Back so soon: New CONCACAF Champions League is at hand

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

Further crowd trouble could see Lyon’s European ban made active

AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani
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Lyon has not enjoyed sportsmanship on and off the pitch this season.

You’ll remember an ugly incident between its players and Everton fans this season, but it’s been Lyon’s support which has had the Ligue 1 club under the microscope for some time.

[ MORE: (Very) Fresh faces for USMNT ]

Lyon had a two-year ban suspended in April, and antics before Thursday’s Europa League match versus CSKA Moscow could see the French side’s suspension from European competition put into action. From the BBC:

Lyon have been charged with racist behaviour, crowd disturbances, throwing objects and setting off fireworks and blocking stairways.

Police say up to 150 ultras attacked officers outside Lyon’s stadium on Thursday.

Twenty-Three* thoughts for Week 3 in MLS

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP
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Almost half of Major League Soccer’s clubs have two weeks off to either lick wounds, right wrongs, or celebrate fine starts to their season.

There are 23 clubs in MLS, and we’re here to highlight what happened this week with the clubs who took the pitch for league play.’

[ MORE: (Very) Fresh faces for USMNT ]

Atlanta United and Vancouver Whitecaps — Call this one “V-A-R-you kidding me?”

A match we’d been anticipating all week gets a straight-shot to the gut from a trio of bad decisions.

First, Atlanta’s Leandro Gonzalez Pires works himself into position on a Five Stripes free kick, clearly and purposely aiming to find a way to hit the deck against Vancouver center back Kendall Waston.

Then Waston, who is known for his physical play, gets his elbow up against Gonzalez Pires, allowing the theatrical center back to go down like he’d been de-spined Sub-Zero/Mortal Kombat-style (Yes we made up a word there).

Finally, and probably most egregiously, referee Ismail Elfath goes to the Video Assistant Referee and somehow thinks he has a conclusive angle to send Waston off.

Can Waston have a red for that? Sure, but it was built and aided by embarrassing acting from LGP and it’s just not the sort of play we think should be reviewed and go from zero to red.

Chicago Fire — Veljko Paunovic’s men are a disappointing 0-2 start, but will feel pleased to see second-round pick Elliott Collier get off the mark. They’ll also know they lost to Minnesota with Bastian Schweinsteiger tending to more important matters:

Columbus Crew — The Twenty-Three would like to issue a too-soon apology to Columbus in case they “do a Burnley” and make our miserable preseason predictions even worse. The Crew could easily be 3-0 with a bit better finish from Gyasi Zardes.

DC United — Seemingly serial disappointment Darren Mattocks has two goals and 10 shots in two matches. Maybe Ben Olsen is what the Jamaican needed all along. Now both men would like a win, and soon.

FC Dallas — Granted Oscar Pareja’s men earned their 3-0 win on the back of Clint Dempsey‘s red card, but FCD now has a win and a draw in rebounding from a calamitous performance against Tauro in the CONCACAF Champions League.

Philadelphia Union — Threats were few for the hosts at Talen Energy Stadium, with David Accam taking a pair of shots and CJ Sapong held without an attempt. Still, the Union are unbeaten in two matches and showed good mettle in keeping Columbus off the board.

Houston Dynamo — There’s good Houston and there’s bad Houston. The first half saw electric attackers Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis scored one minute apart in cooking up a 2-0 lead. But the Dynamo didn’t threaten much in the second half as the hosts found a way to a point in the seventh minute of stoppage time.

Minnesota United — Rebounded from the season-ending loss of Kevin Molino to pick up a second win of the season, something it took the Loons eight matches to do in their MLS debut last season. Seven combined shots from Sam Nicholson and Ibson helped do the trick.

Montreal Impact — Remi Garde is going to be exhaling after his Impact scooped the first win of his tenure, and in home derby style. Montreal has won its last two regular season 401 Derbies, which is not too shabby even if this one needed a huge deflection and perhaps some quite tired TFC legs to get the job done.

New York City FC — No David Villa meant NYC had a little more work to do in breaking down Orland this weekend, but it’s 2-0 win was very positive in taking a 3-0 record atop the Supporters’ Shield table. NYC has allowed just one goal through three matches, and winger Jesus Medina has been very, very good.

New York Red Bulls — Given that CCL sides went 0-3 this week in league play and the fact that Major League Soccer doesn’t have every team going every week, perhaps scheduling a bye here would’ve made more sense? RBNY’s 1-0 loss in Utah featured eight total shot attempts from the visitors.

Orlando City — The Lions are still waiting on their lineup to find its flow with one point through three matches, but “How long will Jason Kreis be allowed to run a losing team?” is starting to feel like a real question. Yes, it’s only three matches. No, this isn’t very good.

For more on Orlando’s plight, head here.

Real Salt Lake — Mike Petke will be feeling a lot better after his reading of the riot act inspired a win over his former team at Rio Tinto. This save is making the rounds, understandably so, and what we like best about this from RSL elder Nick Rimando is the wisdom to figure the show was coming low and the quickness to get there.

San Jose Earthquakes — Valeri Qazaishvili felt underused last season, or at-best poorly deployed. Not this go round, as Mikael Stahre is proving he’s going to fire at will with his weapons. To allow three goals on four shots on target, however, is an issue.

Seattle Sounders — Deuce has a reputation. Whether it was for his right-handed slap to Jacori Hayes’ private parts or the left-handed follow-through, we still really don’t have a read on Seattle thanks to travel congestion and a red card. Dallas went on to win 3-0.

Sporting KC — We thought SKC-SJ would be a good one, and it again delivered. Peter Vermes is opening up the attack, and now has seen seven Sporting goals in a pair of wins.


Toronto FC — Given the Reds’ CONCACAF Champions League success/travel and a playoff structure as forgiving as Major League Soccer’s means TFC’s 0-2 start to the season is only cause for alarm in terms of:

A) Retaining the Supporters’ Shield

B) Losing a 401 Derby

Part B happened this weekend. Chances were even, as were battles, and Montreal’s game plan to foul TFC to death helped hamper flow. Jeisson Vargas’ goal took a massive deflection after the Reds’ back line gave Ignacio Piatti significant room to set up his teammate (Not a great idea). It’ll be fine.

Introducing #AskJPW: On West Ham and the Top Four

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You’ve read his reports from the hallowed grounds of the Premier League, hung out with him during Facebook Lives outside those same stadia, and now there’s a new way to interact with ProSoccerTalk‘s lead writer and editor.

Joe Prince-Wright is now bringing you #AskJPW, a place to quiz the whiz on every aspect of the Premier League, and the goings-on around it.

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Just use the #AskJPW (and follow him on Twitter at @JPW_NBCSports).

In this edition, Joe delves into fan trouble at West Ham, who will finish 2-4 on the table, and more.

Ronaldo versus Messi: Scoring race heats up in Spain

Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
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MADRID (AP) Regardless of who wins the Spanish league title, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will be battling it out to the end.

Real Madrid doesn’t have much chance of keeping Barcelona from winning the league, but Ronaldo is making a strong run to snag the scoring title from Messi with nine matches remaining.

[ MORE: (Very) Fresh faces for USMNT ]

Ronaldo added another four goals in Madrid’s 6-3 win over Girona on Sunday, giving him 22 for the season. That is only three below Messi, who scored his 25th in Barcelona’s 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao.

“Hopefully he can catch him,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said of Ronaldo. “It’s important for him and for us, too. When he’s playing well, the team plays well. He transmits an important and positive energy to the group. He’s always in very good form come the end of the season. He’s got an eye for goal and he’ll never lose that.”

Ronaldo has scored at least one goal in his last eight matches in all competitions. He has 21 goals in his last 11 games.

“He’s unbelievably ambitious and that comes across in every training session and in everything he does on the field,” Zidane said. “If he has a penalty in training, he will take it with the maximum concentration. It’s what makes him different from the rest.”

Ronaldo is trying to keep Messi from winning the top-scorer’s “Pichichi” trophy for the second consecutive year. The Argentina forward scored 37 league goals last season, 12 more than Ronaldo.

Ronaldo hasn’t won the award since 2014-15, when he had 48 goals. That was still shy of Messi’s record of 50 goals in 2011-12.

Despite’s Ronaldo’s impressive run, Madrid’s chances of repeating as league champion remain slim. Madrid trails Barcelona by 15 points after 29 matches. The teams will play again in May in a league match at Camp Nou. They could also meet in the Champions League semifinals or the final.

Messi scored twice against Madrid this season – in a 3-1 loss in the Spanish Super Cup final at the beginning of the season and in a 3-0 win at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in a league match late last year. Ronaldo scored against the Catalan club in that Spanish Super Cup game.

Messi has scored at least a goal in his last six matches in all competitions. He has scored at least 25 league goals in nine consecutive seasons with Barcelona.

“Messi is the best player in the world and he shows it game after game,” Athletic defender Unai Nunez said after his team’s loss to Barcelona on Sunday.

Ronaldo has scored at least 25 league goals in the last eight seasons. He scored four or more goals in a match with Madrid eight times.

“He’s on unbelievable form at the moment,” Madrid forward Lucas Vazquez said of Ronaldo. “He helps the team with his work, goals and assists. Everyone benefits from it.”

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