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.

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

“Overweight” Costa comes to Mourinho’s defense

Diego Costa, Chelsea FC
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Diego Costa says he and his Chelsea teammates are to blame for Chelsea’s horrid start to the 2015-16 Premier League season.

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Speaking Thursday, during a bit of downtime over the current international break (Costa was left out of Vicente del Bosque’s squad for Spain’s final two EURO 2016 qualifiers this week), Costa placed the majority of blame at the feet of the entire team, but went on to most harshly critique himself for coming into the season unfocused and “overweight.”

Costa, on his lack of fitness and form to begin the season — quotes from the Guardian:

“We know we’re not in the form we were supposed to be at the beginning of the season. We need to blame the players because we came back from holiday very confident, thinking we could go back into how it was last season, and then realized the team was already in a bad situation.

“I’m going to be very honest: maybe a few weeks ago, five or six weeks ago, I was not on top of my game. At least physically. We talk within the players and we know that, maybe at the beginning, we were not 100 percent as we were supposed to be when we got here. I got injured at the end of last season and then I went on holiday. Maybe I got out of my diet and, when I came back, I was not the way I was supposed to be. I was a little bit overweight. That affected my game. You can be selfish and blame it on the manager but I’m not going to do that. I’m responsible 100%, and so are the other guys.

Given that Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said on Thursday he doesn’t quite know what’s wrong with the defending Premier League champions, hearing someone — anyone — speak up and explain the club’s worst start to a season in 37 years will surely be a welcome sound to any Blues supporter’s ears.

[ MORE: Liverpool appoint Klopp as manager | Allardyce to Sunderland? ]

Costa, who is eligible to return from suspension next weekend when Aston Villa visit Stamford Bridge, has scored just one goal in league play this season (six appearances) after scoring 20 in 26 games last season.

Sam Allardyce to open talks with Sunderland

Sam Allardyce, West Ham United FC
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Now that Liverpool have selected and named their new manager, it appears Sunderland are finally ready to move forward with their own managerial search. (That’s clearly a joke, because it implies Liverpool and Sunderland ever duke it out for the same managerial candidate.)

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Anyway, the Black Cats will have to hire someone to replace the recently-departed Dick Advocaat at some point. We all knew that, despite the fact he’s probably earned a shot at that level, Bob Bradley was never really going to be considered for the job. With that in mind, if you’re not going to endear yourself to the entire United States of America with this hire, you might as well go for the best unemployed manager who’ll actually consider your approach.

That’s what Sunderland chairman Ellis Short appears to have done, as it was reported Thursday that despite an initial reluctance from Sam Allardyce — let’s be honest, he actually was holding out hope for the Liverpool job — the 60-year-old most recently in charge of West Ham United was willing and ready to enter into negotiations with the northeastern club.

One of the major sticking points during Sunderland’s courting of Allardyce is expected to be his demand for autonomy in the transfer market as well as a sizable transfer budget to sign his own players during the January window.

[ MORE: Advocaat: Sunderland squad too thin, chairman to blame ]

Allardyce seems like the no. 1 guy you’d like to bring in to steady a capsized ship — cough Sunderland cough — in any situation. Not only does he have a successful track record in the Premier League, but he’s the kind of no-nonsense leader a club like Sunderland so desperately needs as they find themselves in yet another relegation battle just eight games into the new season.

Short hopes to have Allardyce signed, sealed and delivered when the Premier League returns to action next weekend. In that event, Allardyce’s first game in charge of Sunderland would be a trip to West Bromwich Albion. His first home fixture? Home to Tyne-Wear derby rivals Newcastle United, a club whose boisterous fanbase still holds a great deal of disdain for Big Sam. Sometimes the football gods really are looking out for us.