Back so soon: New CONCACAF Champions League is at hand

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Javier Morales (L) and Alvaro Saborio (R) fly with teammates to Costa Rica for Real Salt Lake’s opening match of 2012-13 CONCACAF Champions League.

The dawn of CONCACAF Champions League typically means new challenges, both on and off the field. Between the lines, it’s different competition, mostly at a higher level, for a prize that’s becoming more coveted in North America. Off the field, it means fixture congestion and more travel. At the tournament’s onset, it’s the distance and time that’s on coaches’ minds.

This year, the congestion and travel has been lessened by format chance which will be more forgiving to teams’ pocket books and trainers. Too bad those changes also compromise the competition. I went into that before, and thanks to the magic of hypertext links, there’s no reason to trod on travelled trails. What matters in for space: There’s no preliminary stage; groups have three teams (instead of four); only group winners make the final eight. That makes for a lot less games, and with U.S. and Liga MX (the new name for Mexico’s league) teams distributed throughout the groups, everybody’s guaranteed to get a visit from a big team.

That also means we won’t see a U.S. versus Mexico match until the quarterfinals, at the earliest (though Toronto FC is grouped with Santos Laguna). Club-friendly it may be, but this new format isn’t so fan-friendly (or TV-friendly, for that matter).

Groups 2 and 7 start play on Tuesday, with the rest of the triads kicking off later this week. That means it’s time to get on board or move on. We’re on board.

Here’s the briefest of snapshots on each group along with its schedule and meaingless, practically blind picks (teams listed by pot from which they were drawn):

Group 1: Santos Laguna (Mexico), Toronto FC (Canada), Águila (El Salvador)

Santos Laguna beat Toronto in last year’s semifinal before being knocked off by two-time defending champion Monterrey. They have as much attacking talent as anybody in CONCACAF (perhaps more). Toronto’s defense may have improved against MLS competition, but the Guerreros will be playing on a whole other level. Aguila lost their main goal scorer from last season (Nicolas Munoz), a season where they gave regular CCL qualifier Isidro Metapan trouble on the domestic front.

Games: Aug. 1 – Toronto vs. Aguila; Aug. 21 – Santos vs. Aguila; Aug. 28 – Toronto vs. Santos; Sep. 19 – Aguila vs. Santos; Sep. 25 – Aguila vs. Toronto; Oct. 24 – Santos vs. Toronto.

Prediction: Santos, Toronto, Aguila

Group 2: Herediano (Costa Rica), Real Salt Lake (United States), Tauro (Panama)

Real Salt Lake is favored in this group despite being the Pot B team. Herediano is a strong team but lost a valuable scorer (Jose Cancela) to Saprissa. Tauro is off to a hot start in Panama and has a potential match winner in 23-year-old forward Luis Renteria (11 goals in 21 appearances for Panama). This is a decent but not especially tough group for RSL.

Games: July 31 – Herediano vs. RSL; Aug. 21 – RSL vs. Tauro; Aug. 30 – Tauro vs. Herediano; Sep. 18 – Tauro vs RSL; Sep 25. – Herediano vs. Tauro; Oct. 23 – RSL vs. Herediano

Prediction: Real Salt Lake, Herediano, Tauro

Group 3: Olimpia (Honduras), Houston Dynamo (United States), FAS (El Salvador)

Houston gets the team from whom they got Oscar Boniek Garcia. Unfortunately for Dom Kinnear, the Honduran powerhouse is still stacked with national teamers and one familiar face: Luciano Emilio. It’s unclear how big a part the D.C. United legend will play in the tournament, particularly since Brazilian attacker Cristiano has also been added. Both Houston and FAS are underdogs here, though the Dynamo have enough to get out of this group, if they play well.

Games: Aug. 2 – Olimpia vs. FAS; Aug. 22. FAS vs. Houston; Aug. 30 – Olimpia vs. Houston; Sep. 20 – Houston vs. FAS; Sep. 27 – FAS vs. Olimpia; Oct. 23 – Houston vs. Olimpia

Prediction: Olimpia, Houston, FAS

Group 4: Seattle Sounders (United States), Marathon (Honduras), Caledonia AIA (Trinidad and Tobago)

Caledonia finished fourth in Trinidad and Tobago’s league, getting in via a shootout in the Caribbean Club Championship final. They’re big underdogs. Having got through a very tough group last year, Seattle’s the favorite, especially having added Eddie Johnson and Christian Tiffert. The Sounders’ defense may be an issue (it’s hard to imagine them challenging for this title with that group), but Marathón doesn’t have the firepower to test it without the Sounders’ help.

Games: Aug. 2 – Seattle vs. Caledonia; Aug. 22 – Caledonia vs. Marathon; Aug. 30 – Caledonia vs. Seattle; Sep. 19 – Marathon vs. Seattle; Sep. 26 – Marathon vs. Caledonia; Oct. 24 – Seattle vs. Marathon

Prediction: Seattle, Marathon, Caledonia

Group 5: LA Galaxy (United States), Isidro Metapan (El Salvador), Puerto Rico Islanders (Puerto Rico)

Los Angeles doesn’t do well in this competition, and it’s unclear Bruce Arena cares. With the Galaxy having just pulled themselves into a playoff spot, their coach would probably prefer to be rid of the distraction. Isidro Metapan beat out then-MLS Cup champion Colorado for a knockout round spot last year, while Puerto Rico knocked out LA two years ago. Isidro has swiped Nicolas Munoz from Aguila, while Puerto Rico has lost coach Colin Clarke to the Carolina RailHawks.

Games: Aug. 1 – Isidro vs. Puerto Rico; Aug. 23 – LA Galaxy vs. Isidro; Aug. 29 – LA Galaxy vs. Puerto Rico; Sep. 19 – Puerto Rico vs. LA Galaxy; Sep. 27 – Puerto Rico vs. Isidro; Oct. 25 – Isidro vs. LA Galaxy.

Prediction: Isidro Metapan, LA Galaxy, Puerto Rico

Group 6: Tigres (Mexico), Alajuelense (Costa Rica), Real Esteli (Nicaragua)

Tigres’ stifling defense won them Mexico’s Apertura, though Lucas Lobos, Elias Hernandez and Damian Alvarez are more than capable of creating goals in this competition, even if Hector Mancilla has moved on. Alajuelense was last year’s tough luck team, going 4-0-2 but missing out on the knockout round when a tiebreaker sent them out of Group A with 12 points. Real Esteli are a high-powered team in Nicaragua, but that federation has never done real damage in this competition.

Games: Aug 1. – Tigres vs. Real Esteli; Aug. 22 – Alajuelense vs. Tigres; Aug. 28 – Real Esteli vs. Alajuelense; Sep. 18 – Real Esteli vs. Tigres; Sep. 26 – Alajuelense vs. Real Esteli; Oct. 24 – Tigres vs. Alajuelense

Prediction: Tigres, Alajuelense, Real Estelí

Group 7: Chorrillo (Panama), Monterrey (Mexico), Municipal (Guatemala)

Monterrey is the two-time defending champion and have the region’s most balanced collection of elite talent. They’re off to a slow start in Mexico, though, and the Clausura final loss to Santos Laguna took away a little of their swagger. There’s nothing in this group that will test them, though. Chorrillo is also off to a slow start in Panama, while Municipal never finished above fourth in a qualification stage last year. Municipal also has a killer stretch from their second to third group matches: three games in six days, counting a domestic match against Xelaju.

Games: July 31 – Monterrey vs. Chorrillo; Aug. 23 – Chorrillo vs. Municipal; Aug. 29 – Municipal vs. Monterrey; Sep. 20 – Municipal vs. Chorrillo; Sep. 25 – Monterrey vs. Municipal; Oct. 23, Chorrillo vs. Monterrey.

Prediction: Monterrey, Chorrillo, Municipal

Group 8: Xelaju (Guatemala), Chivas (Mexico), W Connection (Trinidad and Tobago)

Like Monterrey, Chivas gets an easy group, though they’re less equipped to dominate it. They have star power (Marco Fabian, most notably), but they also have a series of recent disappointments, including losing in the first round of the Apertura’s Liguilla as a one-seed. Xelaju has no CCL pedigree but has Brazilian attacker Isreal Silva, who scored 31 goals last season. W Connection is Trinidad and Tobago’s champions. The Caribbean (the region out of which they qualified) failed to place a team in group stage last year, let alone the knockout round.

Prediction: Chivas, Xelaju, W Connection

If the 2018 World Cup started today…

Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images
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Another international break has passed, with fortunes rising and falling in most of FIFA’s confederations (Africa took a break during the break, having staged AFCON in January).

[ MORE: All World Cup qualifying news ]

Brazil joined hosts Russia as nations to have qualified for the 2018 World Cup, and 30 spots remain. Let’s take the opportunity to project the field for Russia.

In October, we took the projected qualifiers and simulated all the way down to the World Cup final. Germany beat Brazil. Let’s go again. Who will “win” it this time?


QUALIFICATION

We’ll again use actual qualification, as flawed and early as it is in some confederations, to be predict our combatants.

Asia (7 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia
PLAYOFF: Uzbekistan vs. Australia

PROJECTION: While Uzbekistan has been better in terms of overall form, Australia’s experience boosts it into a match-up with the USMNT.

Africa (2 of 6 qualifiers played)
IN: DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt

CONCACAF (4 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama
PLAYOFF: United States

(AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

South America (14 of 18 qualifiers played)
IN: Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Chile
PLAYOFF: Argentina

Oceania (4 of 6 qualifiers played)
PLAYOFF: New Zealand vs. Tahiti

UEFA (5 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Croatia
UEFA PLAYOFFS: Sweden, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Italy, Greece, Iceland

SIMULATED PLAYOFFS (random draw):
Sweden vs. Iceland — Sweden wins
Portugal vs. Republic of Ireland — Portugal wins
Northern Ireland vs. Slovakia — Slovakia wins
Italy vs. Greece — Italy wins

Intercontinental playoffs:

Australia vs. United States — USMNT wins
Argentina vs. New Zealand — Argentina wins


FIELD (FIFA Rankings)

  1. Russia (hosts, 60)
  2. Argentina (1)
  3. Brazil (2)
  4. Germany (3)
  5. Chile (4)
  6. Belgium (5)
  7. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

    France (6)

  8. Colombia (7)
  9. Portugal (8)
  10. Uruguay (9)
  11. Spain (10)
  12. Switzerland (11)
  13. Poland (12)
  14. England (13)
  15. Italy (15)
  16. Croatia (16)
  17. Mexico (17)
  18. Costa Rica (19)
  19. Egypt (20)
  20. Slovakia (25)
  21. USA (30)
  22. Iran (33)
  23. Burkina Faso (36)
  24.  (Photo by Richard Huggard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

    DR Congo (38)

  25. South Korea (40)
  26. Nigeria (41)
  27. Sweden (45)
  28. Ivory Coast (47)
  29. Japan (51)
  30. Serbia (52)
  31. Panama (53)
  32. Saudi Arabia (57)

THE POTS

The 10 European qualifiers mean two will have to join Pot 2. Our random selections were… Croatia and Spain.

Pot 1 (seeds): Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Chile, Belgium, France, Colombia, Brazil

Pot 2 (CAF, CONMEBOL, UEFA): DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Uruguay, Croatia, Spain

Pot 3 (AFC & CONCACAF): Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, USMNT

Pot 4: (UEFA): Sweden, Slovakia, Italy, Switzerland, Serbia, Poland, England, Portugal


THE DRAW

Group A: Russia, DR Congo, Saudi Arabia, Sweden
Group B: Chile, Croatia, Mexico, Portugal
Group C: Brazil, Nigeria, Panama, Switzerland
Group D: Germany, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Poland
Group E: Argentina, Spain, Japan, Slovakia
Group F: France, Ivory Coast, South Korea, Italy
Group G: Belgium, Uruguay, USMNT, England
Group H: Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Serbia

So… should we play it out? We’ll try to throw in some upsets and not just go with the chalk.

Round of 16
Mexico (B2) def. Russia (A1)
Brazil (C1) def. Poland (D2)
Spain (E1) def. Italy (F2)
Belgium (G1) def. Egypt (H2)
Portugal (B1) def. DR Congo (A2)
Germany (D1) def. Nigeria (C2)
France (F1) def. Argentina (G2)
Colombia (H1) def. England (G2)

Quarterfinals
Brazil def. Mexico
Spain def. Belgium
Germany def. Portugal
France def. Colombia

Semifinals
Brazil def. Spain
France def. Germany

Final
Brazil def. France

Dempsey leads way for MLS players during Cup qualifying

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The latest round of World Cup qualifying saw a major increase in the number of players from MLS called in for their national teams.

A number of those decisions paid off for their countries, perhaps no one more than Clint Dempsey.

A few months ago, Dempsey wasn’t even in consideration for the U.S. after missing the latter half of last season because of a heart issue. But the Seattle Sounders forward scored four times in two matches as the U.S. gathered four critical points in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Dempsey was part of an influx of MLS players contributing during the latest round of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

In all, MLS had 55 players called in for qualifying in CONCACAF, CONEMBOL (South America) and UEFA (Europe) competitions. Last September, the league saw 58 players called in to their national teams, but there were more countries still alive in qualification at that time. The 55 players selected this time was an increase of 16 from the last round of qualifying matches in November, and 40 of the 55 saw action during the two days of competition in the past week representing 12 countries.

In the three CONCACAF games last Friday, 29 of the 84 players to see the field were from MLS. That outpaced LigaMX, which had 17 players among the 84 used in the three matches.

Dempsey wasn’t the only MLS player coming up big for his country. Minnesota midfielder Kevin Molino had the only goal for Trinidad and Tobago in its 1-0 win over Panama. The Vancouver duo of Christian Bolanos and Kendall Waston teamed for the only goal in Costa Rica’s 1-1 draw with Honduras.

But not all went well for MLS players during qualifying.

Young Atlanta star Josef Martinez injured his left leg during the second half of Venezuela’s 2-2 draw with Peru in CONEMBOL qualifying. Martinez returned to Atlanta and an MRI revealed a left quadriceps injury that will keep the MLS leader in goals scored out for four to six weeks. Martinez had five goals in Atlanta’s first three games.

U.S. midfielder Sebastian Lletget was forced off early in the match against Honduras but not before scoring the opening goal for the Americans. Los Angeles announced Tuesday that Lletget suffered a Lisfranc injury that will require surgery and he will be sidelined for four to six months.

[ MORE: BWP a DP; Nephew called up to England U16 ]

MATCH OF THE WEEK: The club that set the bar for expansion debuts faces the newcomer looking to topple that standard.

The Seattle Sounders will host Atlanta United on Friday night. It’s the only regular-season matchup between the two sides, but there’s more than just the competition on the field.

Seattle’s expansion season of 2009 was regarded throughout the sports industry as arguably the best franchise launch ever, not just in MLS. Between ticket sales and fan engagement, Seattle’s start could not have gone better.

Atlanta might be setting a new standard. Atlanta drew more than 55,000 for its first match and more than 45,000 for its second home game, a win over Chicago. Atlanta seems to be following significant parts of Seattle’s blueprint, down to having an influential NFL owner highly involved from the start.

As for the on-field product, the validity of Atlanta’s promising start will be tested over the next month with four straight road matches.

“It’s definitely still an expansion team,” Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst said. “We’ve got our bumps and bruises along the way. Off the field, everyone’s still trying to get sorted and situated to the new city.”

BEST OF THE REST: Toronto finally gets to come home after opening the season with three straight road games. The Reds will host Sporting KC on Friday night. The trade-off for opening the season on the road is that Toronto gets five of its next six league matches at home and was able to get five points out of those three road contests to start.

Also of note will be what kind of lineup Vancouver rolls out on Saturday night against Los Angeles. The Whitecaps play in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals four days later.

BACK ON THE BENCH: Real Salt Lake introduced Mike Petke as its new head coach Wednesday, less than two weeks after firing Jeff Cassar. Petke was the head coach of the New York Red Bulls for two seasons, including the 2013 season when they won the Supporters’ Shield. After two years out of coaching, Petke signed on to be the head coach of the Real Monarchs, the minor-league club associated with RSL.

OFF TARGET: The other expansion debut this season by Minnesota United is on pace to set records, but not any they want to be associated with. Simply put, Minnesota can’t play defense.

Minnesota allowed at least five goals for the third time in four matches in last week’s 5-2 loss at New England. Minnesota allowed five goals to Portland and six to Atlanta and is on pace to allow more than 150 goals this season.

LAST WORD: “I’ve been very encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 10 days. It’s going to take some time to piece that team together.” U.S. coach Bruce Arena after the latest round of World Cup qualifying.

Messi explains actions that warranted 4-match ban

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Lionel Messi is set to miss four Argentina matches for something we arguably see every week on TV.

That doesn’t make it okay, but is anyone else scratching their head at the suspension handed down to the world’s best player for verbal abuse of an official?

[ MORE: Barca defends Messi ]

Messi, 29, shouted an obscenity at the linesman in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, and was both banned and served the first match of his ban on Tuesday, as Argentina was beaten 2-0 in Bolivia.

Messi explained his actions Wednesday with the following:

“My expressions were never directed to the referee, they were said to the air,” Messi told La Nacion.

That’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? But I can’t help but feel the four matches are a bit harsh. Hardly a high-level match goes by without seeing a player clearly being derisive toward an offical, and usually lipreading proves it wasn’t G-rated.

Again, I have no problem for setting a standard, as abuse of officials is unnecessary (and even those of us who are serially offenders know it).

But if confederations and leagues want to get serious about cutting it out, this can’t be a one-off suspension; End the group upbraiding of referees during games, the wild gesticulations, so on and so forth.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.