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Crew breaks transfer record for Portuguese midfielder Santos (video)

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The Columbus Crew is using all three of its Designated Player slots for the first time in club history, and doing it in style.

Columbus boss Gregg Berhalter has brought in Braga playmaker Pedro Santos for what the club reports is its highest acquisition fee in history.

[ MORE: Can Chelsea handle pressure of reign? ]

The DP also carries Discovery Status, which is fairly hilarious for a 29-year-old player who has 15 Europa League appearances under his belt, but such is the processes of our oddball top flight here in America.

This is another promising signing for MLS, as Santos is in fine international form and joins Crew DPs Jonathan Mensah and Federico Higuain. The Crew currently occupy the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.

Here’s Berhalter, from the Crew press release:

“We are excited to welcome Pedro Santos to Columbus Crew SC and look forward to him making an immediate impact on this club this season,” said Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter. “Pedro brings extensive tenure at a high European level and also has Europa League experience which we believe will be an asset to Crew SC and will fit well into our style of play. I want to thank [Investor-Operator and Chairman] Mr. Precourt for his continued support and investment in helping shape this roster as we make the push for the postseason and continue to compete for championships.”

Houston lands third DP in Argentina U-20 vet Martinez (video)

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As if Houston’s attack wasn’t dynamic enough, the Dynamo have added another young talent to complete its corps of Designated Players.

Argentine attacking midfielder Tomas Martinez, 22, joins Alberth Elis and Erick Torres as Houston’s youthful DPs, and he looks the part.

The River Plate product arrives from an underwhelming stint at Braga in Portugal, but made 10 appearances with two goals for Argentina’s U-20s. That includes 90-minute runs in all three matches of the 2015 U-20 World Cup on a squad with Angel Correa and Giovanni Simeone.

[ MORE: West Ham, WBA, NUFC close in on new blood ]

Currently sitting third in the Western Conference, Houston’s turnaround under Wilmer Cabrera has been dramatic; The Dynamo finished second-last in points last season, just three ahead of bottom-feeding Chicago.

The question in adding another young focal point is how much is too much? The Dynamo have yet to win on the road, and Cabrera will need to lean on DaMarcus Beasley and Ricardo Clark for continued leadership.

Europa League preview: Klopp faces old friends, La Liga v. La Liga, more

AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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Whether it be odds-on favorite Borussia Dortmund or long shots Braga and Sparta Prague, one of eight teams is just five matches away from lifting the UEFA Cup.

[ UCL: Wolfsburg shocks Real Madrid | PSG, Man City draw ]

The Europa League quarterfinals provide us a high-profile match between Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund, as well as an all-Spanish faceoff in Sevilla and two chances for big upsets in Portugal and Spain.

All matches kickoff at 3:05 p.m. ET

Borussia Dortmund vs. Liverpool

If history mattered in this competition, Liverpool would be buoyed by its three titles. The Reds would join Sevilla as the most decorated club in Europa League/UEFA Cup history if they ran to the finals and won. BVB are no slouches either, yet to win the tournament but twice a finalist.

Villarreal vs. Sparta Prague

Sparta is arguably the darling of the tournament, entering in the playoff round and defeating Thun, finishing second to Schalke in Group K and then knocking out Krasnodar and Lazio. Now, they get a Villarreal team who’s likely headed to the UEFA Champions League next season.

Considered the biggest underdog in terms of getting a result on Thursday, Sparta is hoping to sneak up on the Yellow Submarines.

Athletic Bilbao vs. Sevilla

The champ is here! Sevilla is looking to keep up its bid to repeat as Europa League winners, but will have to get through domestic rivals. Los Leones, for their part, boast the tournament’s leading scorer in Aritz Aduriz.

How even are these two? They’ve the same amount of La Liga points and are just two goals apart in differential. Sevilla nabbed the only head-to-head honors of the season so far, a shutout win in Seville on Jan. 9.

Sevilla has won four Europa League titles, while an Athletic title would be arguably the highest honor won by the club.

Braga vs Shakhtar Donetsk

Each of these sides has been to the mountain top, though Shakhtar won it all in 2009 while Braga fell in an all-Portuguese final two years later.

Liverpool meets Dortmund in Europa League quarterfinals

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After disposing of Tottenham Hotspur in the Round of 16, Borussia Dortmund will meet the lone English side left in this year’s UEFA Europa League.

[ MORE: Barcelona meets Atletico Madrid in Champions League quarterfinals ]

Dortmund, who knocked out Spurs 5-1 on aggregate, will meet Liverpool in the quarterfinals. The Reds are coming off of a 3-1 aggregate victory over fellow Premier League club Manchester United.

[ MORE: Europa League schedule ]

Liverpool’s last Europa League crown came in 2001, and with Jurgen Klopp‘s side not in Premier League title contention, it will likely be the team’s biggest goal for the remainder of this season.

La Liga will be well-represented by Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla, who will meet in the final eight. Sevilla has gone on to win the title four times after reaching the quarterfinals.

Additionally, Villareal-Sparta Prague and Braga-Shakhtar Donetsk rounds out the action.

The matches will be played on April 7 and April 14.

Here are all of the quarterfinal fixtures:

Borussia Dortmund v Liverpool

Athletic Bilbao v Sevilla

Villarreal v Sparta Prague

Braga v Shakhtar Donetsk

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Continuing Manchester United’s easy ride – UEFA Champions League Group H preview

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Group H seems to be making up the numbers. While groups like Chelsea’s have enough depth to guarantee a marquee match every round, Manchester United’s packet is too shallow to produce games that capture the imagination. Though the United brand assures the Red Devils will garner the attention (and airwaves) of UEFA’s broadcast partners, a MUFC-Braga match doesn’t exactly capture the magic of European soccer. Unfortunately, it’s the best this group has to offer.

The silver-ish lining to the weak group: Second place is still there for the taking. While CFR Cluj has an early edge, that will disappear if Galatasaray can win at home on Tuesday.

Manchester United (England) vs. Sporting Braga (Portugal)

Old Trafford, Manchester, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

After a turbulent weekend in Red Devil land that saw defiance, threats, and (ultimately) reconciliation, all seems to be back to normal at Manchester United. Another Champions League matchday has arrived, but since it’s merely the middle of another easy group stage, the Premier League isn’t far from United’s plans. Manager Alex Ferguson has already announced defenders Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra will be among those rested in anticipation of this weekend’s match with Chelsea.

Of course, with the type of depth at Manchester United’s disposal, the rotation of a few veterans shouldn’t hurt their chances at home against Braga. If United’s going to stubble, it’s going to be because of poor play, not because of the likes of Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez lack talent. The Red Devils’ second XI could win this group.

Braga, however, should pose a bigger challenge than Galatasaray or Cluj, United’s first two group stage opponents. Though the Portuguese side stumbled in their Champions League opener, they’ve since awoken. They’re unbeaten in their last five games, including a 2-0 win in Istanbul. During that time, a previously dormant attack has found its stride, scoring 15 goals, with forward Éder claiming four.

That production’s unlikely to continue at Old Trafford, but if Braga can somehow claim a draw in England, they’ll take more points than they were expecting from the group favorites. For Manchester United, even if the worst happens on Tuesday, they’ll maintain a share of the group lead.

From Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson:

“I think the level of the game in England and Europe is so high now, that making yourself unpredictable can be a strength. When it comes to United, teams will now have to think: ‘Are they going to play with two out wide? Or with a midfield diamond?’ With players like Kagawa, Cleverley and Giggs, they can give us that flexibility.”

From Sporting Braga head coach José Peseiro:

” Of course, we don’t have the same resources as United, but I have complete faith in the players I’ve got. It doesn’t do the coach or players any good at all if you start thinking any other way.”

UEFA Preview

More previews: Group E Group F Group G Group H

Galatasaray (Turkey) vs. CFR Cluj (Romania)

Türk Telekom Arena, Istanbul, 2:45 pm. Eastern

Despite a four-match winless run that’s seen Gala concede eight times, head coach Fatih Terim remains relatively calm ahead of what many would see as a crucial match against Cluj. The Galatasaray coach insists Tuesday’s game will not decide his team’s destiny, even if a loss will leave them on no points through three rounds. While it may seem a long shot for the Turkish champions to lose at home to Cluj, after Gala dropped a 2-0 result to Braga on Oct. 2, nothing can be taken for granted.

For Cluj to prolong Gala’s struggles, they’ll have to reverse their own misfortune. Cluj’s three-match losing streak is their worst stretch since April 2005, with their last defeat coming at home despite being up a man for the last half hour. The downturn has Cluj sitting 10th in Romania’s 18-team Liga, already 13 points behind Steaua Bucharest.

If Cluj can defy their form and replicate their opening match win at Braga, they will take a huge step toward the knockout round. Although they’ll likely only sit three points ahead of Braga, the Romanians will have taken six points from trips to Portugal and Turkey. Merely holding serve at home against Braga and Galatasaray would then put Cluj into the next round.

From Galatasaray head coach Fatih Terim:

“We have our own playing philosophy and we never deviate from it. Maybe there will be some minor changes, but we never modify the core of the team.”

From Cluj head coach Ioan Andone:

“We see it as a two-game battle, and getting four points from these two games will be crucial.”

UEFA Preview

More previews: Group E Group F Group G Group H