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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.

Men In Blazers podcast: Mohamed Salah continues to shine

Men In Blazers
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Rog and Davo marvel at Mo Salah’s four goal, one dime haul in Liverpool’s 5-0 beatdown of Watford, analyze Jose Mourinho’s recent rants about football heritage at Manchester United, and recap Rog’s family trip to Stoke vs. Everton.

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1912 FA Cup winner’s medal stolen

South Yorkshire Police
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A 106-year-old footballing relic has been snatched from a house in England.

The home of the 82-year-old grandson of former Barnsley player Philip Bratley was burglarized last weekend according to the BBC and other reports, and among the items stolen was an “invaluable” FA Cup winner’s medal from 1912.

That year, Barnsley defeated West Bromwich Albion in the finals of the 41st FA Cup, with Bratley scoring the winning goal in the semifinal replay over Swindon Town. He went on to make over 100 appearances for Barnsley between 1910 and 1014 before moving transferring to Liverpool, where he spent one season before he left during the first World War.

“This item is of great sentimental value to the family and belonged to the 82-year-old victim’s grandfather who, at the time, played for Barnsley,” the South Yorkshire police said. “The family is extremely upset that this, along with many of their belongings, have been stolen. If you have any information please get in touch so we can try and reunite this invaluable item with its rightful owner.”

Barnsley has offered to assist the South Yorkshire police in their search for the stolen artifact, as those with any information are encouraged to contact either entity to share what they may know.

Griezmann sets pre-World Cup deadline for transfer future

Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
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French striker Antoine Griezmann is no stranger to seeing his name in the transfer rumor mill, but that familiarity doesn’t make it any more enjoyable for the Atletico Madrid attacker (who celebrates his 27th birthday on Wednesday).

Long-tipped for a move to either Barcelona or Manchester United, Griezmann knows one thing: He wants his future sorted before the World Cup.

[ MORE: Key newcomers for USMNT friendly ]

“I want to travel to Russia without this concern,” he told L’Equipe. “It’s not about knowing where I’ll play, but about having the peace of mind if I’m still in one place or another.

“It may be boring, but I have told my sister that, whether I stay or not, this will have to be resolved beforehand. What bothers me the most is that everyone asks me about this issue.”

That’s both honest and reasonable, and we can imagine it’s not a blast to answer questions on your future every day. He also has a contract through 2021-22, which won’t make any transfer a simple one.

Griezmann has 23 goals and 13 assists in all competitions for Atleti this season, as La Liga’s second place side remains alive in the UEFA Europa League. He’s scored 106 goals for Atleti since arriving from Real Sociedad.

NYCFC signs second Homegrown Player in history

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Four years, two Homegrowns.

That’s the decent track record for New York City FC, which has spotted a second youngster from amongst its ranks in 15-year-old Joe Scally.

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Scally joins United States youth international James Sands as Homegrown Players from NYCFC. Here’s USMNT legend and NYCFC technical director Claudio Reyna:

“Joe has been one of the top performers in the Academy for the past few seasons and represented US Soccer at U-15 and U-17 level.”

“He has all of the attributes we look for in a right-back: he’s strong in defense and can support in attack to help create chances from wide areas.”

Sands was signed last summer, and played 23 minutes for NYCFC against Colorado in his lone senior appearance.