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MLS Conference Finals: Toronto, Seattle on collision course?

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The ties are leaning away from the underdog stories as the MLS Cup Conference Finals reach their second legs.

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Reigning champs Seattle are 90 minutes away from a return to the final after scoring a pair of away goals in Texas, while Toronto needs a win at home to bring out the fine china for a rematch of the 2016 title game at BMO Field.

Toronto FC vs. Columbus Crew — 7:30 p.m. ET Wednesday
Scoreless after one leg

The good news for Columbus Crew is that a scoring draw is good enough to take them through to a second MLS Cup Final in three seasons under Gregg Berhalter, taking the embarrassment of owner Anthony Precourt’s public desire to relocate an MLS original club to Austin, Texas.

The bad news? That scoring draw has to come at noisy BMO Field against the team with the best record in MLS history, a Toronto FC bunch which will be welcoming Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco back to the fold after suspension.

Columbus has veteran savvy and some wild cards like Pedro Santos, but it’s going to take a lot of defending to handle TFC’s field-switching work and busy full backs (let alone Altidore and Giovinco).

Seattle Sounders vs. Houston Dynamo — 10:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Seattle leads 2-0

Clint Dempsey is among the most important and accomplished players in American history, and his work since returning to Major League Soccer certainly ticks a lot of boxes: influential, clutch, prolific.

He’s helped the Sounders to an almost insurmountable advantage. At home for the second leg, the Sounders can make Houston’s task near impossible just by scoring a goal.

That said, Wilmer Cabrera is a heck of a coach and has assets that can attack and fire at will. While it may be improbable for Alberth Elis and Erick Torres to spring a massive comeback in Washington, it’s not quite impossible. That’s about as much as we can give the orange-clad men from Texas.

La Liga roundup: Nacho header powers Real Madrid to top of table (video)

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Real Madrid’s close win at the Estadio Jose Zorilla to go atop of Spain’s top-flight highlights La Liga’s Sunday action.

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Real Valladolid 0-1 Real Madrid

Real Madrid is three points clear at the top of La Liga after Nacho Fernandez’s header in the 78th minute against Real Valladolid on Sunday.

With defending champions Barcelona dropping three, crucial points against Valencia on Saturday, Zinedine Zidane and company take a giant leap in the tight title race. Los Blancos’ 46 points are the most within La Liga with less than a half a season to go.

But even then, the French manager was reluctant to accept that his team did enough against Valladolid to claim league triumph.

“For us, nothing changes,” Zidane said. “We are happy with the victory, the work done having fought until the end, but nothing changes. There are 17 games left and we will continue fighting until the end.

“I don’t want to talk about being champions because there is still a lot left to play. It changes nothing to be leaders, they are three important points but nothing more.

“There are a lot of league games left and it will be difficult for all teams, including us.”

Madrid’s defense shined all 90 minutes, denying the hosts from registering a shot on target and producing the match-winning goal via Nacho.

“Defensively, what we are doing, we are doing well. It is our strength,” Zidane also told reporters. “We defend all and when we lose the ball we recover it very high, and if we keep it we have a good chance of scoring.”

“Nacho scored and that is part of football. We know that we can improve in this aspect,” he added. “Nacho is a professional. When he has to compete he does well. I’m glad for his goal; he doesn’t usually score them but from time-to-time we can also create chances for defenders.”

Debuting for Madrid in 2011, Nacho has made 133 appearances and scored seven goals. His goal on Sunday perhaps the most important, earning his team what is arguably their most crucial league win this season.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Atletico Madrid 0-0 Leganes

Celta Vigo 0-0 Eibar

Getafe 1-0 Real Betis

Real Sociedad 3-0 Mallorca

Report: New York Red Bulls reject West Ham bid for Aaron Long

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The New York Red Bulls have rejected an offer from West Ham for defender Aaron Long, according to Sky Sports.

The Hammers’ offer for the 27-year-old former MLS Defender of the Year was $500,000 for a season-long loan with a $4.5 million option to buy in the summer.

Last summer, Long, who has a $4 million release clause was on the verge of joining the London-based side, but was unable to secure a work permit.

“As our biggest ally, it seems strange that a football player from the US can’t automatically get a work visa to play in England,” the defender said last summer, amid a move to England. “Every kid in the USA dreams of playing in the English Premier League. Not many players get the chance, so of course I would like to play there someday.”

West Ham, who haven’t won in three Premier League matches, stand 17th on the table with 23 points.

Neymar pays tribute to Kobe Bryant (video)

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Neymar dedicated his second goal to Kobe Bryant, who, along with eight others, tragically passed away on Sunday.

The Brazilian star approached a sideline camera after his second goal of the night, gesturing the numbers two and four with his fingers, a number worn by Bryant during his time with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Following the game, Neymar paid additional respect to Bryant via Twitter.

It reads in English: “Sad day for us in sports, for us fans and especially for Kobe’s family and friends. A legend has been made with your hands, thank you for extolling the Kobe sport … may God comfort the hearts of your family and friends”

Bryant, 41, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and six others, died in the helicopter accident on Sunday morning in Southern California.

A basketball legend and soccer fan, others within the sport paid tribute to Bryant:

Klopp admits Liverpool youngsters will feature in Shrewsbury replay

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In proper FA Cup fashion, League One side Shrewsbury Town pulled off a late draw against Liverpool, forcing a replay at Anfield.

[ RECAP: Shrewsbury forces FA Cup replay with Liverpool ]

The replay, which is set to take place during the Premier League’s winter break, is going to be a problem for Liverpool, according to manager Jurgen Klopp. First-team players have been granted the time off, forcing Klopp and company to play the “kids” for the upcoming replay of the fourth-round bout.

“We intend to honor the original idea of the break,” the Liverpool manager said on Sunday. “We have respect for the players’ welfare and they need this time off.”

“We got a letter from the authorities in April last year asking us not to organize anything during the week of the break and we haven’t,” he added. “We have given the players the time off, and some are going away. They will still be keeping fit, but they do not have to play football that week and they do not have to come in to Melwood.”

Jason Cummings’ right-footed strike in the 75th minute nulled Liverpool’s two-goal advantage early in the second half. The German also admitted that there was no reason for a replay on Tuesday 4 February or Wednesday 5 February.

“We lost the ball in the wrong moments and we never got used to the pitch,” he said. “We conceded the penalty after losing the ball and when they scored their second goal it was after we had lost two challenges in a row. We didn’t play well enough to take anything from the game, we got what we deserved. I would like to give Shrewsbury credit for their performance and the atmosphere their supporters produced. I enjoyed the atmosphere around the cup tie, I just didn’t enjoy the way we played.”