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MLS Cup Playoffs: Conference Semifinals Preview

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An exciting quartet of knockout round matches kicked off the MLS Cup playoffs, but now we move into the meat of the action.

The top two seeds in both the eastern and western conferences join the fray as Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders begin their conference title defenses.

The first legs of the conference semifinals kick off with the Sounders hitting the road to face the Vancouver Whitecaps, which is coming off a 5-0 rout of the San Jose Earthquakes.

[ MORE: PST’s 2017 MLS awards ]

But while the Whitecaps and New York Red Bulls eased into the conference semifinals, the Houston Dynamo and Columbus Crew had to endure 120 minutes of soccer, and with a short recovery time, it will be interesting to see how they perform in their first legs respectively.

Here’s a look ahead at the first legs of the MLS Cup conference semifinals:

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Seattle Sounders — Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET

The Sounders are heading across the border for another Cascadia Cup matchup. This time, they’ll be without their star forward.

Clint Dempsey will sit out the first leg of the Sounders first-leg after he picked up a straight red card early in the Sounders’ 3-0 win over the Colorado Rapids in last Sunday’s regular-season finale. In his place, the Sounders will likely look to Will Bruin to play as the club’s center forward and link up with midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro. On the other side, former Sounders forward Fredy Montero finally broke his playoff goal-scoring drought with the opening goal for the Whitecaps in their 5-0 drubbing of the Earthquakes. Carl Robinson’s side is one of the hottest teams in MLS and will cause the Sounders plenty of problems in Sunday’s match.

New York Red Bulls vs. Toronto FC — Monday, 7:00 p.m. ET

Nearly a month ago, Toronto FC handed the Red Bulls a blow with a 4-2 victory. Since then, the Red Bulls haven’t lost.

Jesse Marsch’s side has three wins and a draw including the team’s 4-0 demolition of the Chicago Fire on the road that saw Sacha Kljestan, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Gonzalo Veron and Daniel Royer all score while youngster Tyler Adams played a big roll. However, this TFC side is tested and ready to avenge its loss in last year’s MLS Cup final. Greg Vanney’s three-man backline anchored by veteran centerback Drew Moor allowed a league-best 37 goals, stifling opposing attacks while launching dangerous ones of their own.

Houston Dynamo vs. Portland Timbers — Monday, 9:30 p.m. ET

MLS MVP candidate Diego Valeri and the Timbers secured top spot in the Western Conference with a 2-1 win over the Whitecaps and after a week of training, the Timbers, winners of four out of their last six, head to Houston, which has only lost once at home all season.

The Dynamo’s collection of young forwards in Rommel Quioto, Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas along with Erick “Cubo” Torres will look to take a step up in their career against one of the top teams in the league. The Dynamo attack will have to get through Liam Ridgewell and Larrys Mabiala.

Columbus Crew vs. New York City FC — Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. ET

After 120 minutes of exhausting soccer in front of 70,000 fans in Atlanta, the Crew return home to face David Villa and NYCFC.

Zack Steffen became a household name across MLS for his outstanding performance against Atlanta United and he’ll be counted on again against one of the league’s best strikers and attacks overall. NYCFC’s attack has gotten plenty of attention but its defense, including shot stopper Sean Johnson, has allowed just 43 goals this year and just one goal or less for seven of the last eight games.

However, in the Crew’s favor, NYCFC has just two wins in its last eight games. Perhaps the Crew can take advantage of the momentum returning home for the conference semifinals opener. Outside of the action on the field, it will be interesting to keep an eye on the response from the fans, who will be attending their first game since news broke that Crew owner Anthony Precourt is floating the idea of moving the team to Austin, Texas.

Wigan player races off for son’s birth after scoring 2 goals

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WIGAN, England (AP) It was better than a hat trick.

A player for English soccer team Wigan had a night to remember when he scored his second goal before dashing off the field and to the local hospital, where his girlfriend was in labor.

[ MORE: Chelsea advances to UCL Round of 16 after win over Qarabag ]

A picture of Ryan Colclough holding his new-born baby, Harley, while still in his soccer uniform was shared on social media by Wigan chairman David Sharpe.

Colclough said his father, sitting in the stands on Tuesday for Wigan’s 3-0 win over Doncaster in the second division, “gave me the action that the waters had broken,” but he didn’t want to come off until the ball was out of play.

“My head was a little bit battered, but I went and scored, looked at the manager and he said we’ll bring you off now,” Colclough said Wednesday of his 58th-minute goal, which he celebrated by pretending to rock a baby. “I came off and was straight down the tunnel, grabbed my keys and my phone, and went to hospital.”

Colclough had visited the midwife that day, and was told the baby was unlikely to arrive for “another couple of days.”

Lille suspends coach Marcelo Bielsa

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LILLE, France (AP) French club Lille has provisionally suspended coach Marcelo Bielsa following a string of poor results in the top tier.

[ MORE: Basel stuns Man United late to keep UCL hopes alive ]

The northern side said in a statement that Bielsa has been suspended “as part of a procedure started by the club.” Lille did not elaborate.

Bielsa joined Lille this season but has failed to make the club competitive again, with the team second to last after 13 matches.

The 2 Robbies podcast: PL sides in the UCL, Pulis sacking and more

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In today’s Euro Pod Edition, the Robbies breakdown the latest Champions League action. Man United lose at Basel, Chelsea cruise at Qarabag, Spurs impress against Dortmund, Man City continue to win, Liverpool surrender a 3-goal lead against Sevilla. Plus, the guys weigh in on the Oumar Niasse ban for diving and the Tony Pulis sacking.

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

Listen to the latest pod by clicking play below.

Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

Europa League preview: Arsenal looks to wrap up Group H and more

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While several teams have already booked their place in the knockout phase, the Europa League reaches its penultimate round on Thursday with many big matches in hand.

[ MORE: Yannick Bolasie finally returns to Everton training ]

Of the two Premier League sides in the competition, only one will advance to the Round of 32, as Arsenal have all but assured themselves of the top spot in Group H. The Gunners can do so tomorrow with a win over Koln or a Red Star Belgrade defeat.

The other end of the spectrum features Everton, who has already been eliminated from reaching the next round after acquiring just one point in its first four matches.

European giants AC Milan can lock up a spot in the knockout phase on Thursday despite the club’s ongoing struggles in Serie A, while fellow Italian side Atalanta can move a step closer to the Round of 32 in Group E along with Lyon.

Here’s the full rundown of Thursday’s UEL matches.

Astana vs. Villareal — 11 a.m. ET
Konyaspor vs. Marseille — 1 p.m. ET
Rosenborg vs. Real Sociedad — 1 p.m. ET
Lazio vs. Vitesse — 1 p.m. ET
Viktoria Plzen vs. Steaua Bucuresti — 1 p.m. ET
Lokomotiv vs. Copenhagen — 1 p.m. ET
Zenit vs. Vardar — 1 p.m. ET
Red Bull Salzburg vs. Vitoria — 1 p.m. ET
Athletic Bilbao vs. Hertha Berlin — 1 p.m. ET
BATE vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m. ET
Ostersund vs. Zorya — 1 p.m. ET
Koln vs. Arsenal — 1 p.m. ET
Nice vs. Zulte Waregem — 1 p.m. ET
Lugano vs. Beer-Sheva — 1 p.m. ET
Ludogorets vs. Istanbul — 3:05 p.m. ET
Braga vs. Hoffenheim — 3:05 p.m. ET
AEK vs. Rijeka — 3:05 p.m. ET
AC Milan vs. Austria Wien — 3:05 p.m. ET
Lyon vs. Apollon — 3:05 p.m. ET
Maccabi Tel Aviv vs. Slavia Praha — 3:05 p.m. ET
Sheriff vs. Zlin — 3:05 p.m. ET
Partizan vs. Young Boys — 3:05 p.m. ET
Skenderbeu vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:05 p.m. ET
Everton vs. Atalanta — 3:05 p.m. ET