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

FIFA approves Simunovic switch from Croatia to Bosnia

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ZURICH (AP) FIFA has approved a change of nationality for Croatia-born defender Jozo Simunovic to represent Bosnia-Herzegovina in its push to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

[ MORE: Mbappe to Man City? ]

FIFA says it informed the Bosnian federation on Tuesday that its players’ status panel granted the request to change eligibility.

The 22-year-old Simunovic has Bosnian family roots but represented neighboring Croatia at youth level.

Simunovic could switch teams under FIFA rules because he never played a competitive game for Croatia’s senior team.

The Celtic player can now be selected next month in Bosnia’s squad for World Cup qualifying games away to Cyprus and Gibraltar.

Bosnia is third in its group, one point behind Greece in the runners-up spot, which can earn a playoff place.

Premier League in USA: Checking in on Manchester clubs, Spurs

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Three Premier League giants are continuing their tours in the United States of American with Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur all competing in the International Champions Cup.

[ MORE: Latest PL preseason news ]

Man United and Spurs have both played twice in the ICC, while Man City play their second game Stateside on Wednesday against two-time reigning champions Real Madrid.

Tottenham and Man City will face each other in Nashville on Saturday to finish up their preseason tours of the USA.

Below is a look at the latest action for Spurs, City and United.


Manchester City vs. Real Madrid – Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET at the Rose Bowl, Pasadena

After losing to Manchester United in their opening preseason game in Houston, Texas last week, Pep Guardiola‘s men will step up their preparations against the might of Real Madrid. With Danilo and Benjamin Mendy now on board (the latter is recovering from a small injury so will not feature), plus Kyle Walker and Ederson with Bernardo Silva on a break after appearing at the Confederations Cup this summer, Pep is likely to have two new full backs and a new goalkeeper on show in this one.

[ MORE: Kylian Mbappe to Man City?

Youngster Phil Foden dazzled against Manchester United at NRG Stadium last week and should be given plenty of chances to impress in preseason. Real Madrid are without Cristiano Ronaldo for these games but Zindeine Zidane’s men still have plenty of firepower, even though their big names failed to dazzle in the penalty kick defeat to Man United over the weekend in Santa Clara, Calif. Spanish clubs do start preseason later than PL teams due to the La Liga schedule.

Guardiola coming up against Real Madrid is always a tasty affair and City will then complete their U.S. tour by facing Tottenham Hotspur in Nashville on Saturday. Real face arch-rivals Barcelona in Miami on Sunday before then facing the MLS All-Stars in Chicago on Aug. 2.


Manchester United vs. Barcelona – Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. ET at FedEx Field, Washington D.C.

In their four games Stateside this summer United have a 100 percent record and Jose Mourinho has hailed the trip as “magnificent” for preparations and a game against Barcelona the “perfect” way to end things.

After beating Man City 2-0 and then Real Madrid on PKs after a 1-1 draw, Mourinho will face a familiar foe in Barcelona and United will meet them in a repeat of the 2009 and 2011 UEFA Champions League finals.

[ MORE: Mourinho slams “dangerous” transfer deals

Mourinho will continue to rotate his team as new signings Romelu Lukaku and Victor Lindelof have both impressed so far and the Red Devils have switched between 3-4-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations. Juan Mata and Ander Herrera will not feature after picking up knocks, while Luke Shaw, Ashley Young and Marcos Rojo remain out long-term.

Barca beat Juventus 2-1 at MetLife Stadium on Saturday with Neymar scoring twice in the first half and the Brazilian’s future is the main question for the Spanish giants as Paris Saint-Germain reportedly line up a world-record bid to sign him. Expect a packed house at FedEx Field just outside Washington as United aim to end their preseason tour of the U.S. in style.


Tottenham 2-3 AS Roma – at Red Bull Arena, New Jersey on Tuesday

Mauricio Pochettino‘s men battled back from 2-0 down to tie it up late, but then Roma scored in stoppage time to win the International Champions Cup clash.

All of the big guns started for Spurs but it was Roma who took the lead with Diego Perotti scoring from the penalty spot after a harsh handball call on Spurs’ U.S. national team youngster Cameron Carter-Vickers. Tempers flared up throughout this game as Harry Kane thought he should have had a penalty kick and then lunged into a tackle, while on the sidelines Mauricio Pochettino was close to losing his cool. Maybe that was down to some uncharacteristic lackluster defending from his side…

Roma went 2-0 up in the 70th minute when Cengiz Under finished calmly but Spurs rallied late on as substitute Vincent Janssen hit the post but fellow sub Harry Winks tapped home the rebound, then Janssen equalized in stoppage time as it looked like Tottenham would grab a draw. However, Marco Tumminello struck in the 92nd minute (despite looking to haul Kevin Wimmer to the ground in the process) to grab the win for Roma in front of a raucous RBA crowd with plenty of Tottenham fans turning out to see their team in action.

Take a look at the video highlights below from the wild friendly, while next up for Spurs is their final International Champions Cup game in Nashville against Manchester City on Saturday. Roma play Juventus on Sunday to finish up their U.S. tour.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Sanches to Man United; Lemar, Fabinho off

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Just 24 hours after Jose Mourinho confirmed he wanted to sign a central midfielder and a winger the names of potential signings are already starting to fly in.

[ MORE: Mourinho slams “dangerous” transfers

Renato Sanches of Bayern Munich is the latest midfielder to be linked with a move to Manchester United, according to the Independent.

The Portuguese teenager almost arrived at Old Trafford last summer but instead joined Bayern Munich before impressing in Portugal’s triumph at EURO 2016.

Despite being one of the hottest young properties in Europe Sanches found minutes hard to come by under Carlo Ancelotti and it is believed he is available for $56.1 million.

Sanches agent happens to be Jorge Mendes, the agent of Mourinho, and with the youngster clearly brimming with talent, can he become the latest Portuguese import to flourish under the Special One?

AC Milan are also said to be interested in the two-way midfielder but with United said to be chasing Nemanja Matic and Radja Nainggolan, they may be after a center mid more suited to the defensive side of the game.


It looks like Monaco are saying “enough is enough” when it comes to selling their star players from last season.

Speaking to the media on Wednesday vice president Vadim Vasilyev revealed they are in talks with Kylian Mbappe over a new contract, while Thomas Lemar and Fabinho will not follow the likes of Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva and Tiemoue Bakayoko out of the exit door at the Stade Louis II.

“Fabinho and [Thomas] Lemar are essential players, they will stay with us,” Vasilyev said. “We have kept all of the key players we intended to keep.”

Vasilyev admitted that they have “important offers” for Mbappe but are hopeful he will remain a Monaco player for at least the upcoming season.

As for Fabinho and Lemar, the former was linked with a move to Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United, while the latter was said to be on his way to Arsenal in a $60 million deal.

Fabinho can operate at right back or in central midfield and Mourinho has already said he wants to strengthen in that area of the pitch. Lemar is comfortable out wide, primarily on the left, and would add an extra cutting edge to Arsenal’s attack, especially if Alexis Sanchez was to leave this summer.

Can Monaco really stand in the way of these players as they look around and see three stars from last season bagging big money moves to Manchester City and Chelsea?

Barcelona “confident” of signing Philippe Coutinho

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Barcelona are said to be “increasingly confident” of adding Philippe Coutinho despite Liverpool’s insistence he is not for sale.

[ MORE: Coutinho agrees deal with Barca? 

Coutinho, 25, has become the main man at Anfield over the past season and although Jurgen Klopp has reaffirmed the Brazilian playmaker is not going anywhere, Sky Sports in the UK is reporting that Barca still believe a deal can be done.

The Spanish giants are said to be readying a bid of $116 million for Coutinho to test Liverpool’s resolve after an earlier bid was reportedly turned down, while reports in Spain suggest that Coutinho has already agreed personal terms with Barca over a move.

Barcelona’s push for Coutinho could suggest that Neymar’s potential world-record move to Paris Saint-Germain is edging closer, but where could Coutinho fit in at the Nou Camp?

He would be perfect as a playmaker in Ernesto Valverde’s team and with Andres Iniesta no spring chicken, Barca need to look at filling his considerable shoes long-term. Coutinho excelled last season in the PL, scoring 13 goals and adding seven assists as he battled back from a mid-season injury to help the Reds return to the UEFA Champions League.

Coutinho can either star in a central playmaking role or could be a direct replacement for Neymar if he was to leave for PSG this summer.

Just imagine Coutinho threading through passes to Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez with the trio jinxing around defenders. Ahem, stop drooling.

Yet Liverpool’s stance remains clear: he is going nowhere. Klopp spoke about his future last week and confirmed he had a word with Coutinho during preseason but wouldn’t reveal the details of the chat.

Coutinho only sign a new new five-year contract in January but such have been the quality of his performances in setting the tempo of their play and delivering exceptional set pieces, plus scoring stunning long-range goals, the biggest teams on the planet are often linked with the former Inter Milan and Espanyol star.

Turning down Barcelona would be tough for any player and if the Catalan club do offer over $100 million for Coutinho then Liverpool will perhaps have to pay serious attention. When they sold Luis Suarez to Barca in 2014 there were extenuating circumstances around the deal, but Coutinho is about to enter his prime and could be the leader of Liverpool’s trophy push for many years.

If he is sold then it says plenty about their ambition to re-join Europe’s elite and would be a hammer blow for Klopp who has already struggled in the transfer market this summer as top targets Virgil Van Dijk and Naby Keita have yet to arrive with both valued at over $80 million by their respective clubs.

Coutinho certainly has the talent to be a star for Barcelona but the Brazilian leaving Anfield would be one of the biggest shocks of the summer. That said, does anything really surprise us anymore in this crazy transfer market?