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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.

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.

PL Preview: Three Tuesday fixtures including Chelsea visit to Huddersfield

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As the holiday season nears, the Premier League begins to ramp up. While that can be hard on Premier League managers, it’s great for you, the fan, who now has plenty of options to choose from as you make your way through the work week.

[ PL SCHEDULE: Where to watch all midweek Premier League games ]


Burnley vs. Stoke City – 2:45 p.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

If Burnley defeats Stoke City on Tuesday, the Clarets would jump Tottenham, Arsenal, and Liverpool en route to a place in the Premier League table’s Top 4. Just pause for a moment and soak that in.

Better?

That’s right, Sean Dyche has his Burnley side on a roll, having won five of its last seven matches. In games where they were earning draws last year, they’re picking up all three points this year. Meanwhile, they face a Potters group that sits just three points above the relegation zone, meaning the heat has turned up on Mark Hughes. What is in store for us at Turf Moor?

INJURIES: Burnley – Tom Heaton (shoulder), Robbie Brady (knee), Jonathan Walters (knee) | Stoke City – Jese (personal leave), Glen Johnson (knee), Bruno Martins Indi (shoulder), Stephen Ireland (leg).


Huddersfield vs. Chelsea – 3:00 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Antonio Conte, in charge of the defending champions, is suddenly on the hot seat. Already 14 points back of leaders and expected winners Manchester City, the Blues are sitting a distant third in the table.

A trip to Huddersfield could be exactly what the doctor ordered. The Terriers started the season well, but had lost four Premier League matches in a row before a 2-0 victory over Brighton turned things around.

Conte has already ruled Chelsea out of the title, with the Blues now fighting for a Champions League place. Can the boss take advantage of the poor opposition form? He will be without star striker Alvaro Morata who is dealing with both back problems and general fatigue, with Conte calling his schedule “impossible.”

INJURIES: HuddersfieldMichael Hefele (Achillies), Philip Billing (ankle), Jon Stankovic (knee), Kasey Palmer (ineligible – parent club) | Chelsea – Alvaro Morata (back), David Luiz (knee).


Crystal Palace vs. Watford – 3:00 p.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

The Eagles hav a chance to pull themselves not only off the bottom of the Premier League table, but out of the relegation zone completely when they host Watford at Selhurst Park. Crystal Palace sits a point back of Swansea City on the bottom, but with somewhat improved performances under Roy Hodgson, three points would climb them completely out of the drop.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how Hodgson balances a desperate need to collect points with discipline of his struggling striker Christian Benteke, who remains goalless on the year after missing a critical penalty he wasn’t supposed to take in the 2-2 draw with Bournemouth over the weekend.

Watford, meanwhile, is without a win in its last three and desperately needs a result. The Hornets sit ninth in the Premier League table but could see their advantage over the bottom half evaporate with another loss.

INJURIES: Crystal Palace – Mamadou Sakho (calf), Joel Ward, Damien Delaney, Connor Wickham (knee) | Watford – Will Hughes (hamstring), Isaac Success (knee), Nathan Chalobah (knee), Younes Kaboul (hamstring), Craig Cathcart (knee)

Report: FA to open inquiry on Man United-Man City tunnel incident

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The FA is looking into what exactly happened in the minutes after the final whistle at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon.

According to multiple reports in England, an altercation took place in the area outside the dressing rooms as Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho was not particularly happy with the way Manchester City players were celebrating their 2-1 victory. According to the Telegraph, Mourinho went to the visitors dressing room and asked the players to show more respect to the hosts.

[MORE: Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks]

Mourinho then reportedly ended up with a milk carton and water thrown at him while Manchester City assistant Mikel Arteta suffered a cut to his head.

Now the FA is looking into the situation and has reportedly asked Man United and Man City to submit their version of the events, as the altercation did not make it into referee Michael Oliver’s post-match report.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks

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Ready for the midweek action in the Premier League? The games just keep coming thick and fast.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Listen carefully, because this is very specific.

[ STREAM: Premier League “Goal Rush”

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.

Click play on the videos below for quick previews on each game complete with a score prediction from yours truly.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Swansea City 1-3 Man City (Wednesday, 2:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Manchester United 4-1 Bournemouth – (Wednesday, 3 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

West Ham 0-2 Arsenal – (Wednesday, 3 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]

Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 Brighton – (Wednesday, 3 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Southampton 1-2 Leicester City – (Wednesday, 2:45 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

Liverpool 2-1 West Brom – (Wednesday, 3 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

Newcastle United 1-2 Everton (Wednesday, 2:45 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

Burnley 1-1 Stoke City – (Tuesday, 2:45 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Huddersfield Town 1-1 Chelsea – (Tuesday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Crystal Palace 2-1 Watford (Tuesday, 3 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]