivory Coast fell in its final group match. Rachid Alioui scored a 64th minute goal that meant the Ivory Coast needed two to advance to the quarterfinals. The goals didn’t come, and Morocco will face the Group D winner next.

Togo 1-3 DR Congo

Junior Kabananga, Paul-Jose M’Poku, and Ndombe Mubele scored as the Leopards finished the group stage with an unbeaten record of 2-1. DR Congo will face the runner-up of Group D in the quarterfinals.

Wednesday’s matches

Ghana is through with six points, while Uganda is out. Egypt will go through with a result against Ghana, while Mali needs a win and an Egypt loss to get to tiebreakers.

Egypt vs. Ghana — 2 p.m. ET
Uganda vs. Mali — 2 p.m. ET