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After strong first legs, can MLS teams advance in Champions League?

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Two wins and a draw. Had you asked MLS fans before this week’s CONCACAF Champions League action, they’d probably be elated. Fans know how difficult it’s been to compete with Mexico’s best. Real Salt Lake’s run in the 2010-11 tournament still serves as MLS’s bright spot since the tournament’s rebrand.

For this week to serve as more than a moral victory, though, MLS’s three survivors need to get something out of Mexico. For Sporting Kansas City and LA Galaxy, both up 1-0 after their first legs with Cruz Azul and Tijuana (respectively), clean sheets will get them through. Having held their opponents without a crucial away goal, though, each can take a major step toward the final four if they score in Mexico. Whether it be a shut out or a score, both teams will need something next week.

San Jose’s road is more difficult, but thanks to Alan Gordon’s 95th minute “Gonnie-ism” in Santa Clara, Mark Watson’s team has a chance. The 1-1 result against visiting Toluca was a minor set back (giving the Diablos Rojos that potentially crucial away goal), but one score on the road would immediately shift the scales.

(CCL Results: San Jose 1-1 Toluca | Sporting KC 1-0 Cruz Azul | LA Galaxy 1-0 Tijuana)

Here’s where Major League Soccer’s trio stands after leg one, what we learned in the process, and heir chances to advance to the semifinals after next week’s second legs in Mexico.

Best chance: LA Galaxy (up 1-0; leg two at Tijuana on Tuesday)

Bruce Arena’s team used an early Samuel goal and second half heroics from Jaime Penedo to take a 1-0 lead at on Wednesday night. Though the Galaxy gave up significantly more chances than their opponents, last year’s acquisition of their Panamanian international paid off. Perhaps the Galaxy can’t depend on Penedo stealing results every night, but on Wednesday, it worked.

The good news for LA: They’ll likely play better on Tuesday. Hopefully, they won’t seem so work down in the second half. They also have the least travel, won’t be playing at altitude (unlike their MLS partners), and are arguably facing the worst team. Though Tijuana is talented, they’re not one of the top teams in Liga MX’s current tournament (eight out of 18).

One PST reader took exception to the description after last night’s action, but winning 1-0 at home truly is the equivalent of holding serve. Anything less, and you’d be giving something to your opponents. On Wednesday, LA merely did what they were supposed to do.

In that sense, we didn’t get a good idea whether LA or Tijuana is actually the better team. All we know is that LA’s result leaves them with the fewest obstacles for any MLS team on the path to the semifinals.

source: Getty ImagesGood shot: Sporting Kansas City (up 1-0; leg two at Cruz Azul on Wednesday)

The defending MLS champions gave the league’s strongest first leg performance, out-playing Cruz Azul in the first half while limiting the number of chances they gave up in the second. Had Mariano Pavone buried his second half opportunity, Sporting would be sitting in San Jose’s shoes, but thanks to the effort of a former Earthquake defender, Ike Opara, the Cruz Azul attacker couldn’t prevent his team from leaving Kansas with a loss.

Next Wednesday, however, Liga MX’s leaders will be back at Estadio Azul. They’ll be at altitude and playing at a venue where they haven’t lost since September. The last eight opponents to visit La Machina have been outscored 12-3, with Luis Fernando Tena’s team registering at least one goal in each game.

Sporting’s best chance to reach the semifinals would be a clean sheet, but Cruz Azul’s recent history says that’s unlikely. If, however, Sporting can snare a goal, they won’t need a win to move on. The results América (1-1), Toluca (1-1) and Santos Laguna (1-2) have put up during Cruz Azul’s eight-game unbeaten run would be enough to see Sporting into the final four.

Toughest road: San Jose Earthquakes (1-1; at Toluca on Wednesday)

No mystery here: The team with the fewest advantages on the scoreboard has the worst chance of moving on. This job isn’t difficult, folks. I just plug into the machine and let the obvious poor out.

There are other factors that make San Jose’s plight more difficult. They’ll be traveling the longest distance of MLS’s three quarterfinalists. They need to score twice to see the away goals rule work in their favor. They also may face a stronger Toluca side in leg two. Whereas José Cardozo left some of his best players out of his starting XI in Santa Clara, there’s no guarantee he’ll do the same in Mexico.

There is another, more basic reason why San Jose should be seen as a bigger underdog: They may not be as good as Sporting or LA. Between where the teams finished last season and the talent they’ll take into next week’s second legs, the Earthquakes aren’t quite on the same level as their MLS colleagues. Unfortunately, they’re facing a team that sits second in Mexico.

Let’s not get too pessimistic about this, though. What San Jose does well should come in particularly handing in the close games that are more likely to transpire in Champions League. If they can stay within one going into the match’s last stages — if they can take advantage of late defensive substitutes that lead to games being played in their opponent’s end — the Goonies may yet continue on their quest for Champions League gold.

Germany GK Zieler in Leicester for medical with Premier League champs

SANTO ANDRE, BRAZIL - JUNE 11:  Goalkeeper Ron Robert Zieler makes a save during the German National team training session at  Campo Bahia on June 11, 2014 in Santo Andre, Brazil.  (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images
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Kasper Schmeichel is a Premier League-winning goalkeeper, just like his even-more-famous father, Peter, and no one can ever take that away from him.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

What can always be taken from the big Danish shot-stopper, though, is his starting job at Leicester City. That’s where Ron-Robert Zieler, a six-times-capped goalkeeper and 2014 World Cup winner with Germany, comes into play.

27 years old and out of contract after the expiration of his deal with Hannover, Zieler is set to become the Foxes’ first signing of the summer as Claudio Ranieri and Co. prepare to defend their PL title next season. (It’s still weird to say that, in case you were wondering.)

[ MORE: Rashford to be handsomely rewarded for breakout season ]

Zieler arrived in Leicester on Sunday, according to Hannover’s official website, and was set to undergo a medical examination before signing a long-term contract. An established Bundesliga starter since the age of 22 (started all 34 league games each of the last five seasons), Zieler will arrive at the King Power Stadium with expectations far loftier than those of the man he’ll battle for the starting job next season, if not comparable name recognition.

With neither ‘keeper north of 30 years old as of yet (Schmeichel will turn 30 in November), it would seem that Ranieri can do no wrong in choosing either one of the combatants his no. 1 ahead of the 2016-17 season.

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.”