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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.

Willian confirms exit, thanks Chelsea fans ahead of rumored Arsenal move

Willian leaves Chelsea
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Willian’s new home may be less than eight miles from his old one; The Brazilian mega talent may not even need a new flat, but he’s definitely leaving Chelsea.

Arsenal is reportedly on the verge of seal the deal to bring Willian to the Emirates Stadium and the player announced his departure on his 32nd birthday.

The announcement comes one day after Chelsea’s confirmed exit from the UEFA Champions League, the Blues unable to overcome a mega deficit to Bayern Munich.

[ MORE: Premier League announces VAR, subs rules ]

“I am really grateful to the Chelsea fans for the affectionate way they welcomed me at Stamford Bridge and their support throughout my time at the club,” he wrote. “There was also criticism, which is normal, what is important though is that both the affection and criticism drove me to always give my all in every training session, every game, to be constantly improving until my very last minute in a Chelsea shirt!”

Twice-named Chelsea’s Players’ Player of the Year, Willian leaves West London with two Premier League titles, two FA Cups, a Europa League triumph, and a League Cup.

Willian has nine goals in 69 caps for Brazil, where the 32-year-old has become more of a super sub for the FIFA’s No. 3 ranked Selecao.

Arsenal’s young talent will learn plenty from Willian should the elderstatesman arrive to tutor the likes of Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, Eddie Nketiah, and — to a certain extent — raw-but-real talent Nicolas Pepe, who is 25.

As for Chelsea, the club is content with Christian Pulisic, Hakim Ziyech, Mason Mount, and Callum Hudson-Odoi on the wings. Even if 2-3 of them underperform, the Blues have Timo Werner as a capable winger despite his status as a monster in the middle of a trident.

Frank Lampard’s going to enjoy his 2020-21, even though he’d clearly have enjoyed another year or two with Willian.

Bournemouth appoints Jason Tindall as Eddie Howe replacement

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There were questions as to how Bournemouth would address finding a replacement forr an institution after Eddie Howe left the club following the Cherries’ relegation from the Premier League.

Would Bournemouth go outside the box like they did with Howe the first time, hiring the 31-year-old following a stint as a player-coach and then youth coach at the club? Would they opt for a manager who’s led a club to Premier League promotion after relegation again? Or might it not be a big departure from the norm at all.

Meet the new boss. Familiar with the old boss.

[ MORE: Premier League announces VAR, subs rules ]

Bournemouth named Howe’s longtime No. 2, Alex Tindall, to lead the Cherries’ first ever bid to return to the Premier League following relegation.

Tindall is 14 days older than Howe and has assisted his former Bournemouth teammate since 2008: twice with the club and also during Howe’s year at Burnley.

:Given the success of the club over the last 12 years, with Eddie in charge and me by his side, I’m not going to come in and rip everything up and start again,” Howe said. “I would be a fool to do that. But I’m my own person with my own ideas and I will be looking to implement them as soon as we get back on the training ground.

“I know the Championship is a very tough league but my aim is to get this club back into the Premier League at the first time of asking. This is a challenge that I feel I’m ready for and one I’m looking forward to.”

This is intriguing and exciting for a club like Bournemouth, still steeping its top-level tradition after an impressive five Premier League seasons including a finish as high as ninth.

What will be most interesting is to see if Tindall can have more success arranging the defense. A former striker, Tindall takes the reins of a club which allowed 67, 67, 61, 70, and 65 goals in their five PL seasons. The club was a bit unlucky this year, scoring just 40 and underperforming expected goals scored and conceded.

Champions League, Europa League: How to watch, odds, start time, predictions

Champions League odds
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The UEFA Champions League and Europa League action has resumed and I’m going to reveal my predictions for this next round as well as the latest odds for Europe’s top two continental tournaments.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

With Manchester City still in the Champions League and Manchester United and Wolves among the favorites to win the Europa League, there is a lot on the line for Premier League clubs in the coming weeks.

Just because the Premier League season is over, that doesn’t mean the action is over. Far from it. Both Manchester clubs are the bookmakers favorites to seal their respective European glory.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

In the next few days the Europa League and Champions League quarterfinals will take place as the mini tournaments begin.

Man City beat Real Madrid 4-2 on aggregate, while Chelsea lost Bayern 7-1 on aggregate as they crashed out of the Champions League. Man United and Wolves are both in the quarterfinals and favored to go far.

Lisbon, Portugal will host the Champions League games from the quarterfinal stage onwards, while the Europa League games will be hosted around Germany.

Below is a look at my predictions, the odds for the games this week and how to watch and follow all of the fixtures in the USA.

How to watch, stream Champions League and Europa League

Dates: August 5-23
Location: Quarterfinals onwards in Lisbon/Germany
How to watch: CBS Sports
Live updates: UCL here at NBCSports.com & Europa League here at NBCSports.com

JPW’s Champions League predictions

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)
Wednesday, August 12: Atalanta 2-3 PSG
Thursday, August 13: RB Leipzig 1-2 Atletico Madrid
Friday, August 14: Barcelona 1-3 Bayern Munich
Saturday, August 15: Manchester City 3-1 Lyon

JPW’s Europa League predictions

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
Monday, August 10: Inter Milan 2-1 Bayer Leverkusen
Monday, August 10: Manchester United 3-1 Copenhagen
Tuesday, August 11: Wolves 1-2 Sevilla
Tuesday, August 11: Shakhtar Donetsk 1-2 Basel

Champions League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)

(+210) Atalanta v. PSG (+117). Tie: +275
(+225) RB Leipzig v. Atletico Madrid (+135). Tie: +220
(+235) Barcelona v. Bayern Munich (+115). Tie: +255
(-305) Manchester City v. Lyon (+750). Tie: +450

Outright winner
Manchester City (+220)
Bayern Munich (+325)
Paris Saint-Germain (+500)
Atletico Madrid (+800)
Barcelona (+800)
Atalanta (+1000)
RB Leipzig (+1700)
Lyon (+3500)

Europa League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
(+112) Inter Milan v. Bayer Leverkusen (+240). Tie: +250
(-385) Manchester United v. Copenhagen (+1000). Tie: +480
(+235) Wolves v. Sevilla (+120). Tie: +230
(-106) Shakhtar Donetsk v. Basel (+290). Tie: +255

Outright winner
Manchester United (+180)
Inter Milan (+325)
Sevilla (+500)
Bayer Leverkusen (+650)
Wolves (+700)
Shakhtar Donetsk (+1100)
Basel (+2500)
Copenhagen (+6000)

Barcelona reach 13th straight Champions League quarterfinal

Barcelona - Napoli
Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images
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Barcelona – Napoli saw Lionel Messi and Co., book the eighth and final place in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals, by way of a 3-1 victory on the night (4-2 on aggregate) on Saturday.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

It was, as it so often tends to be, Messi who shone brightest and stole the spotlight en route to Barca’s 13th straight Champions League quarterfinal appearance.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

Barca entered Saturday with the slimmest of advantages, knowing that a scoreless draw would see them through to the quarterfinals after grabbing a vital away goal in the first goal. Lyon knew that no matter what, they needed to score at least once or they would be out. That threat was reinforced, and strengthened, when Clement Lenglet headed the Blaugrana ahead in the 10th minute.

Messi slipped, Messi got back up, Messi slipped again, Messi got back up again, Messi rifled the ball inside the far post to score a(nother) fantastic solo goal and make it 2-0 (3-1) in the 23rd minute. It was only slightly more complicated than that for him (WATCH HERE). Messi put the ball in the back of the net again just a few minutes later, but the goal was taken off the board by way of a somewhat suspect handball decision upon video review.

Nonethless, that was just about that after Luis Suarez converted from the penalty spot early in first-half stoppage time. Messi won the penalty by sneaking around Kalidou Koulibaly and winning the ball in the blink of an eye, forcing the Senegalese center back to foul him on the edge of the box lest Messi walk in on goal for a virtual tap-in.

Lorenzo Insigne converted a penalty kick of his own a couple minutes later before the interval, but the threat level never peaked higher than a 2-out-of-10 for Barca.

Barca will face Bayern Munichin a sensationally mouth-watering, single-leg quarterfinal matchup next Friday.