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

Serie A: Inconsistent Milan lose at Sampdoria; Inter, Lazio win

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MILAN (AP) AC Milan’s problems with consistency continued as a poor performance saw it lose 2-0 at Sampdoria in Serie A on Sunday.

Milan didn’t even have a shot on target as late goals from Duvan Zapata and substitute Ricky Alvarez condemned the Rossoneri to its second defeat of the season.

“Samp was superior to us and deserved the victory,” Milan coach Vincenzo Montella said. “We didn’t perform. We were insufficient on a mental level and in our determination as well as technically.

“It’s a defeat which hurts us and we will have to understand why it happened. We’ll need to analyze everything without hiding ourselves.”

Milan slipped to sixth, six points behind leaders Napoli and Juventus. Inter Milan is two points below the top two after a narrow 1-0 victory over Genoa, with Lazio three points further back after beating Hellas Verona 3-0.

There was a huge scare for Milan in the second minute as the referee awarded a penalty to Sampdoria for handball but changed his mind after video review, as Franck Kessie’s arm was against his back when it was hit by Ivan Strinic’s cross.

Sampdoria had a number of chances before eventually breaking the deadlock in the 72nd. Milan defender Cristian Zapata inadvertently nodded an attempted clearance straight at his cousin, Duvan Zapata, who fired it in from six yards (meters).

Alvarez sealed the result in stoppage time, seconds after coming off the bench.


Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic pulled off a number of saves before a late goal helped the Nerazzurri secure a 1-0 win over Genoa, which ended the match with nine men.

Inter had lost its perfect record midweek in a surprise 1-1 draw against Bologna so needed a win to keep up the pressure on Napoli and Juventus.

It was Genoa which had the better of the chances, although Inter did hit the post through Marcelo Brozovic on the stroke of halftime.

However, Inter scored what was to prove the winner three minutes from time when Danilo D’Ambrosio headed in a corner.

“There’s still a bit of difference with Juventus and Napoli, we have to narrow the gap by reconsolidating the certainties which should belong to a great club like Inter,” coach Luciano Spalletti said.

“This team hasn’t reached its limits yet … we have to reach those limits and then surpass them.”

Genoa players Stephane Omeonga and Adel Taarabt were shown straight red cards within minutes of each other in stoppage time. Omeonga was ejected for bringing down Eder and denying a clear goalscoring opportunity, and Taarabt for a two-footed tackle on Yann Karamoh.


Ciro Immobile maintained his impressive scoring streak as he netted another two goals to help Lazio win 3-0 at Verona and bounce back from its hefty midweek defeat to Napoli.

Both Immobile’s goals came in the first half, opening the scoring from the penalty spot after Adam Marusic was tripped by Samuel Souprayen,

Immobile’s second was a stunning solo goal as he weaved his way past two Verona defenders before firing into the far bottom corner for his 11th goal in all competitions for Lazio this season. The Italy forward has only failed to score in one match, in a 0-0 draw against Spal.

Immobile also set up Lazio’s third for Marusic.

Crotone scored its first goals of the season in a 2-0 win against Benevento, which is still seeking its first points in Serie A.

Rolando Mandragora netted a stunning strike for his first career goal and Marcus Rohden doubled Crotone’s lead. Nicolas Viola hit the post with a late penalty for Benevento.

Elsewhere, substitute Orji Okwonkwo scored a late winner, two minutes after coming off the bench, to fire Bologna to a 1-0 win at 10-man Sassuolo.

Chievo Verona won 2-0 at Cagliari.

MLS Snapshot: SKC top LA 2-1, make it 3 home wins in a week

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The game in 100 words (or less): Sporting Kansas City avoided the dreaded U.S. Open Cup hangover on Sunday, four short days after lifting the Cup here at Children’s Mercy Park, by beating the LA Galaxy, 2-1, to remain just a point back of the first-place Vancouver Whitecaps in the race for home-field advantage in the Western Conference. Daniel Salloi, scorer of the USOC-winning goal on Wednesday, and Diego Rubio put the exclamation point on a dominant first-performance by putting Sporting KC 2-0 ahead after 35 minutes. LA got a goal back through Romain Alessandrini’s curling free kick just before the hour mark, but that’s as close as Sigi Schmid’s side would get on the afternoon. The victory sets up a top-of-the-table clash between Sporting and Vancouver next Saturday. Also, Gyasi Zardes played 90 minutes at right back. It went about how you’d expect it to go.

[ MORE: TFC’s Shield celebration delayed | RSL end Seattle’s run at 13 ]

Three Four moments that mattered

1′ — Dos Santos should have seen red after 26 seconds — If video review wasn’t implemented to review plays like this, we should just get rid of video review altogether.

18′ — Salloi gets to Rubio’s cross, toe-pokes it home — Maybe Peter Vermes knew what he was doing when he traded Dom Dwyer, thus opening a boatload of minutes for Salloi and Rubio.

35′ — Rubio taps it in after Sinovic puts it on a platter — Sporting made this one look really, really easy.

58′ — Alessandrini curls a beauty past Melia — Not a whole lot Tim Melia could do about that one.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Diego Rubio

Goalscorers: Salloi (18′), Rubio (35′), Alessandrini (58′)

Americans Abroad wrap: Goals for Boyd, Gooch, Ariyibi

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Not every American player abroad found himself beneath a cleat this weekend, like DeAndre Yedlin.

[ PL PREVIEW: Arsenal vs. West Brom ]

The Magpies right back went 90 minutes for Newcastle and delivered good service in the 1-0 loss to Brighton and Hove Albion. How did other Americans fare abroad?

Germany

Bobby Wood led Hamburg in attempts on goal in Hamburg’s 3-0 loss at Bayer Leverkusen.

— American teenager Weston McKennie made his second-straight start for Schalke, but was again on the losing end in a 2-0 defeat at Hoffenheim.

— Fellow 19-year-old Christian Pulisic went 64 minutes for first-place Borussia Dortmund, leaving with BVB up 5-0 and en route to a 6-1 victory over Borussia Monchengladbach.

— Not many Foals had good matches in that 6-1 defeat to BVB, and Fabian Johnson departed after 72 minutes with his side down four.

— Credit Timmy Chandler for a match-best four crosses in Eintracht Frankfurt’s 2-1 loss at RB Leipzig.

— In the second tier, Terrence Boyd came off the bench to fire his first goal of the season, a 90th minute header that was joined by Tobias Kempe’s 93rd minute marker to give Darmstadt a 3-3 draw versus Dynamo Dresden.

— Alfredo Morales went 90 minutes in the midfield as Ingolstadt lost 2-0 at Bochum.

— Julian Green got another 90 at left midfield/wing but Greuther Furth fell 3-1 at home to Nurnberg.

— On loan from Schalke, Haji Wright went 59 minutes at center forward as Sandhausen fell 1-0 at Erzegebirge Aue. Ken Gipson was on the bench for the ninth time but did not feature for the eighth.

— Jann George had an assist for Jahn Regensburg in a 2-1 win against visiting Eintracht Braunschweig.

England

— Yedlin went 90 for Newcastle, as detailed above.

— On the otherside of the Tyne-Wear rivalry, Sunderland midfielder Lynden Gooch had a moment to remember in a loss to Cardiff City. Gooch converted a penalty that briefly leveled the match.

— Eric Lichaj isn’t getting Championship run for Nottingham Forest, but went 90 minutes at right mid in a 5-1 League Cup loss to Chelsea at midweek.

— Tim Ream has played all 810 league minutes for Fulham, who drew 1-1 versus Middlesbrough at Craven Cottage

— On loan from Everton, Antonee Robinson is still yet to taste victory as a member of Bolton Wanderers. They fell 3-0 to Brentford, with Robinson putting in 75 minutes at left mid.

— On loan from Spurs, Cameron Carter-Vickers went the distance for Sheffield United in a 4-2 derby win over Sheffield Wednesday. The Blades have won both of the 19-year-old’s starts.

— In League One, Gboly Ariyibi scored for the third time in six days as MK Dons won 2-0 at AFC Wimbledon.

— Duane Holmes put another 90 in the books at right mid for Scunthorpe United in a 2-0 win over visiting Portsmouth.

Elsewhere

— Ethan Horvath picked up a win as Club Brugge went to RSC Charleroi and won 2-1. Brugge is 7W-1L in league play this season, and the 22-year-old has played every minute.

— On loan from Chelsea, Matt Miazga went 90 minutes at center back for Vitesse in a 2-1 win at Ajax.

Benitez peeved by block on Brighton’s clever set piece goal (video)

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Brighton midfielder Dale Stephens and Newcastle United boss Rafa Benitez obviously feel quite different about the match-winning goal the Gulls nabbed off a set piece on Sunday.

[ MORE: Recap | Hemed denies intent vs. Yedlin ]

Both agree on one thing, though, there’s blocking involved in the play’s success.

“We’ve tried it a few times,” Stephens said. “I’m glad it paid off. We change the blocker each time.”

Benitez saw his club’s three-match winning streak end largely on the merit of that goal, and thinks a foul should’ve been spotted by Andre Marriner.

Ciaran Clark is partially and purposely blocked from moving toward Stephens at the back post, and also misses the ball after Stephens nods back across goal.

It’s a clever play which led to an important goal, but Benitez feels it was insidious and illegal.

“I am not happy with the way we conceded. It was a block, an illegal block. You cannot argue too much but it is very difficult to understand some things. They pushed my players.

What do you think? There’s not much in the block. At the same time, it’s hard to call it anything but a block.