Maurizio Degl'Innocenti/ANSA via AP

UEFA World Cup qualifying playoff preview

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Eight teams remain for four spots in Russia.

[ MORE: MLS Conference Finalists cheat sheet ]

There are some big names in the bunch, including multiple World Cup winners like Italy.

And five of the eight teams advanced from their groups at EURO 2016, including quarterfinalist Italy.

Italy is also one of four playoff teams who went to the 2014 World Cup. Not all will go back, with Greece facing Croatia in one of the playoff ties.

Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland
First leg – Thursday in Belfast
Second leg – Sunday in Basel

The Swiss were incredibly unfortunate, going 9-1 just like group-winning Portugal but failing to advance on goal differential.

The plucky Northern Irish proved their EURO run was no fluke when they advanced fairly comfortably over third place Czech Republic.

Switzerland will be favored to advance behind its terrific midfield, with Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri, Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka, and the Montreal Impact’s Blerim Dzemaili in the mix.

Northern Ireland will line up in from of EURO hero Michael McGovern, who starred in helping the Green and White Army stymy several foes in 2016.

Croatia vs. Greece
First leg – Thursday in Zagreb
Second leg – Sunday in Piraeus

Croatia comes out of a wildly competitive Group I, two points behind Iceland and three points ahead of Ukraine.

Greece needed the final day to edge past Bosnia and Herzegovina after finishing miles behind Belgium.

Croatia is loaded in attack and style, but Greece has traditionally been a squad full of tactically-efficient defenders.

Denmark vs. Republic of Ireland
First leg – Saturday in Copenhagen
Second leg – Tuesday in Dublin

The Danes finished five points back of Poland and four ahead of Montenegro in Group E.

Ireland edged Wales for second place in Group D.

Expect this pairing to be as plucky as any of the four ties, with Martin O’Neill’s Irish prepared to make life very difficult for unbeaten-since-Oct. 2016 Denmark.

Sweden vs. Italy
First leg – Friday in Solna
Second leg – Monday in Milan

The Italians lost the Group G lottery, which was always going to come down to the pair of matches between Italy and Spain.

Sweden advanced past Netherlands on goal differential for second in Group A, finishing four points behind France.

Since 1934, Italy has failed to qualify for a World Cup exactly once (1958). Sweden didn’t make it to the last two tournaments despite a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic. There would be a certain ridiculousness to the Swedes making it happen without one of their all-time heroes.

Mohamed Salah starts for Egypt despite int’l retirement talks

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Mohamed Salah is coming off of his best season as a professional, but reports suggest that his time with the Egyptian national team could soon be coming to an end for reasons that extend beyond soccer.

Salah will however be included in Egypt’s Group A finale against Saudi Arabia on Monday, though, after the team sheet was revealed by the Pharaohs ahead of the match.

CNN reported over the weekend that Salah believes he is being used by Egypt as a political symbol to represent Chechnya, which has sparked talks of the talented Liverpool winger ending his international career.

Egypt has already been eliminated from reaching the Round of 16 after losing its first two matches at the World Cup.

The tides have turned significantly for Toronto FC

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2017 gave Toronto FC its first MLS Cup, as well as significant notoriety for the club’s historic season, but Greg Vanney and his side are in a world of trouble in 2018 for reasons that are still unfathomable.

[ MORE: NYCFC tops TFC in come-from-behind victory ]

A deep run in the CONCACAF Champions League (which ended in heartbeat at the hands of Chivas) and a number of injuries have plagued Toronto this season, and for that, the defending champions find themselves in unchartered MLS waters.

Over the course of Major League Soccer’s 22 previous seasons, only three defending champions have gone on to miss the playoffs the next year (D.C. United in 2000, LA Galaxy in 2006 & Portland Timbers in 2016).

So, how poor has TFC been through nearly half the season?

The Canadian side has acquired 15 points in as many matches, which puts the club on pace to finish with 34 points in 2018.

That total would leave TFC well below the average points needed for a club to get into the playoffs. It varies on a year-to-year basis, but teams typically need somewhere in the range of 45 to 50 points to finish above the red line in their respective conferences.

Last season, three teams in MLS finished with less than 34 points (D.C. United, LA Galaxy & Colorado Rapids), and none of the clubs finished within striking distance of the postseason.

While Toronto wouldn’t be the first team to show signs of struggles in the first half of the season and then proceed to turn things around over the second portion, there are definite concerns for Vanney and Co.

In 2018, the Reds haven’t earned back-to-back victories in MLS play, leaving the club in 10th place in the Eastern Conference.

The talent within the squad remains there, and if TFC gets the rest of its squad healthy there could be a run made by the team, but as things stand, the club’s historic run a season ago looks to be crumbling in 2018.

Gressel ties it in Atlanta United’s 1-1 draw with Timbers

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ATLANTA (AP) Julian Gressel tied it in the 56th minute and Atlanta United held on for a 1-1 draw with the Portland Timbers on Sunday.

A loose ball deflection off defender Larrys Mabiala bounced into Gressel’s path and he pounced on it with a right-footed volley. Atlanta (10-3-4) stayed atop the MLS standings and extended its unbeaten streak to five games.

Mabiala opened the scoring in the 32nd minute. Samuel Armenteros was the first to get a touch with a left-footed stab on Diego Valeri’s free kick. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan blocked it out, but Mabiala headed home the rebound and Portland took the early lead.

The Timbers (6-3-5) extended their unbeaten run to nine.

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.