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

Klopp talks politics: “Brexit makes no sense”

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Jurgen Klopp isn’t a fan of Brexit and he doesn’t care who knows it.

Liverpool’s German manager has spoken in the past about his disdain towards the vote by British citizens to leave the European Union, with Brexit officially planned for March 2019.

Klopp sat down with the Guardian to chat about a whole host of topics but it was his political views which will get the headlines ahead of Liverpool’s huge UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg against AS Roma at Anfield on Tuesday.

The man who has Liverpool on the cusp of reaching a major European final and comfortably in the top four of the Premier League also admitted that he has a “helping syndrome” and wants to help out everyone and he cares about them greatly.

It is worth letting the words speak for themselves when it comes to Klopp’s comments on Brexit as it is clearly something else he cares a lot about.

Take it away, Jurgen…

“When Mr [David] Cameron had the idea [of a referendum] you thought: ‘This is not something people should decide in a moment.’ We are all influenced by the way only some of the argument is given, and once the decision is taken nobody gives you a real opportunity to change it again. The choice was either you stay in Europe, which is not perfect, or you go out into something nobody has any idea how it will work.

“So you give people the chance to make this big decision. And then it’s a 51-49 [51.9%-48.1%] vote and you’re thinking: ‘Wow, 49% are not happy with the decision that’s going to change the country.’ For the 51%, I’m sure they realized pretty early after the vote: ‘What have we done?’ The two leaders of the leave campaign then stepped aside. It was a pure sign they were surprised themselves by the vote. OK, that can happen. But then, come on, let’s sit together again. Let’s think about it again and let’s vote again with the right information – not with the information you’ve got around the Brexit campaign. They were obviously not right, not all of them. It makes no sense at all.”

“The EU is not perfect but it was the best idea we had. History has always shown that when we stay together we can sort out problems. When we split then we start fighting. There was not one time in history where division creates success. So, for me, Brexit still makes no sense.”

VIDEO: Napoli fans celebrate Juventus win

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It is safe to say Napoli’s fans were pretty happy with the 1-0 win their team secured at Juventus on Sunday.

Kalidou Koulibaly powered home a header in stoppage as Napoli moved just one point behind Juventus, who sit top of the Serie A table, with four games to go. The title race is well and truly on in Italy.

The scenes across Naples after the game were incredible and when the players arrived back at the airport at around 3 a.m. local time they were greeted by thousands of adoring fans.

Take a look at the video below. Wow.


Preview: Everton v. Newcastle

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  • Everton have won seven of their last eight games v Newcastle
  • Newcastle have won four PL games in a row
  • Wayne Rooney has more goals (15) against Newcastle than any other PL team

Everton host Newcastle United on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with the Toffees and Magpies both setting pretty in midtable.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game

The Toffees sit in ninth, with Newcastle in 10th and just one point behind Everton with a game in hand. Rafael Benitez has been lauded for taking his newly-promoted side into the top 10 with defensive solidity, while Sam Allardyce has been lambasted for a defensive style of play despite getting Everton out of a relegation fight following his appointment back in November.

In team news Everton have Mason Holgate and Gylfi Sigurdsson out injured, while Newcastle will be without Christian Atsu but Islam Slimani could make his first start.


What they’re saying 

Sam Allardyce on the job Rafael Benitez has done at Newcastle: “From a difficult period they have managed to recover and get in the Premier League and they have turned it around. They have put together a run of games and we’ll see a better Newcastle than we saw up there [when Everton won 1-0 in December]. Rafa has progressed very well. He has always expressed his disappointment with not enough funds – we can all say we don’t have enough funds. What he has managed with the funds he has, particularly in the January months, has been excellent.”

Rafael Benitez on his Newcastle future: “I want to win games and I want to win trophies and I want to have the tools to be capable of competing. At the same time. I like to improve players, coach players, follow a business plan, a realistic business plan in modern football. I have no problem with that because I did it in the past.”

Prediction
Two teams who are very similar in terms of their style of play should see a bit of a stalemate take place at Goodison. 1-1 draw, which is a much better result for Newcastle and will pile more pressure on Big Sam.

Paul Pogba: “Transfers are not in my head”

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Paul Pogba has been discussing his future at Manchester United beyond this season.

The Frenchman delivered a stunning assist in United’s 2-1 win against Tottenham in the FA Cup semifinal on Saturday, with the midfielder now named Man of the Match in each of his last two games after plenty of speculation about his future at United in recent months.

Jose Mourinho left Pogba out of his starting lineup on multiple occasions, while Pep Guardiola claims he was offered to buy Pogba in January and speculation about him joining Paris Saint-Germain, going back to Juventus or heading to Real Madrid continue.

Speaking to French outlet Canal Football Club, Pogba had the following to say about his own future.

“Right now, I am at Manchester United and I am honestly only thinking about the present. Transfers are not in my head. We are in the [FA] Cup final and the World Cup is around the corner,” Pogba said.

Pogba also addressed the rumors regarding his relationship with Mourinho with reports stating that the duo do not get along and United’s manager is fed up with the Frenchman’s attitude off the pitch.

“I don’t have a problem with him, and I don’t think he has a problem with me,” Pogba said. “He’s the coach and he has to make choices. I am a player and I accept them. I have to answer on the pitch.”