Graham Zusi, Mike Chabala

Sporting Kansas City, Houston play to 0-0 draw as Eastern Conference finals series opens in Texas

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Goal-scoring chances were at a premium from two exhausted teams as Sporting Kansas City and Houston played to a scoreless draw Saturday at BBVA Compass Stadium. This makes it “advantage KC” as the home-and-away Eastern Conference finals series now goes to the Midwest.

The second leg is Nov. 23; the prolonged period of inactivity is about an upcoming, week-long break for FIFA international matches.

When the teams do return to the field, presumably far better rested, Kansas City will see a partially clear path to the organization’s second MLS Cup title. Kansas City will be favored in the return leg, and if Peter Vermes’ team can advance into this year’s championship match, it will host the final at always-raucous Sporting Park.

Houston has, however, won in Kansas City when a trip to MLS Cup was on the line. It happened that way two years ago as the Dynamo prevailed 2-0 in the Eastern Conference final at Sporting Park.

(MORE: Sporting KC Man of the Match, Aurelien Collin)

Saturday the teams combined for 25 shots, but neither goalkeeper was tested significantly (just six shots on target, three apiece). Both sides went through 120 minutes of tense soccer on Wednesday, both requiring extra time to squeeze through their semifinal matchups. Plus, both clubs traveled cross-country the next day.

Houston was also playing its 7th match in 21 days, an absolutely debilitating gauntlet of games.

Being so physically drained (from Major League Soccer’s ill-considered, stacked and packed playoff schedule) made for a sluggish match throughout, with more injuries and stoppages than actual scoring opportunities.

In the first half, Jacob Peterson found himself unmarked as one ball came scooting across Houston goal, but the SKC left-sided attacker scruffed his shot well wide. At the other end, Will Bruin was close with something that would have been quite special, just high with a shot on the run from every bit of 35 yards.

And Boniek Garcia put Kofi Sarkokie though along the right in the 17th minute. Houston’s right back was called offside even though it appeared Matt Besler kept the Dynamo man onside.

Garcia’s free kick later in the half from 20 yards required quick attention from KC goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen; that was the closest either team came to scoring.

Houston’s hopes in the series suffered a mighty blow when Ricardo Clark, playing so well throughout the playoffs, limped off with a strained MCL after 25 minutes. He hurt himself during a midfield tackle. As a result, Kinnear was forced to shuffle his entire midfield arrangement, adding an extra man in the middle to compensate for all the ground that Clark usually covers.

Cam Weaver’s introduction at halftime for the gassed Will Bruin brought just a little more life to Houston’s attack. Both teams, in fact, made attack-minded substitutions through the second half, but chances remained at a premium.

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