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Thursday’s Field of Play: Europa, Copa, your MLS ... and some randomness

FC Schalke 04 v Athletic Bilbao - UEFA Europa League Quarter Final

GELSENKIRCHEN, GERMANY - MARCH 29: Raul Gonzalez of Schalke celebrates after scoring his teams first goal during the UEFA Europa League quarter-final first leg match between FC Schalke 04 and Athletic Bilbao at Veltins-Arena on March 29, 2012 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Bongarts/Getty Images

After one of the least interesting UEFA Champions League quarterfinal days in recent memory, Europa League is hear to save us. Scoff all you want at the significance of the tournament, but if the teams care about it, shouldn’t that be enough? Perhaps it’s not, but when you have a match with Klass-Jan Huntelaar, Raúl, Javi Martinez, Fernando Llorente and Iker Muniain all on the same field, I’m in.

Europa League

For what it takes Champions League two days to do, Europa only needs one. Today, UEFA’s second competition cuts its field from eight to four:

  • Jozy Altidore’s AZ (Netherlands) got a 2-1 last week against Valencia (Spain), a little worse than merely holding serve. While they notched a win, if barely, and they also gave Los Che a valuable road goal. A 1-0 win from Unai Emery’s team sends the Spaniards through. (Kicks off at 3:05 p.m. ET)
  • Athletic Bilbao (Spain) scored three goals in the last 20 minutes last week in Gelsenkirchen, with only a brace from Raúl leaving Schalke within striking distance. However, whereas Athletic looked tired this weekend against Barcelona, giving stars Llorente and Muniain a rest at the Nou Camp should help keep their Europa dreams in tact. (3:05 p.m.)
  • Sporting Club (Portugal) was one of three teams (along with AZ and Atlético Madrid) to post 2-1 home wins last week. Theirs may be most precarious, because now they must travel from Lisbon to Kharkiv to hold of Metalist (Ukraine). For some time, people following Myron Markevych’s team have waited for a breakthrough. This might be it. (3:05 p.m.)
  • Diego Simeone conceded that his Atlético (Spain) side were probably underdogs today at Hannover (Germany). That was probably mere media posturing. Since the Argentine took over mid-season, Atlético’s proven difficult to score on when they’re playing well. They’re capable of making their 2-1 lead hold up. (3:05 p.m.)

Copa Libertadores

  • Nacional (Uruguay) needs at least a point from Libertad (Paraguay). Without one, they’re out, four points behind both Libertad and Vasco de Gama with one Group 5 match left. With a draw, they still have to beat Vasco by two at home to close group play (they beat the Brazilians in Rio to open the tournament). With a win, well ... they’ll still need to beat Vasco in Round 6, but advancing won’t depend on the kind of win. (7:15 p.m. ET)
  • The Strongest (Bolivia) were dismissed at the start of the tournament, but after today’s trip to Peru, they could be even with Santos at the top of Group 1 (moving Internacional into third). But while Juan Aurich have yet to earn a point, this is still a dangerous trip for an inexperienced Bolivian side. (9:30 p.m. ET)

Major League Soccer

Uruguayan Primera División

Just indulge me, OK? I saw this one and couldn’t resist.

  • With two matches left, Peñarol’s Copa Libertadores is over. Pretty incredible, right (remember, I said indulge me)? Defensor Sporting, on the other hand, has the inside track to get out of Group 7 with Argentina’s Velez Sarsfield. Tonight the sides meet in Primera play, the winner (if there is one) passing Liverpool at the top of the Clausura. For Peñarol, league becomes a face-saving endeavor, while Defensor has yet to lose in the closing tournament. (4:00 p.m. ET)

Author prerogative over. Enjoy your soccer Thursday!