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Ranking the candidates for MLS’s next two expansion teams (after Don Garber’s Tuesday Q-and-A)

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Among the various topics Don Garber addressed on Tuesday, expansion occupied the most time, with questions about eight different sites garnering responses from MLS’s commissioner. Though we’d previously given our views on the most- (and least-) likely spots for the league’s 23rd and 24th franchises, Tuesday gave us new insight into what Garber’s thinking.

As a result, we have a new list. Here’s where we were. Now, here’s where we are:

1. Atlanta – If Las Vegas has odds on Atlanta as team No. 23 (and if they do, that’s pretty cool), they should take the wager off the board. Atlanta is so far ahead of the field at this point, it would take a major upset to see two other cities get expansion franchises before Arthur Blank’s making his announcement.

Part of that is the long relationship Blank has with Major League Soccer. Part is the value he brings as a potentially stable, committed owner. Geography plays a role here, too, as does showings like last night’s at the Georgia Dome. Add in a new venue in the discussion, and this is a slam dunk. And not the George Tenet kind.

Of the eight locations Garber was asked about on Tuesday, he spoke most glowingly of the ATL, saying, “We’re getting close.”

2. Minneapolis – The big news on Tuesday wasn’t that Minneapolis looks like the favorite for franchise No. 24. It’s that the Minnesota United FC group seems so far ahead of Vikings owner Zygi Wilf.

Consider what Garber had to say about the NASL team’s ownership group:

“Minneapolis is on the short list. Lots of interest there. We’ve had a high level of activity with the current Minnesota United ownership group … We think they’re smart. We think they’re focused, and they’re great community citizens.”

Do you hear that, Commissioner Garber? That’s NASL commissioner Bill Peterson telling you to get off his lawn. Poor guy.

3. San Antonio – The Scorpions looked like a good bet to compete with Minnesota for the final spot, but when asked about Texas expansion, Garber said “Expanding in Texas, that’s likely going to happen. Where that happens, when that happens, remains to be seen.” Compared to the enthusiast way the commissioner talked about Atlanta and Minneapolis’s prospects, it looks like San Antonio has some catching up to do. Maybe No. 25, if they can hold off Austin?

4. Sacramento – The Republic’s big to jump from USL PRO to the first division looks like a distant fourth in this race. Asked about the potential to expand into the market, Garber said, “Show that there’s a real appetite north of San Jose for professional, high-level soccer, and we’ll see what happens” – the type of noncommittal encouragement he could to any market. Lincoln, Neb. – want a team? Then show there’s a real appetite north of Texas for professional, high-level soccer. Then we’ll see what happens.

5. The Field – Garber also answered questions on four other markets, with deflecting answers ranging from “not … anytime soon” (North Carolina) to recommendations the market support existing teams (Cleveland). Though cities like St. Louis and San Diego — areas of constant interest to fans — didn’t come up in the Q-and-A, lack of potential owners in those markets lump them in with “The Field” – a group that looks increasingly irrelevant for slots 23 and 24.

Right now, are three, maybe four obvious candidates to slide into MLS’s last two expansion spots. On Tuesday, commissioner Garber made Atlanta and Minneapolis the favorite. “We’ll see what happens.”

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