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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.

Premier League storylines: First vs second at WHL, Saints meet Foxes

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14:  Kelechi Iheanacho of Manchester City tackles Mousa Dembele of Tottenham Hotspur during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium on February 14, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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My goodness, do these European weeks allow the Premier League to just reach out and smack you in the face or what?

The PL returns Friday with a match-up of two team on the precipice of the Top Four, and doesn’t stop until a thrilling Sunday leads us into an international break.

[ MORE: Man Utd-Zorya recap | Zlatan reacts ]

Let’s dig into our Top Five storylines for the PL weekend.

First versus second at White Hart Lane

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Manchester City — 9:15 a.m. EDT Sunday (NBCSN)

Pep Guardiola has already presided over a Manchester City win across town at Old Trafford, and scooping three points at White Hart Lane would be yet another gorgeous feather in his new sky blue cap. Want more insight into this 1v2? Here’s JPW with a PST Extra.

Gunners look to keep firing in classic trap game

Burnley vs. Arsenal — 11:30 a.m. EDT Sunday (NBCSN)

Arsene Wenger has Theo Walcott and the Gooners humming, with three-straight clean sheets and just four goals allowed in their last eight contests. With an international break coming, Arsenal just has to do what’s expected of it and take a week to revel in its fine form.

That’s kinda the problem. In the past, Arsenal would make a trip like this much harder than it looks on paper. If the Gunners are truly on the path to something special, that doesn’t happen at Turf Moor.

Will Chelsea responds to furious Conte?

Hull City vs. Chelsea — 10 a.m. EDT Saturday (NBCSN)

As good as Chelsea has been at times this year, there are still lingering worries that the group that quit on Jose Mourinho is lacking the leadership necessary to make a title push (and yes, we know that group won the title one year previous).

Manager Antonio Conte was ticked off after the Blues were bounced all over the Emirates by Arsenal, and are supposed to making the most of this season without a congested European schedule. That should mean a win at Hull, right?

HULL, ENGLAND - MARCH 22: Gaston Ramirez of Hull City challenges Nemanja Matic of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Hull City and Chelsea at KC Stadium on March 22, 2015 in Hull, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Pretender alert, pretender alert

Leicester City vs. Southampton — 9 a.m. EDT Sunday (CNBC)

Here’s a tale of four teams in one two-team game. Leicester and Southampton have been solid, if not terrific, in Europe, and look threats to advance into the knockout rounds of both the Champions and Europa League.

Leicester and Southampton have also combined for a mere 15 points though 12 Premier League games, far off the pace for fans hoping both could become European fixtures. At least one, or two, maybe four of these teams will feel better come 11 a.m. Sunday. Not three, though. Definitely not three.

Last stop for Guidolin?

Swansea City vs. Liverpool — 7:30 a.m. EDT Saturday (NBCSN)

As the rumor vultures circle above Francesco Guidolin crowing, “Bob Bradley, Bob Bradley“, the Swansea boss looks to engineer a home win over Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool that could save his job. That won’t worry Klopp too much, who is hoping to lead his Reds into the international break as high as second in the PL table.

Second coach in England loses job after newspaper sting

BARNSLEY, ENGLAND - JULY 23:  Tommy Wright assistant head coach of Barnsley during the pre-season friendly match between Barnsley and Everton at Oakwell Stadium on July 23, 2016 in Barnsley, England. (Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images)"n
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BARNSLEY, England (AP) A British newspaper investigation led to a second soccer coach getting fired in England on Thursday.

Two days after Sam Allardyce lost his job as England manager following an undercover operation by the Daily Telegraph, second-tier club Barnsley fired assistant coach Tommy Wright.

Wright was filmed apparently accepting an envelope which the Telegraph said contained 5,000 pounds ($6,500) from a fake Asian firm to help place players at the northern club. Video footage was released by the newspaper late Wednesday and Wright was immediately suspended by Barnsley.

[ MORE: Man Utd-Zorya recap | Zlatan reacts ]

“After considering Mr. Wright’s response to allegations in today’s Daily Telegraph about breaching (Football Association) rules over player transfers, Mr. Wright was dismissed,” the club said after a meeting with the coach on Thursday.

Barnsley said it was “unaware of such matters or involved in any wrongdoing.”

The English Football Association decided to terminate Allardyce’s contract on Tuesday after video showed him appearing to offer advice to fictitious businessmen on how to sidestep an outlawed player transfer practice and also negotiating a 400,000 pound ($519,000) public-speaking contract to top up an annual England salary of 3 million pounds ($4 million).

English soccer is reeling after three days of accusations by the newspaper following its months-long investigation into alleged wrongdoing in the game.

Second-tier Queens Park Rangers is investigating footage that appeared to show its coach, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, seeking a fee of 55,000 pounds ($71,600) to work for a fake Far Eastern firm that had suggested selling players to the second-tier London club.

[ MORE: JPW hangs with USMNT prospect Gooch ]

Hasselbaink denied any wrongdoing, saying he was only offered a fee to make a speech in Singapore and did not ask QPR to sign players said to have been represented by the fake firm. QPR said it had “every confidence” in Hasselbaink, and its chief executive and director of football spoke to Hasselbaink on Thursday to get his version of events.

QPR said it wanted to view an unedited version of the video footage and a full transcript.

Hasselbaink, a former Chelsea and Leeds striker, will prepare the QPR team for the league match against Fulham on Saturday.

The Daily Telegraph also filmed an agent accusing 10 managers, which it did not name, of taking bribes linked to player transfers.

Premier League Preview: Everton vs. Crystal Palace

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Yannick Bolasie of Crystal Palace chases down Seamus Coleman of Everton  during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Crystal Palace at Goodison Park on April 16, 2014 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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  • Lukaku back for Everton
  • Bolasie faces former club
  • Palace on three-match win streak

An angry Everton looks to make amends from a rough outing, when improving Crystal Palace pays a visit to Goodison Park on Friday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on USA Network and online via NBC Sports).

The Toffees fell 1-0 to Bournemouth last weekend, dropping out of the Top Four after a strong start to the season.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE

After winning three-straight over lower table competition, Palace gets a big test in Everton. Road wins over Northeast opponents Sunderland and Middlesbrough highlights the run, which includes a home win over Stoke City.

Yannick Bolasie has been very good for Everton, and now gets his first look at former club Palace. And he’ll have company in Romelu Lukaku, who’s passed a fitness test and will start the match.

What they’re saying

Everton’s Gerard Deulofeu on Friday night football: “It’s a different day for us, it’s not normal to play on a Friday but it’s a good chance to put on a good performance and get a win for the Toffees to enjoy. It’s a good opportunity for us to take three points because we are coming into the game on the back of a loss to Bournemouth.”

Alan Pardew on Bolasie’s return: “I love Yala but I just hope he is not going to have one of his super games that he is capable of but of course he will be looking to impress. He has nothing to prove to us or our fans, they still love him although I don’t think they are particularly happy that they have the song but that type of thing goes with a club signing big players.”

Prediction

Alan Pardew‘s charges will have a lot of trouble with Bolasie, the sort of player who has given Palace fits in the past. Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka also present the sort of center back pairing that can handle a Christian Benteke type, so look for Everton to win at home, 2-0.

Mourinho praises Rooney, stays level after Manchester United’s third-straight win

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 29:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United celebrates following his sides 1-0 victory during the UEFA Europa League group A match between Manchester United FC and FC Zorya Luhansk at Old Trafford on September 29, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Jose Mourinho implored Manchester United to relax after a three-match losing streak included losses to Manchester City, Feyenoord, and Watford.

So it makes sense that the Portuguese boss isn’t throwing a parade after United went in the other direction with a trio of wins over Northampton Town, Leicester City, and Zorya Luhansk.

[ MORE: Match recap | Zlatan reacts ]

“One week, three defeats. One week, three victories,” Mourinho explained after Thursday’s 1-0 win over Zorya at Old Trafford.

“But I was not depressed by the defeats and I am not over the moon with three wins.”

United looked ready to score from the opening whistle, but only found a single goal. Mourinho went out of his way to praise substitute Wayne Rooney, whose flubbed shot turned into an assist to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

From the BBC:

“Since the first minute we were waiting for the goal but it didn’t arrive. You never know what happens and Sergio Romero made a good save when the score was 0-0.

“I had good players on the bench to help change the game. Wayne Rooney gave us different positions and speed when the opposing team was getting tired.”

United has a visit from Stoke City before the international break, with Sunday’s Premier League kickoff slated for 7 a.m. ET.