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

Everton’s Koeman hopes loss isn’t end: “I don’t think it’s too late”

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Will losing 5-2 at home to Arsenal and dipping into the early season Premier League drop zone be the end of Ronald Koeman at Everton?

He hopes not.

[ RECAP: Everton 2-5 Arsenal ]

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Koeman said. “I told the players that I believe in the commitment of the players but if you are negative thinking, and everyone is doing it at this moment, I can understand it. You take all the things in a negative way, not even we stayed with 10 men at 1-2. Again, once again all these decisions are not in my hand.

Koeman spoke in relatively relaxed tones after the defeat, clearly flustered but aware that freaking out wasn’t going to change anything.

“It’s difficult,” he said. “It’s not a time to start to be crazy because I’m responsible for this team. We lost 5-2 and it’s a big result even against Arsenal.”

Like fellow Dutch manager Frank De Boer at Crystal Palace, the move is not necessary yet somehow seems inevitable. Will Bill Kenwright and the Everton board be able to avoid itchy trigger fingers with a midweek trip to Chelsea in the League Cup and a visit to Leicester City next?

The League Cup match gives a little buffer, but a relegation six-pointer of sorts against Leicester is probably not the time for a shakeup. And all one has to do is look to the Foxes to see how a managerial change doesn’t fix everything.

If the Toffees squad hates Koeman, and we don’t know much about this, then yes, maybe a change for the sake of change could help before the trip to Leicester.

But there was a moment in the first half, when it was still 1-0 for the hosts, that showed just how slim the margins are for Everton. Gylfi Sigurdsson, the mega money transfer, chipped a ball into the box that any top striker would’ve ran onto and belted home for 2-0.

But there was not a top striker there. Koeman did not sell Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United. Everton, as Arlo White and Lee Dixon said during the broadcast, put all their eggs in Olivier Giroud‘s basket only to see him stay in London for family reasons. Sandro hasn’t done the trick, and the Toffees need January badly. Will they get there with Koeman?

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Everton 2-5 Arsenal: Ozil, Sanchez star for Gunners

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  • Rooney buries beauty (video)
  • Ozil puts Gunners ahead
  • Lacazette scores after Gana red card
  • Toffees into relegation zone

Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil starred as Arsenal overcame a beautiful Wayne Rooney opener to send 10-man Everton into the Bottom Three after a 5-2 decision at Goodison Park on Sunday.

Ozil scored the match-winner and Sanchez, Nacho Monreal, Aaron Ramsey, and Alexandre Lacazette also scored as Arsenal again showed its potential for greatness in a comeback win. The Gunners move into fifth, behind Chelsea on goal differential.

The loss overshadowed Wayne Rooney’s wonderful strike from outside the 18, and sends Everton 18th on goal differential. Oumar Niasse scored in stoppage time off a laughable back pass from Monreal.

Idrissa Gana Gueye took a second yellow for fouling Granit Xhaka in the 69th minute.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The first 10 minutes may’ve well been subtitled, “Alexandre Lacazette versus Jordan Pickford,” but Rooney changed that.

The Everton hero, two days shy of his 32nd birthday, buried his 15th career goal against Arsenal by picking up the ball after a 50-50 scrap opened the ball into his path.

What a hit.

Arsenal hit back, before the break, when Pickford got horizontal to save a an Aaron Ramsey rip onto the boot of Monreal. Pickford only got a piece of the shot, and it was 1-1.

Pickford some more wonderful Gunner thwarting late in the half when Alexis Sanchez’s crafty dribbling led him to the doorstep.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Rooney’s goal was a distant memory when Arsenal earned its first lead via gorgeous goal production in its own right. Alexis Sanchez chipped a delightful ball into the 18 and Ozil nodded it past Pickford.

There were third and fourth rungs on Ozil and Sanchez’s goal ladder when Hector Bellerin took the ball from a Nikola Vlasic mistake and fed Sanchez, who found Ozil for a cutback to Lacazette inside the 18.

Substitute mid Jack Wilshere cued up Ramsey for a fine team goal just before the whistle, but it wasn’t the final goal. Niasse took advantage of a Monreal gaffe to make it 4-2 before Alexis waltzed to restore the three-goal advantage.

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Watch Live: Tottenham Hotspur vs. Liverpool

Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images
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Tottenham Hotspur looks to keep Liverpool in its rear view mirror with a win at Wembley Stadium on Sunday (Watch live at 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The Reds can move a point back of third-placed Spurs with a win.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE, HERE

Georginio Wijnaldum will miss with a reported injury, as Jordan Henderson, James Milner, and Emre Can start in Jurgen Klopp‘s midfield.

For Spurs, it’ll be Harry Winks starting over Eric Dier in an otherwise fairly standard unit.

LINEUPS

Tottenham Hotspur: Lloris, Trippier, Alderweireld, Sanchez, Vertonghen, Aurier, Winks, Dele, Eriksen, Son, Kane. Subs: Vorm, Rose, Nkoudou, Sissoko, Llorente, Dier, Davies.

Liverpool: Mignolet, Gomez, Matip, Lovren, Moreno, Henderson, Milner, Can, Salah, Coutinho, Firmino. Subs: Karius, Grujic, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alexander-Arnold, Solanke, Klavan, Sturridge.

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AT HALF: Rooney’s beauty leads entertaining 1-1 vs. Arsenal

Peter Byrne/PA via AP
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The first 10 minutes of Arsenal’s visit to Everton may’ve well been subtitled, “Alexandre Lacazette versus Jordan Pickford,” but Wayne Rooney changed that.

The Everton hero, two days shy of his 32nd birthday, buried his 15th career goal against Arsenal by picking up the ball after a 50-50 scrap opened the ball into his path.

[ STREAM: Everton vs. Arsenal ]

What a hit.

Unfortunately for Everton, Nacho Monreal hit back just before the break to level the score.

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