Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring their third goal against Paraguay in a 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Cordoba

Lionel Messi plans return from injury in January, could this layoff aid Argentina?

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As he picked up his Golden Boot award for scoring the highest number of goals, for the third time in the last four years, in European club soccer on Tuesday, FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi gave some indication as to how his thigh injury is healing.

The Argentinian ace expects to return in January.

Persistent thigh and hamstring injuries have plagued the 26-year-old over the last six months and this lengthy lay off may be exactly what he needs to finally eradicate the long-term issues.

Saying that, Messi is etching to make his return. Will it be on January 5 when Barca play Elche after the winter break in Spain’s La Liga?

“I hope so,” Messi said. “The truth is I have not put a date on the return. If all goes well it will be that date, but we will see what happens. I will be back when it is supposed to happen.”

Throughout his recovery, all eyes will be on Barcelona to see how they cope without their talisman. They’ll probably continue to win with ease in Europe and in the league as Messi returns home to his native land of Argentina to fully rest and recuperate.

“My objective is to return in good shape, to strengthen the body so that, God willing, I can play without injuries,” Messi said. “I am improving bit by bit — it does not hurt any more. I am starting to do things.”

And we all know that when he is fully fit, nobody can get near the pint-sized genius.

(MORE: 31 down; one to go – Updated list of countries qualified for FIFA 2014 World Cup in Brazil)

Something struck me about this lengthy lay-off, Messi has never really had this much time off in his eight-year career so far. It’s a blessing in disguise… for Argentina at least.

source: Getty Images
Messi has scored 37 goals in 83 games for Argentina. Although that’s impressive, it’s nowhere near his sensational form for Barcelona.

Heading into World Cup 2014 in Brazil, La Albiceleste are aiming for a vast improvement on recent World Cup performances. Since 1990, over 23 years ago, they haven’t made it past the quarter final stage. For a side that has won the World Cup in 1978 and 1986, Argentina have underachieved massively in recent years.

Messi’s performances in the famous blue and white stripes haven’t been anywhere near the regular masterclasses he churns out for Barcelona. A rest and some much needed down time will recharge his batteries and let him regain his form and fitness to reach his peak just before the World Cup rolls around. That’s ominous for the rest of the teams at the tournament as Brazil’s fiercest rivals completely dominated South American qualifying for the 2104 tournament, finishing top of CONMEBOL with ease.

A resurgent, fresh and hungry Messi captaining Argentina can only be a good thing. One other thing, every time a World Cup has taken place in South America or Mexico, a side from South America has won the tournament.

Uruguay lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in 1930 when it was hold in their homeland and they won it again in 1950 when it was held in Brazil. In 1962 Brazil won the famous trophy when Chile hosted the showpiece event and they won it again in 1970 when Mexico was the host. The Argentina won the trophy in 1978 in Argentina and again in Mexico in 1986.

All signs point towards a South American side winning the World Cup this summer. Messi’s rest over the winter means he will recharged and ready to lead Argentina’s charge for their third World Cup trophy.

Report: In-demand Man United starlet Rashford to sign long-term contract

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - MAY 27: Marcus Rashford of England gestures to a team mate during the International Friendly match between England and Australia at Stadium of Light on May 27, 2016 in Sunderland, England. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)
Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
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Understatement of the year alert: It’s not a bad time to be Marcus Rashford, right now.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage | EURO 2016 ]

From his breakout season at Manchester United, to winning the FA Cup, to making and scoring three minutes into his England debut, and now on the brink of being chosen to represent his country at next month’s European Championship in France (manager Roy Hodgson will announce his final 23-man squad on Tuesday), the first five months of 2016 have treated the 18-year-old pretty well.

Now, with just one year remaining on his current Man United contract, Rashford is set to capitalize on all of his successes and become a very, very rich boy. According to reports out of the UK, United have already offered the Manchester-born and -bred striker a long-term contract extension worth nearly $30,000 per week.

[ MORE: Rashford, Rooney propel England to victory over Australia ]

After scoring eight goals in 18 appearances (all competitions), including five in the Premier League, for United this season, 19 other top-division clubs would have knocked the door down to snatch Rashford up at the expiration of his current contract.

Also reportedly in line for a new deal — though surely nowhere near the size of that of Rashford — is 19-year-old defender Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, who made 14 appearances for United this season, including 10 in the PL. Like Rashford, his current contract is set to expire at the end of the 2016-17 season.

MLS Snapshot: New York City FC 2-2 Orlando City SC (video)

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 15:  David Villa #7 of New York City FC tries to keep the ball as Scott Caldwell #6 of New England Revolution defends during the inaugural game of the New York City FC at Yankee Stadium on March 15, 2015 in the Bronx borough of New York City.The New York City FC defeated the New England Revolution 2-0.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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The game in 100 words (or less): “It’s not how many times you get knocked down; it’s how many times you get back up.” If that is indeed the way the world works, New York City FC will be given every opportunity to prove themselves again and again and again. When they’re not losing 7-0 to their rivals, they’re blowing two-goal leads (and the simplest of chances to go 3-0 up — check out the videos below for more on that) inside the final 20 minutes at home a week later. Orlando City SC have made a habit of scoring stoppage-time goals this season (Sunday’s 94th-minute equalizer in the Bronx was their fifth), so you’ll have to excuse all of us who wholeheartedly expected NYCFC to snatch this 2-2 draw from the jaws of victory. With the draw, NYCFC remain fourth in the Eastern Conference, a point back of the New York Red Bulls and Montreal Impact for second and third, while Orlando City inch to level on points with sixth-place Toronto FC.

[ MORE: USMNT 4-0 Bolivia | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

42′ — Brilliant heads home not long before halftime — Everything seemed fine for NYCFC

66′ — Pirlo’s beautiful ball sets Villa up for 2-0 — Class. Pure class from everyone involved. Everything is fine.

70′ — Villa sends his PK effort sky high — What more can you say? Everything is still probably fine.

72′ — Baptista fires low to make it 2-1 — Villa left the door wide open, and Julio Baptista was quick to walk right through two minutes later. Everything is less fine.

90+4′ — Molino heads home with no time left — As soon as Villa missed the penalty, it was always going to end like this. Nothing is fine.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: David Villa (for a variety of reasons)

Goalscorers: Brilliant (42′), Villa (66′), Baptista (72′), Molino (90+4′)

Klinsmann excited about USMNT’s promising youngsters ahead of Copa America

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 29:  Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann of the United States Men's National Team watches his team play against Guatemala during the FIFA 2018  World Cup qualifier on March 29, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. The United States defeated Guatemala 4-0.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The U.S. national team’s last 135 minutes of game time — the final 45 minutes of a 1-0 victory over Ecuador, followed by Saturday’s 4-0 dismantling of Bolivia here at Children’s Mercy Park — have supporters across the country harboring unfamiliar feelings these days: cautious optimism ahead of this week’s 2016 Copa America Centenario.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

It’s the best three-half stretch Jurgen Klinsmann’s side has enjoyed (against top-80 opposition, according FIFA world rankings) since … well, come to think of it, I’m not really sure when. In the last 24 months, the Yanks have lost away to Guatemala, drawn away to Trinidad & Tobago, lost the CONCACAF Cup to Mexico on home soil, finished fourth at the Gold Cup on home soil, and wrapped up 2014 with just one win in their last eight games of the calendar year, including three of four World Cup fixtures.

(When you write it all out like that, it sounds really bad. It’s been really bad.)

Yet, here stands the USMNT, five days from kicking off the centennial edition of Copa America, and a few pieces are beginning to fall into place for Klinsmann and Co. I waxed poetically about Saturday’s victory and all the positives it highlighted.

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

Listening to Klinsmann and a handful of players speak after the game, there was a similar sense of confidence among the men on the field that a workable, sustainable formula had indeed been realized.

“The atmosphere is really good,” the 1990 World Cup-winning German said. “Fine-tuning elements, every training session helps you. I think no team will come into Copa America 100 percent or perfectly prepared. … It’s a bit tricky.”

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are USMNT’s chances? ]

Perhaps no player on the USMNT’s Copa America roster has come further under Klinsmann’s tutelage, and in such a short period of time, than striker Bobby Wood, who has scored all five of his international goals inside the last five months and on Saturday assisted on Gyasi Zardes’s strike for a 3-0 lead with a quality cut-back cross from the end line — Wood, speaking after the game:

“I think as a team, we’re pretty confident,” Wood said. “We wanted to continue growing as a team with each game before the tournament. With these results, I think we did a good job to be confident going into the Colombia game. … I actually think two games ago, we were still pretty confident. Maybe the outside is putting pressure on us, but as a team inside the locker room, we’re pretty confident to do well. I think everyone is pretty hungry for Copa to start.”

It’s the USMNT’s current crop of youngsters like Wood, the 23-year-old now-Hamburg man, that gives American fans hope beyond Copa America with an eye toward the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The average age of the scorers of the USMNT’s last eight goals: 23 years old. No one is more excited by that progression than Klinsmann, who raved about Christian Pulisic after the 17-year-old became the youngest goalscorer in USMNT history on Saturday.

[ MORE: USA 4-0 Bolivia | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

“What is wonderful to see is the growth of [the young] players over these last one or two years — how they improved their game, how they’re becoming more adult[-like], obviously stronger physically, but also becoming more confident,” he said of players like Wood, Zardes, DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks, among others. “This is a process. The process is never-ending, but the first couple of years when you grow, it’s a big learning curve. How far this process takes us into Copa America, we’ll take it one step at a time. We put the pieces together the best way that we get the right results.

“I think over the next couple of weeks, they will definitely get their opportunities to play minutes, leave an impression, and to push more and more the established players toward the edge, which is their job. It will be a very intense and interesting next couple of weeks.”

Latest: Police, military form search party for kidnapped El Tri striker

HYERES, FRANCE - JUNE 01:  Alan Pulido (no.19) of Mexico celebrates his goal during the Toulon Tournament Final between  Mexico and Turkey at Stade Perruc on June 1, 2012 in Hyeres, France.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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CIUDAD VICTORIA, Mexico (AP) Federal and state forces mounted a big search operation Sunday for Mexican soccer star Alan Pulido, who was abducted in the crime-plagued northern border state of Tamaulipas.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s El Tri coverage ]

The 25-year-old Pulido is a forward for Olympiacos of Greece and was part of Mexico’s 2014 World Cup team, though he wasn’t called up for the Copa America tournament that starts this coming week.

“We have information that he was intercepted by armed persons and since then his whereabouts are unknown,” said state Attorney General Ismael Quintanilla.

The Tamaulipas Coordination Group that includes federal and state security agents said on its Twitter account that it was searching for the player. Reporters in the city saw an unusual deployment of troops and police in the streets, while at least two police or military-style helicopters flew overhead.

A state official earlier said Pulido was kidnapped early Sunday after leaving a party near his hometown of Ciudad Victoria, the capital of Tamaulipas, a state that has suffered battles between major drug gangs. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss a case under investigation.

Authorities gave no further details about the kidnapping or a motive for the abduction, which happened a week before state elections to pick a new governor for Tamaulipas.

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

Pulido’s Greek team said it hoped for a good outcome for the player.

“At this difficult time, our thoughts and prayers are with Alan,” Olympiakos said on its official Twitter account in a message in both Spanish and English accompanied by a photograph of him.

Former teammates on Mexico’s national team went on social networks to offer their support for his welfare.

“A shame what happened,” goalkeeper Jesus Corona said on Twitter. “My prayers are with him and his family at this difficult time.”

Similar comments came in tweets by goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, defenders Diego Reyes and Miguel Layun and strikers Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Oribe Peralta, all of whom are in the United States of the Copa America competition.

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are El Tri’s chances? ]

Pulido debuted and played several seasons with the club Tigres of Monterrey, whose Twitter account expressed solidarity with the player’s family “in the difficult situation they are experiencing.”

Pulido left the Tigres in 2014 to play in Europe, though he has been in a dispute with the Mexican club about whether his contract there continues to be valid.

National team coach Carlos Osorio recently said Pulido has the quality to be on the squad but was left off the Copa America team due to the legal dispute. He had scored three goals in earlier call-ups.

In the most recent season, he scored five times in eight appearances with Olympiacos.