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

Bruce Arena opens up about USMNT World Cup failure

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Former US Men’s National Team manager Bruce Arena has opened up about the failure of the team to reach the 2018 World Cup, culminating in an embarrassing and humbling 2-1 defeat at Trinidad & Tobago that left the USA on the outside looking in.

During a Q&A session in Philadelphia, Arena takes some blame but also dishes out a lot more, throwing everything from team chemistry, a weak player pool, weak mentality on the field, and even the national team’s communications department for the nightmare scenario that came to fruition in Couva.

“There are a lot of excuses, but at the end of the day you find a way to get off that field with a point,” Arena said to Straus, before laying out all those excuses he referred to. First up? The team chemistry, which was laid bare after injuries to John Brooks, Jordan Morris, and Sebastian Lletget.

“It wasn’t the same team with the right chemistry. It just didn’t seem like everyone was on the same page with the right mentality and the same understanding of what everything was about,” Arena said Friday. “The chemistry of the group wasn’t right. It wasn’t the character you see out of a U.S. team. And the second part, realistically, was that we didn’t have the most talented players and when we had injuries, it hurt us.”

Arena said there were signs of life in June after a win over Trinidad followed by a quality point against Mexico. However, it all came crashing down during a brutal week in early September that ultimately doomed the United States. After a stunning 2-0 loss to Costa Rica, Arena made a whopping seven changes to the starting lineup, none of which worked as a listless USMNT had to scrap and claw for a late equalizer in a 1-1 draw with Honduras. While Arena said the leaders on the team like Michael Bradley and Tim Howard were there when they were needed, “there were a couple of bad eggs like you have on every team. We were well aware of it.”

The 66-year-old blamed the pre-match buildup to the Trinidad & Tobago team as part of the issue, throwing the communications department under the bus for energizing the home side. “Behind the scenes there were mistakes on our part, probably,” Arena said in what began sounding like an admission of guilt. “Our social media, our communications department, sent out everything humiliating the Trinidad federation on the training facility, which was the game field for that day. It got them all fired up and when we kicked off on that day, it was a battle.”

Arena then railed against those who questioned his tactics or player choices after the disaster, saying, “You got some answers for me the day before the game? During the game? I’m listening. Everyone the day after, you’re a bunch of phonies. I don’t want to hear about it the day after. We’re all the best coaches the day after.”

It took everything Arena had to admit he may have played a part in the failure to qualify, and even then, he did so with plenty of restraint. “I accept that responsibility,” Arena said. “That’s why I resigned so quickly. I accepted my responsibility. That’s the way it goes. I don’t feel good about it, but that’s life.”

Michael Carrick to retire after the season, join Man United coaching staff

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Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho announced Friday night that 36-year-old midfielder Michael Carrick will retire after this season and join the Red Devils’ coaching staff.

Carrick has made just one appearance for Manchester United this season, back on September 20th in an EFL Cup match against Burton Albion. He has been on the sidelines recovering since an irregular heartbeat was discovered after he felt “strange” in the second half of that game. However, Carrick has been training with the team since November and Mourinho confirmed he could finish out his career on the pitch.

“[He had] a few months without even training so now he is in his second week of training with the team,” Mourinho said to the media ahead of Manchester United’s match against Burnley on Saturday morning. “He is a very important player for us. I think it is a good decision for the team and a good decision for him to finish playing football and not injured or with some problem.”

Mourinho confirmed that the club has offered him a position on the team’s coaching staff, and that he expects Carrick to accept.

“We are all happy and in the end of the season I expect him to join,” Mourinho said, “unless he changes his mind, but the club would be very happy for him to do that. I would be very happy also for him to do that.”

Carrick has spent his entire career in the city of London. He began his career in the West Ham youth system, making his professional debut in 2005 and spending five years with the Hammers before moving to Tottenham in 2004. He spent two seasons at White Hart Lane before joining Manchester United in the summer of 2006, where he would go on to 460 appearances across all competitions, scoring 23 goals and assisting 36 others. He has won five Premier League titles with Manchester United, as well as a Champions League, an FA Cup, and three League Cups.

Brighton nabs club record signing Jurgen Locadia

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Brighton & Hove Albion have secured a new striker for the stretch run of the Premier League season, signing Jurgen Locadia from PSV Eindhoven for a club record fee.

Locadia cost Brighton $19.3 million, breaking their old transfer record, set just last August when they brought Jose Izqueirdo from Club Brugge, by about $500,000.

The 24-year-old Dutchman has nine goals and six assists this season in 15 Eredivisie appearances for PSV, although he’s missed their last three games reportedly with a hamstring injury. He scored four goals in one game against FC Utretcht back in late September.

“We are delighted to have signed Jurgen, and pleased to welcome him to the club,” said Brighton manager Chris Hughton in the official club release. “He is a player we have been aware of for sometime, and it’s been no secret we have wanted to add a striker of his type. He is a strong, powerful and quick center-forward, with a real eye for goal and will increase our attacking options in the second half of the season.”

Locadia made his Eredivisie debut with PSV in style back in 2012, scoring a hat-trick against VVV Venlo in a 6-0 win. He would go on to score a career-high 13 goals in his first full season in 2013/14, eventually racking up 62 goals for PSV across all competitions in 176 appearances.

A PSV youth product, Locadia has been in the national team picture, riding the bench for a pair of World Cup qualifiers in October, but has not received a cap for the Netherlands. He was in the national youth setup as well, making appearances for the U-17 and U-21 sides.

Jupp Heynckes calls Aubameyang, Dembele behavior “unacceptable”

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Bayern Munich manager Jupp Heynckes has labeled Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s and Ousmane Dembele’s behavior at rival club Borussia Dortmund “unacceptable” and suggested such players would not be signed by Bayern Munich.

“It’s unacceptable how certain players act in professional football,” Heynckes said speaking to the media ahead of Bayern’s on Sunday against Werder Bremen. “It’s just not right. These situations have always happened, but now they have reached a whole new dimension.”

Aubameyang has not yet left Borussia Dortmund, but reports all over Europe suggest he is pressing the club to leave, with Arsenal linked, as well as a move to China. The Gabonese international has been suspended by the club for missing meetings and training, and reports say he has handed in a transfer request.

Dembele left for Barcelona back in the summer, and was similarly suspended for missing training in hopes of forcing a move. The 20-year-old later admitted that he intentionally missed training with the intent of pushing the club to sell him.

“The Dembele and Aubameyang situations have to be viewed in a critical light,” Heynckes added, also hitting out at former Liverpool playmaker Philippe Coutinho, who the Reds insist they did everything in their power to convince him to stay before he ultimately left for Barcelona. “I am very critical of this because players are very privileged. The Coutinho transfer was similar but solved more elegantly.”

The 72-year-old, in his fourth stint as Bayern Munich manager, said he would not sign these players if up to him, and suggested that Bayern Munich has a higher standard.

“Ethics and morals form part of our job and we have to look at the bigger picture and what’s happening in society. You have to consider how difficult it is for others to earn their monthly income. Clubs signing these players have to expect that this behavior will continue at their club. I don’t want to speak of solidarity, but it’s a team sport where you cannot afford to set your own individual targets. Clubs should think twice about signing these players. Honestly, I would reject it.”

Heynckes said that clubs shouldn’t take a hard stance with a player, instead hoping to placate them with a softer touch.

“Banishing the player to the stands is not the way,” Heynckes said. “You have to work at it, communicate and care for the player. You need a clear direction and I think we have that at Bayern Munich.”