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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.

MLS: NYCFC beat TFC in new coach Torrent’s debut

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jo Inge Berget scored twice and coach Domenec Torrent celebrated his New York City FC debut with a 2-1 victory over Toronto FC on Sunday.

Berget made it 2-1 in the 68th minute, following Maximiliano Moralez’s direct pass up the right channel and slotting it home.

NYCFC (9-3-4) tied it at 1 in the 51st minute on Berget’s back heel from the top of the 6-yard box.

Víctor Vazquez opened the scoring for Toronto (4-8-3) in the 37th minute. Vasquez outran his defender on Auro’s long ball up the right side and sent a chip shot over the onrushing goalkeeper.

NYCFC’s David Villa left the game in the 28th minute with a non-contact injury.

Torrent replaced Patrick Vieira in New York shortly after Vieira’s departure for OGC Nice was officially confirmed. Torrent had been the right-hand man to Pep Guardiola for the last 11 years, most recently at Manchester City.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 11 — Time to settle Groups A & B

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Day 12 of the 2018 World Cup is up next, on Monday, and with it begins the final round of group games to decide the 16 teams headed to the knockout rounds. For the next four days, we’ll be treated to four games each day.

Also, the end of 8 a.m. ET kickoffs. Hooray for sleeping in.

[ SCENARIOS: Who needs what, to finish where, in final round of group games ]

First up, the conclusion of Group A, where both the hosts, Russia, and Uruguay have already advanced with wins in their first two games. Now, the two meet in the southwestern city of Samara to determine who’ll go through to the round of 16 as the group winners, and who’ll be the runners-up. Most likely awaiting either of them will be Spain and Portugal, pending the order in which they finish in Group B.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

Speaking of Group B, Spain will finish group play against fourth-place and points-less Morocco, while Portugal have a tricky meeting with third-place Iran, who sit just a point behind the reigning European champions. The winner of Group B will face the runners-up of Group A, and vice versa.

Below is Monday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

2018 World Cup schedule – Monday, June 25

Group A
Uruguay vs. Russia: Samara, 10 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Saudi Arabia vs. Egypt: Volgograd, 10 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group B
Spain vs. Morocco: Kaliningrad, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Iran vs. Portugal: Saransk, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Transfer rumor roundup: Emery raiding Sevilla; Wilshere’s suitor(s)

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Unai Emery has reportedly been in contact with at least one former player, Ever Banega, in an attempt to convince the Argentine midfielder to join him at Arsenal.

[ MORE: Latest transfer news

Banega, who’ll turn 30 on Friday, played two seasons under Emery at Sevilla — where they won back-to-back Europa League titles (Banega was only at the club for the second and third of three straight from 2013-2016).

With Banega reportedly on the fence about whether or not to leave Sevilla again — he only just returned last summer after one season at Inter Milan — Emery is said to have made a personal call after Arsenal’s bid of roughly $23 million triggered the release clause in Banega’s contract. Sevilla will join Arsenal in the Europa League next season after finishing seventh in La Liga.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Jack Wilshere announced last week that he will leave Arsenal this summer — thus opening up the handful of games for which he was healthy and fit to play each season, perhaps for Banega — which leads us nicely to the final bit of transfer talk for Sunday: West Ham are interested in the 26-year-old, but are reportedly only willing to offer him a one-year contract.

The Hammers’ hesitancy is, of course, a response to his years-long battle with injuries — he’s made just 66 appearances over the last four PL seasons (three with Arsenal, one on loan to Bournemouth).

Two other clubs to keep an eye on, as they’ve reportedly indicated interest in Wilshere and/or been in contact already: Everton and Juventus.

Durmaz condemns Sweden fans’ racist abuse after World Cup loss

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KRASNODAR, Russia (AP) — Sweden midfielder Jimmy Durmaz says the racist abuse aimed at him over social media following the 2-1 loss to Germany at the World Cup has been “completely unacceptable.”

[ SCENARIOS: Who needs what, to finish where, in final round of group games ]

After coming on as a substitute, Durmaz gave away the free kick that led to Toni Kroos curling in an injury-time winner in Saturday’s group game. Durmaz has since been subjected to online abuse, including threats to his family.

Before a training session on Sunday, Durmaz — standing in front of the rest of the Sweden squad and beside coach Janne Andersson — read out a statement to the media from a mobile phone.

“When you threaten me, when you call me ‘Arab devil,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘Taliban,’ then you have gone far beyond the limit,” Durmaz said in the statement, which was published on the Swedish Football Association’s website.

“And even worse, when you go after my family, my children, threaten them. Who does such a thing? It is completely unacceptable.”

Durmaz was born in Sweden to Assyrian parents who emigrated from Turkey.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

“I am Swedish and I am proud to play in the Swedish national team. That’s the biggest thing you can do as a football player,” he said in the statement. “I will never let any racists destroy that pride. We must all stand against all forms of racism.”

The Swedish FA has reported the abuse toward Durmaz to police.

“We do not tolerate a player being exposed to threats and violations,” said Hakan Sjostrand, secretary general of the Swedish FA. “It is unpleasant and very upsetting to see the treatment that Jimmy Durmaz has suffered. Completely unacceptable.”

The loss to Germany left Sweden tied on three points with its opponent. Both countries are three points behind Mexico with one game left. Sweden plays Mexico in Yekaterinburg on Wednesday, with Germany taking on South Korea at the same time.