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MLS Cup Playoffs Power Rankings: Conference finals edition

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Toronto FC’s 7-0 humiliation of New York City FC was the most lopsided margin of victory in MLS Cup Playoffs history (two-leg tie era), so it comes as very little surprise the Reds sit atop the latest edition of MLS Power Rankings.

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Note: Five games of soccer — anywhere between 450 and 540 minutes — is all that remains in the 2016 MLS season. Unbelievable.

1. Toronto FC

Hell hath no fury like an MVP scorned. Sebastian Giovinco was not happy about being left off the list of finalists for 2016 MVP despite leading the league in goals and assists combined for a second straight season. Poor NYCFC paid the price in the conference semis, most notably his hat trick in Sunday’s second leg. The formula to winning in the playoffs is the furthest thing from science. The New York Red Bulls, for instance, finished the regular season 16 games unbeaten, and their season is over after 180 minutes of playoff soccer — there goes the “hottest team to finish the year” theory. Same goes for FC Dallas and “the best team all season” (though the injury to Mauro Diaz undoubtedly had played its part). TFC were neither of those things coming into the playoffs (just two wins in their last eight regular-season games), and they didn’t even benefit from a knockout-round bye, which meant they faced three games in eight grueling days. In the end, finished third was a godsend for Greg Vanney’s side, as Giovinco, who missed a month due to injury before returning in mid-October, needed that one more game to reach full fitness and sharpness. TFC’s perfect path to a first-ever conference finals appearance was a complicated one, because of course it was.

2. Seattle Sounders

The July-to-October turnaround is, for my money, the best MLS story this decade — from last place in the Western Conference late in the summer, to conference finalists for the third time in their eight MLS seasons, all rescued over the course of three and a half months. The injuries are piling up, though, and could be their ultimate undoing: Jordan Morris (hamstring) left Sunday’s second leg against FCD with a hamstring; as did fellow striker Nelson Valdez due to a calf injury, to go along with Roman Torres’ continued fight for fitness, Andreas Ivanschitz knee injury and Alvaro Fernandez’s hamstring strain, all three of whom missed both legs of the tie against FCD; and, of course, Clint Dempsey, who’s out for the season with an irregular heartbeat. Brian Schmetzer has done a masterful job massaging an aching roster for weeks now, which is cause for optimism, until you realize the Sounders are set for 180 minutes against one of the most accomplished fouling sides in the league, the Rapids (13.5 per game, 3rd-most in 2016). With the first leg of the conference finals to be played in Seattle, though, expect a repeat performance of the first-leg demolition of FCD to earn their first-ever trip to MLS Cup.

3. Montreal Impact

Way back in the middle of summer, I practically begged MLS to give us TFC versus Montreal in the East finals, because at the time they looked far and away the two best sides with the highest ceilings. Then came an abysmal finish to the season for Montreal (five wins in their final 18 games), so naturally they’ve rallied and on Sunday eliminated the East’s top seed in the conference semis, barely breaking a sweat in doing so. As was the case when everything was great early in the season, Ignacio Piatti has gone to another level in the postseason (three goals and an assists in three games, including both goals in Sunday’s second-leg victory at Red Bull Arena). Speaking of playoff formulas, defend-deep-and-counter is the way to go if you’ve got the requisite personnel to pull it off. With center backs Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera hitting their stride following an up-and-down regular season, the Marco Donadel, Patrice Bernier and Hernan Bernardello midfield-three suddenly looks like a world-beater in midfield. With Piatti on one side and Dominic Oduro on the other, and Matteo Mancosu a capable finisher in between them, that’s a formula meant to squeeze every last drop out of a group set to undergo extensive changes in the offseason.

4. Colorado Rapids

If the conference finals go to chalk, the Colorado Rapids, who finished 18th out of 20 teams in a single-table format last year, will be hosting MLS Cup 2016 just 13 months later. It’s not always almost never been easy on the eye this season — Sunday’s second leg comeback and penalty-kick triumph over the LA Galaxy perfectly exemplified this — but Pablo Mastroeni’s grind-it-out style sure has been effective thus far. The problem: while they’ve certainly not perfected the art as have the 2016 Rapids, FCD tried that in leg 1 of the conference semis, and that ended horrifically for them. By design, the playoff format levels the playing field to an unfair degree (in my opinion) and puts all the pressure on the higher-seeded side in the first leg: don’t fall victim to an insurmoutable deficit while playing for 0-0 on the road. If Shkelzen Gashi (ankle/leg injury on Sunday) isn’t able to go and provide the game-changing moments, it’ll be tough sledding against the Sounders.

Champions League qualifying: How to watch, start times, odds

UEFA Champions League qualifying
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The 12 clubs remaining in the race for the final UEFA Champions League group stage slots will be pared down to six in the next eight days.

There are American connections to two of the six ties.

Former USMNT midfielder Jesse Marsch manages Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg toward the next round, while Molde right back Henry Wingo came up with the Seattle Sounders.

VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Salzburg are significant favorites to advance over two legs, odds accentuated by Maccabi Tel-Aviv’s seven players absent due to positive COVID-19 tests.

Marsch had previously said he did not want to go to Israel due to COVID-19 concerns, calling it “dangerous,” but has accepted the task at hand.

From Austrian publication Kronen Zeitung:

“The moment UEFA said we were going to play in Tel Aviv, it wasn’t a problem for me. Maccabi has a great team. We are not naive. We understand that we have to fight tomorrow.”

At 3:10 in some sportsbooks, Marsch’s men are the only club favored to win the first leg away. Salzburg is led by Dominik Szoboszlai and Patson Daka, who’ve helped the team thrive despite the sales of several stars including Erling Haaland and Takumi Minamino.

Molde has a much tougher test with Hungarian side Ferencvaros, who knocked off Celtic. That tie could go either way, while Slavia Prague and Olympiakos are respectively noticeable favorites to beat Midtjylland and Omonia Nicosia.

Dynamo Kiev will be expected to outlast Gent over two legs, while it would be a minor upset if PAOK takes down Krasnodar.


How to watch the UEFA Champions League qualifying playoff round

Kickoff: 3 pm ET Tuesday and Wednesday
Stream: CBS All-Access (subscription required)


UEFA Champions League playoff round matches

All 12 legs will kickoff at 3 pm ET between Tuesday and Sept. 30.

Tuesday

Maccabi Tel-Aviv v. Red Bull Salzburg
Slavia Prague v Midtjylland
Krasnodar v PAOK

Wednesday

Gent v Dynamo Kiev
Molde v Ferencvaros
Olympiakos v Omonia

Sept. 29

Ferencvaros v Molde
Dynamo Kiev v Gent
Omonia v Olympiakos

Sept. 30

Midtjylland v Slavia Prague
PAOK v Krasnodar
Red Bull Salzburg v Maccabi Tel-Aviv

Edouard Mendy to Chelsea: What does it mean for Kepa, Blues’ defense?

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Edouard Mendy to Chelsea: What does it mean for Kepa Arrizabalaga and how much does it improve the Chelsea defense?

[ MORE: How to watch PL in the USA ]   

Frank Lampard has confirmed that goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, 28, has arrived from Rennes in a $28 million deal and the Senegalese international will provide ‘competition’ to Kepa.

“Competition is a regular thing. We have brought Mendy in for that competition. It’s in everyone’s hands to get into the squad,” Lampard said. “I think it is the hardest position, because of the individual nature of it. I have to be sympathetic to that point. Last year I changed a few times, it’s a different thought process. We are always striving for the best performance.”

Is anyone buying that?

A couple of high-profile mistakes in Chelsea’s opening two games of the Premier League season has highlighted Kepa’s poor form and Chelsea have moved fast to bring in Mendy.

What does this mean for Kepa Arrizabalaga?

As the ProSoccerTalk lads discuss in the video above, this is probably the end, or at the very least the beginning of the end, for Kepa at Chelsea. Kepa has never really settled at Chelsea and over the last two seasons he hasn’t backed up being the most expensive goalkeeper in the world.

That transfer fee was a little false, as Chelsea were backed into a corner after losing Thibaut Courtois to Real Madrid and paid Kepa’s release clause of $91.1 million to Athletic Bilbao. But they still paid it and even if the fee was half of that, eyebrows would have been raised. Kepa, 25, has failed to command his box, looked nervous with the ball at his feet and shots from outside the box have also given him plenty of problems. Not a great combo for a goalkeeper.

Chelsea may look to loan him out but there’s no doubt that after being dropped for veteran Willy Caballero at the end of last season, the writing was on the wall and Kepa is on borrowed time at Stamford Bridge.

Does Edouard Mendy to Chelsea improve their defense right away?

Not right away, but it will help. His impressive ability to come for crosses and his towering six-foot six-inch frame should provide some stability and confidence from the defenders around him but the way Chelsea play suggests their defensive issues will remain.

Frank Lampard loves to attack and it’s fun to watch. Well, unless you’re a goalkeeper or defender for the Blues. Mendy is one part of the jigsaw and so too is Thiago Silva who will add a calm head and his experience to a youthful defense, and Ben Chilwell at left back will also improve their defensive outlook.

Lampard loves to attack, though, and we must admit that without N’Golo Kante in front of a oft-changed back four, things will be tough. Mendy’s arrival should help settle things down and help Chelsea improve at the back but Lampard needs his center backs to stand tall in the coming weeks and months.

League Cup: How to watch, start times, as Premier League powers enter

League Cup
Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
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Fifteen Premier League teams eye dates in the fourth round when the League Cup returns for another September midweek.

The congested nature of the season will see some PL sides play three matches in as many weeks, though the European qualifying teams are just entering the fray this week.

[ LIVE: Follow League Cup scores ]

That includes Europa League sides Arsenal and Leicester City, who will stage the lone all-PL scrap of the round come Wednesday at the King Power Stadium.

Tuesday was going to see Tottenham Hotspur visit a club sponsored by Spurs striker Harry Kane, but Leyton Orient is in the news after positive COVID-19 tests have threatened to forfeit Spurs into the next round.

VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Manchester United will hope to snap out of its season-opening funk when it begins its tourney Tuesday at Luton Town, while Chelsea hosts Barnsley on Wednesday.

Liverpool is off to Lincoln City on Thursday, kicking off its League Cup at the same time Manchester City welcomes Bournemouth.

Because of the aforementioned congested September in the tournament, the fourth round draw has already been held and those fixtures are at bottom of the page.


League Cup third round draw

All times ET

Tuesday
Leyton Orient v Tottenham Hotspur — Postponed
West Brom v Brentford — 2 pm
Newport County v Watford — 2pm
West Ham United v Hull City — 2:30 pm
Luton Town v Manchester United — 3:15 pm

Wednesday
Preston North End v Brighton — 2 pm
Millwall v Burnley — 2 pm
Fulham v Sheffield Wednesday — 2 pm
Stoke City v Gillingham — 2 pm
Chelsea v Barnsley — 2:45 pm
Leicester City v Arsenal — 2:45 pm
Fleetwood Town v Everton — 2:45 pm
Morecambe v Newcastle United — 2:45 pm

Thursday
Bristol City v Aston Villa — 2 pm
Lincoln City v Liverpool — 2:45 pm
Manchester City v Bournemouth — 2:45 pm


League Cup fourth round draw

Lincoln City/Liverpool v Leicester City/Arsenal
Millwall/Burnley v Manchester City/Bournemouth
West Brom/Brentford v Fulham/Sheffield Wednesday
Fleetwood Town/Everton v West Ham United/Hull City
Bristol City/Aston Villa v Stoke City/Gillingham
Leyton Orient/Tottenham v Chelsea/Barnsley
Newport County/Watford v Morecambe/Newcastle United
Preston North End/Brighton v Luton Town/Manchester United


How to watch League Cup third round streams and start time

Kickoff: Tuesday through Thursday
Online: Select games on ESPN+
Updates: Follow League Cup scores via NBCSports.com

Transfer news: Dembele to Man United; Sancho deal off

Dembele to Manchester United
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In the latest transfer news there is an Ousmane Dembele to Manchester United report, while Jadon Sancho to Manchester United is said to be off. Again.

[ MORE: How to watch PL in the USA ]  

Let’s dive into the latest transfer news from around the Premier League, with a big focus on the Red Devils as they try to add key pieces late in the window.

Ousmane Dembele to Manchester United a good alternative to Sancho?

According to the Daily Record, Ousmane Dembele to Manchester United could happen in the final weeks of the window. Ronald Koeman has said Dembele, 23, is one of many players who are surplus to requirements at Barcelona. Per the report, Man United want a season-long loan deal for Dembele while Barcelona want a loan with an obligation to buy clause. They value Dembele at $117 million.

Look, the best thing Barcelona can do here is loan Dembele out and hope he stays fit and has a fine season at Man United so they want to buy him, or another club will buy him, or he could even return to Barca rejuvenated and able to be a key figure in their attack. Dembele’s last few seasons have been ravaged by injury and it is clear that Antoine Griezmann, Lionel Messi and

For Man United, a loan move is a no-brainer. As they continue to chase Jadon Sancho but are more likely to make their move for the English winger next summer (more on that shortly), having a French international winger for a season to plug the gap is smart. If Dembele is up for the challenge of moving to Manchester United and rebuilding his career, he would provide plenty of competition to Mason Greenwood out wide and is a big upgrade on Jesse Lingard, Daniel James and Juan Mata as their other wide attackers.

Jadon Sancho to Manchester United off

It appears that Jadon Sancho to Manchester United will not happen unless the Red Devils panic massively in the latter stages of the transfer window and up their bid.

Sancho, 20, has been the top target for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but the England international hasn’t forced through a move from Borussia Dortmund and our colleagues at Sky Sports in the UK state the German club are ‘bemused’ by the way United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has approached the deal as they’ve failed to get anywhere near Sancho’s valuation.

Speaking to Sport 1, Borussia Dortmund director Sebastian Kehl had the following to say about Sancho’s situation.

“We agreed that we had to show a certain attitude. And €80m are simply not enough for such a player,” Kehl said. “We owed that to the club and the fans. I don’t want to give him up either. Without Jadon this team is worse.”

Kehl went on to admit that Sancho could leave one day but for now he’s happy at Dortmund and vice versa. Is that the end of the summer-long Sancho saga? If it wasn’t over, it pretty much is now.

There’s no doubt that Sancho will end up in the Premier League, and probably at Manchester United, in the future but this deal always seemed like a long-shot considering the current financial situation amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Man United need a new winger to strengthen their already stacked attack and Solskjaer is better off focusing on a short-term solution and then lining up the deal for Sancho to happen over the next few transfer windows.

That said, United’s inability to get deals over the line (Sergio Reguilon, Gareth Bale and Jadon Sancho to name just a few) is starting to wear thing on most of their fans and unless they secure wins galore early in the season, it could be a tough few months for Solskjaer and Co.