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

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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

Premier League roundup: Top Four has separation; Relegation picture much clearer

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 13: Louis van Gaal Manager of Manchester United looks on prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Sunderland and Manchester United at the Stadium of Light on February 13, 2016 in Sunderland, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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A couple of lessons from Saturday in the Premier League:

  1. The reasonable relegation field has slimmed
  2. Thanks to two other sides, so has the Top Four

Manchester United and West Ham United both stumbled in a quest to make up ground on the top four sides in the Premier League, who face off with each other on Sunday.

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And Norwich City’s point coupled with Chelsea’s demolition of Newcastle United has the contestants for the Bottom Three looking pared down to six clubs.

Sunderland 2-1 Manchester UnitedRECAP

United will finish the weekend a minimum of six points outside of the Top Four after allowing a third minute goal and another about the same distance from the final whistle in its first ever loss at the Stadium of Light. Wahbi Khazri looks the part for Sunderland, who moved to within a point of safety with the win. Anthony Martial scored for United

Swansea City 0-1 SouthamptonRECAP

Fraser Forster has six-straight shutouts and Saints are knocking on the door of fifth place after picking up three points in Wales. Shane Long‘s late goal lifted Saints to the win and 40 points on the season, while Swans are three points ahead of 17th place Norwich City and 18th place Newcastle.

during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge on February 13, 2016 in London, England.

Chelsea 5-1 Newcastle UnitedRECAP

Newcastle started a makeshift back four with winger Rolando Aarons filling in at fullback, and Chelsea absolutely devoured the Magpies to win its first season series against the Northeast side since 2011. Pedro nabbed a pair of goals, with Bertrand Traore adding his first Premier League goal. Diego Costa and Willian also scored, and Andros Townsend added his first goal since leaving Spurs in the January transfer window. Newcastle is 18th after the blowout loss sunk them beneath Norwich on differential.

Norwich City 2-2 West Ham UnitedRECAP

And that’s because the Canaries tossed away a 2-0 home lead against Dimitri Payet. We should say West Ham, but Payet has been an absolute wizard for the Irons and scored before setting Mark Noble up for a second in erasing the deficit caused by goals from Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan. For the moment, Norwich is 17th and the Hammers failed in a bid to overtake Manchester United for fifth.

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 13: Giannelli Imbula of Stoke City controls the ball under pressure of Harry Arter of Bournemouth  during the Barclays Premier League match between A.F.C. Bournemouth and Stoke City at Vitality Stadium on February 13, 2016 in Bournemouth, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 13: Giannelli Imbula of Stoke City and Harry Arter of Bournemouth  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Bournemouth 1-3 Stoke CityRECAP

Giannlli Imbula, Joselu and Ibrahim Afellay helped the Potters cruise to a win at Vitality Stadium, halting its slide while moving Bournemouth smack dab back in the relegation frame. The Cherries are four points free of the drop zone, and Matt Ritchie‘s goal was part of a game comeback effort from Eddie Howe‘s bunch.

Everton 0-1 West Bromwich Albion — RECAP

The Toffees managed an incredible 34 shots, but couldn’t slip one past a packed-in West Brom side. The Baggies closed up shop after Salomon Rondon scored in the 14th minute, West Brom’s only shot on target of the night. Tony Pulis‘ side is eight points clear of the drop.

Crystal Palace 1-2 WatfordRECAP

Alan Pardew‘s Eagles are all the way down to 13th and winless in 2016 Premier League matches. With just one point from its last seven matches, Palace needs a win soon to avoid being a very real part of the relegation picture. Quique Flores‘ Hornets, however, are essentially safe after moving to within five points of fifth. Troy Deeney scored both of Watford’s goals, while Emmanuel Adebayor netted for Palace.

 

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Leicester City 25 15 8 2 47 27 20 7-4-1 8-4-1 53
Tottenham Hotspur 25 13 9 3 45 19 26 7-4-2 6-5-1 48
Arsenal 25 14 6 5 39 22 17 7-3-2 7-3-3 48
Manchester City 25 14 5 6 47 26 21 9-1-3 5-4-3 47
Manchester United 26 11 8 7 33 24 9 6-4-2 5-4-5 41
Southampton 26 11 7 8 34 24 10 7-2-4 4-5-4 40
West Ham United 26 10 10 6 40 31 9 5-5-2 5-5-4 40
Watford 26 10 6 10 29 28 1 5-3-5 5-3-5 36
Stoke City 26 10 6 10 27 32 -5 5-2-5 5-4-5 36
Everton 26 8 11 7 46 35 11 4-4-6 4-7-1 35
Liverpool 25 9 8 8 32 36 -4 4-5-3 5-3-5 35
Chelsea 26 8 9 9 38 36 2 5-5-4 3-4-5 33
Crystal Palace 26 9 5 12 27 32 -5 4-2-8 5-3-4 32
West Bromwich Albion 26 8 8 10 24 32 -8 4-4-5 4-4-5 32
Bournemouth 26 7 7 12 30 44 -14 3-4-6 4-3-6 28
Swansea City 26 6 9 11 24 34 -10 4-5-5 2-4-6 27
Norwich City 26 6 6 14 30 50 -20 4-4-5 2-2-9 24

Newcastle United 26 6 6 14 27 49 -22 4-5-4 2-1-10 24
Sunderland 26 6 5 15 32 50 -18 4-3-6 2-2-9 23
Aston Villa 25 3 7 15 20 40 -20 2-4-6 1-3-9 16

Watch Live: USWNT takes on Mexico in Olympic qualifier no. 2

Costa Rica defender Carol Sanchez, left, helps goalie Dinnia Diaz (1) on a shot by U.S.forward Alex Morgan, center, during the second half of a CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament soccer match Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016, in Frisco, Texas. Morgan scored 12 seconds in and added another goal in the 62nd minute. The United States won 5-0.. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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The latest chapter in the United States versus Mexico soccer rivalry takes place on Saturday, as the United States women’s national team faces the Mexican women’s national team in the second game of 2016 Olympic qualifying.

The game, which kicks off at 4 p.m. ET, can be seen live on NBC Sports Live Extra (link below) from Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Tex.

[ WATCH LIVE: USWNT vs. Mexico live online on NBC Sports Live Extra ]

Mexico currently sits atop Group A after a 6-0 drubbing of Puerto Rico in their opening game, while the USWNT are a very close second, having beaten Costa Rica 5-0 on Wednesday.

Injury update: Hiddink not hopeful Terry will face PSG this week

Chelsea's captain John Terry stands dejected after being defeated by Newcastle United at the end of their English Premier League soccer match at St James' Park, Newcastle, England, Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
AP Photo/Scott Heppell
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John Terry‘s Chelsea future is already very much in peril, and now the 35-year-old, 18-year servant of the club’s final foray into the UEFA Champions League is in just as much doubt.

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Terry left Saturday’s 5-1 victory over Newcastle United after just 38 minutes, shortly after picking up a hamstring injury in a nasty collision with and landing alongside Aleksandar Mitrovic. After the game, interim Chelsea manager gave a brief update on Terry’s status and subsequent availability for Tuesday’s Champions League clash with Ligue 1 giants Paris Saint-Germain — quotes from the BBC:

“We have just two days to recover and it is something to think about in the future because two days of recovery is not enough.”

Chelsea boss Guus Hiddink says they will know what John Terry’s injury situation is tomorrow. Doesn’t sound hopeful of him facing Paris St-Germain on Tuesday (but didn’t rule it out).

Terry will undergo a scan on his hamstring, which will determine the severity of injury and the time he is to miss, on Sunday.

Chelsea are already without defender Kurt Zouma, who suffered a nasty knee injury last weekend. Couple that with Terry’s injury on Saturday, and 20-year-old American center back Matt Miazga is now an injury to or sending-off of Gary Cahill or Branislav Ivanovic away from making his Chelsea debut in the Champions League and/or Premier League.

Chelsea 5-1 Newcastle United: Blues cruise past hapless Magpies

during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge on February 13, 2016 in London, England.
Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images
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  • Costa opens scoring in fifth minute
  • His 8th goal in 10 appearances
  • Magpies back into drop zone on goal diff.
  • Townsend strikes late to break shutout

Diego Costa and Pedro scored before the match was nine minutes old, and Willian put an exclamation point on a wild first half in the 17th minute as Chelsea battered Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

Pedro added another in the second half before Bertrand Traore tallied his first Premier League goal to make it 5-0. Chelsea now has 33 points, and is within two points of 10th and nine back of fifth place Manchester United.

Newcastle is back in 18th, lower than Norwich City on goal differential. Andros Townsend scored late for the Magpies.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

It took barely more than four minutes for Chelsea to take the lead, as Costa burst past Steven Taylor to slide Willian’s pass past Rob Elliot. 1-0.

Pedro doubled the advantage when he took advantage of 20-year-old Rolando Aarons, who was forced to play right back despite starting as a right wing under Alan Pardew. It was an awful pass regardless of his normal position, and Pedro picked it off and went the distance.

Andros Townsend cut in from the left to provide a counter threat, but his low shot was gobbled up by Thibaut Courtois.

Still, 3-0 came first. Costa worked a long ball and then watched Fabricio Coloccini back off. Willian tore through an unmarking back line to push home an easy goal.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The Magpies found some life in the second half, as Chelsea had to cope with an injury to John Terry that moved Branislav Ivanovic inside and put Baba Rahman into the game.

Aleksandar Mitrovic absorbed a tricky cleat to his achilles, staying in the game to hit a low shot wide of goal.

But Pedro added another goal moments later on a counterattack (of sorts) and it was 4-0 in the 59th minute.

Townsend broke the shutout when he belted a left footed shot home late for his first ever Newcastle goal.