Tracking MLS Coach of the Year race: Jason Kreis, Caleb Porter and Oscar Pareja will make this a tough, tough call

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Neither Portland nor Colorado were seen in the MLS playoffs last year. Real Salt Lake was, but all would be forgiven if the Utah club slipped this year, given the roster makeover and the heavy leaning on so many kickers around Rio Tinto yet to reach their 21st birthday.

And yet, those three clubs also happen to occupy the Western Conference’s top three spots at the moment. Whether they keep their spots in the deliciously tight race, all three managers have already had outstanding 2013 campaigns.

It will be very difficult to separate these three … especially since someone like Philadelphia’s John Hackworth could make a late run and have something to say about all this before it’s over.

1. Portland’s Caleb Porter

It’s not just the way Porter has remade the team’s style into something far more watchable in 2013. And it’s not just the way Portland’s first-year manager has turned the Timbers’ win-loss ledger on its ears.

It’s also that Porter (pictured) was pretty much the architect of a roster spruce-up around Jeld-Wen Field. So, positioning his team thusly (most likely as a playoff team, still in reach for Supporters Shield) says good things about one of the best young minds in American soccer coaching.

He’s already gone a long way to making people forget about the 2012 U.S. Olympic fiasco. Porter himself says he learned lessons from all that; it’s really showing now.

2. Colorado’s Oscar Pareja

Forget about how a team that failed to make the playoffs in 2012 has positioned itself for a possible Western Conference crown, already having swiped the treasured Rocky Mountain Cup from Real Salt Lake and still in position to yank Supporters Shield positioning from its Mountain Time Zone rivals, too.

Let’s talk about that jaw-dropping litany of injuries around DSG Park earlier this year; literally half the projected starters were out for extended time, and yet Pareja and his men held things together, rallying to produce points steadily in the summer once young reinforcements had steadied themselves.

And the team is so frightfully young. Goalkeeper Clint Irwin, midfielder Dillon Powers and forward Deshorn Brown are all Rookie of the Year candidates. Defenders Chris Klute and Shane O’Neill would be, too, but each played one game in 2012.

3. Real Salt Lake’s Jason Kreis

What’s the deal with all the young guys in the mountain region? Because like Colorado, Kreis has a bunch of good ones at Real Salt Lake.

The club knew lumps were on the way after moving three respected, well-liked veterans and their salaries in the off-season. But in all honesty, the knocks just never arrived in force. While trusted types like Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando and others held their level, Kries helped other veterans, like Ned Grabavoy, find the next level.

But the real achievement was in shepherding the young likes of Olmes Garcia, Luis Gil, Joao Plata, Yordany Alvarez, Sebastian Velasquez and Devon Sandoval, who found their feet quickly as regular, contributing parts around Rio Tinto.

(MORE: Tracking MLS MVP race, from last week’s posts)

(MORE: Tracking MLS Rookie of the Year, from last week’s posts)

Europa League Preview: Everton, Milan look to make group stage

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Everton look to make it back into the Europa League group stage for the first time since the 2014-2015 season and it has a two-goal advantage heading into the second leg of its tie.

Ronald Koeman and co. travel to Croatia to face Hadjuk Split Thursday having won the first leg at Goodison Park, 2-0. Everton is coming off a hard-fought draw on Monday with Manchester City and will be on short rest heading into the match.

Elsewhere in Europa League action, AC Milan take its 6-0 aggregate lead to Skopje, Macedonia as the legendary club looks to return to the group stage of a European competition for the first time since 2013-2014.

Here’s a look at all of Thursday’s Europa League matches, with the current aggregate scores:

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EFL Cup Rewind: Southampton, Newcastle knocked out by Championship sides

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Last season, Southampton made it to the EFL Cup final. This year, it’s a different story.

The Saints were bounced by Wolverhampton Wanderers, 2-0 at home on Wednesday in the second round of the cup. Joining Southampton of Premier League sides going home early was Newcastle, which lost 3-2 after extra time at home against Nottingham Forest.

Four other Premier League sides did advance to the third round, as Stoke City, Huddersfield Town, West Ham United and Burnley all won their fixtures.

Here’s a look at the rest of Wednesday’s EFL Cup action:

Blackburn 0-2 Burnley

Cheltenham 0-2 West Ham

Huddersfield 2-1 Rotherham

Newcastle 2-3 Nottingham Forest

Southampton 0-2 Wolverhampton

Stoke City 4-0 Rochdale

Breaking down who each Premier League team could face in the UCL Group Stage

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The UEFA Champions League group stage lineup is complete, with five Premier League clubs making the list.

On Wednesday, Liverpool joined Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City and Manchester United in the group stage after beating Hoffenheim, 6-3 on aggregate in the playoff qualification round.

Thursday’s Champions League draw (2 p.m. ET) will place clubs into groups of four, where they’ll play three matches at home and away.

Here’s a look at the four coefficient pots and who each Premier League club could face:

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Follow Live – Texas Derby, Cascadia Cup headline busy night of MLS action

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Welcome to MLS Rivalry Week.

The surging Houston Dynamo could move to first place in the Western Conference with a win over rivals FC Dallas while the current first-place side, the Seattle Sounders travel north and across the border to face Vancouver Whitecaps FC.

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The Dynamo have made an impressive turnaround under coach Wilmer Cabrera and he’ll have the trio of Ricardo Clark, Alberth Elis and star forward Erick Torres available to face Dallas after missing the Dynamo’s match at Vancouver last weekend, which ended 2-1 in favor of the Whitecaps.

FC Dallas are in its worst form of the season, winless in its last four games, but the team will be extra motivated to beat its rivals.

El Capitan is on the line after draws between FC Dallas and the Dynamo in two matches earlier this season.

Meanwhile up in Vancouver, the Whitecaps host a Sounders squad that pulled out a last-gasp victory last weekend over Minnesota United. While the team is in great form on the road recently (two wins and two draws), the top story heading into the game is the unexpected absence of Joevin Jones, who left the Sounders for his home in Trinidad and Tobago ahead of the upcoming international break.

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On the other side, Fredy Montero faces his former club and carries an interesting record into Wednesday’s match. Of his 35 MLS goals, 11 have been scored against Cascadia Cup competition.

Here’s a look at Wednesday’s action:

Full schedule

Columbus Crew vs. LA Galaxy – 7:30 p.m. ET

D.C. United vs. Atlanta United – 7:30 p.m.ET

FC Dallas vs. Houston Dynamo – 8 p.m. ET

Toronto FC vs. Philadelphia Union – 8 p.m. ET

Real Salt Lake vs. San Jose Earthquakes – 10 p.m. ET

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Seattle Sounders – 10 p.m. ET

Portland Timbers vs. Colorado Rapids – 10:30 p.m. ET