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

Vidal rips Ronaldo ahead of Confederations Cup semifinal

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Chile hopes to make a statement on Wednesday when it faces EURO 2016 champions Portugal and Ballon d’Or champion Cristiano Ronaldo.

The 2015 and 2016 Copa America champions can lay claim to another inter-confederation title with two more wins in the 2017 Confederations Cup, beginning with the semifinal in Kazan.

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Chile finished behind Germany in Group B but didn’t lose a match and only allowed two goals. That’ll be tested by Portugal and its seven goals in three matches.

Two of those goals came from Ronaldo, but don’t tell that to Arturo Vidal. Chile’s hard-edged midfielder doesn’t like him much.

From Goal.com:

“Cristiano is a smart ass,” he told reporters. “For me he does not exist.

“I have already told my Bayern Munich team-mate Joshua Kimmich that we will meet again in the final.”

Germany will have to take care of Mexico to make that happen, though we have a feeling a certain smart ass will have a thing or two to say before it’s all said and done.

Vidal has spoken loudly of his desire to get Chilean teammate Alexis Sanchez, a former Barcelona man, at his club Bayern Munich. If Ronaldo is on the market, this isn’t a great recruiting tool. Ah, jokes.

Trio of Crew players in Ghana roster to face USMNT, Mexico

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Ghana’s team to face the United States men’s national team on Saturday in East Hartford will look somewhat familiar to fans of Major League Soccer.

Columbus Crew players Harrison Afful, Mohammed Abu and Jonathan Mensah join David Accam of the Chicago Fire, and Gershon Koffie of the New England Revolution on a unit with Kwadwo Poku of the NASL’s Kwadwo Poku.

John Boye, Asamoah Gyan, and Mensah are the only three players from the loss to the USMNT in the 2014 World Cup.

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Like the U.S., this is a less than full-strength squad. Missing are a number of Black Stars standouts, with Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew, Afriyie Acquah, Daniel Amartey, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, Christian Atsu, Jeff Schlupp, and Baba Rahman not with the team.

Saturday’s match is the last USMNT outing before the Gold Cup begins on July 8 in Nashville against Panama.

Goalkeepers: Addo Joseph (Aduana Stars), Richard Ofori (Wa All Stars)

Defenders: Lumor Agbenyenu (Munich 1860), Harrison Afful (Columbus Crew),  Nicholas Opoku (Berekum Chelsea), Jerry Akaminko (Eskiserhispor),  John Boye (Sivasspor), Rashid Sumalia (Al Gharafa), Jonathan Mensah (Columbus Crew), Samuel Sarfo (Liberty)

Midfielders: Mohammed Abu (Columbus Crew, Isaac Sackey (Alanyaspor), Ofori Ebenezer (Stuttgart), Kwadwo Poku (FC Miami), Winful Kwaku Cobbinah (Hearts of Oak), Frank Acheampong (Anderlecht), Thomas Agyepong (NAC Breda), Gershon Koffie (New England Revolution)

Strikers: Asamoah Gyan (Al Alhi), Raphael Dwamena (FC Zurich), Majeed Abdul Waris (Lorient FC), David Accam (Chicago Fire)

Timo Werner abused in Germany but key to World Cup defense

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) The abuse has followed Timo Werner for months, gathering pace as rapidly as the striker has amassed goals.

No German player was more prolific in the Bundesliga last season. No player was as ostracized.

But Werner is now a full-blown Germany international, scoring his first goals at the Confederations Cup on Sunday, and he could hold the key to the World Cup defense next year.

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That could require Germany supporters to forgive a player they jeered at during his first competitive game for Joachim Loew’s team earlier this month.

“Kobe Bryant has also been booed everywhere and he always been the best,” Werner reflected ahead of Germany’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Mexico on Thursday, seeing a kindred spirit in the basketball great. “I do not want to say that I am the best like him, but (the abuse) is a bit of an incentive.”

If playing for the ascendant but deeply unpopular Leipzig wasn’t bad enough, a dive in December by Werner provided a focal point for the animosity – jealousy, perhaps – toward the Red Bull-funded team.

The insults have even been hurled far from Germany, far from soccer stadiums. The dive won a penalty against Schalke, and provided Werner with one of the 21 goals that helped to propel Leipzig into second place and a Champions League debut next season.

“There was a dive, he made a mistake and he admitted it,” Loew said, “but he is very, very young player.”

And a potentially very important one for Loew at the World Cup in Russia next year. Germany’s striking options are being assessed at the eight-team Confederations Cup as Loew still seeks a long-term successor to Miroslav Klose as target man for the world champions.

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Werner opened his account for Germany on his fourth appearance, scoring twice in a 3-1 victory over Cameroon on Sunday in Sochi.

“Werner put in a lot of legwork,” Loew said. “He showed how dangerous he is and that he’s got a great nose for goal. Both of his efforts were very well taken.”

Werner’s rivals for a place in the squad next year include fellow squad newcomers Lars Stindl and Sandro Wagner. They are both close to 30, while the 21-year-old Werner has youth, strength and speed on his side. Even Wagner said he has “never seen such a good striker at that age.”

That’s a result of Werner fusing his pace with intelligence on the ball, mastering dribbling at high speed first with Stuttgart and then at Leipzig.

“There’s no recipe for it,” Werner said. “The quickest players just know how to do it automatically. I like to knock the ball three or four meters ahead of me when I’m on the counter or have space in front of me, that way I can increase the distance between a defender and myself.”

Such proficiency should help Werner win over fans beyond Leipzig. Time, he hopes, will heal the fractures, and there’s certainly support from his new international teammates.

“I wish him well because of the issues he has had to endure,” captain Julian Draxler told Germany’s ARD television.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP Confederations Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/ConfederationsCup

USMNT Gold Cup 23-man roster leaves some questions

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We have Bruce Arena’s 23-man United States men’s national roster for the Gold Cup, and there are more than a few surprises left out of the bunch.

Often a chance to experiment, those who thought this year’s Gold Cup roster would be one aimed at reclaiming glory with authority may be surprised to see the status quo.

Jurgen Klinsmann brought most of his big guns to the 2015 party — which didn’t go well for Brad Guzan and Co. — but Arena will roll into this summer’s tournament without most of his big names. There’s no Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic, Clint Dempsey, nor Jozy Altidore.

Those aren’t huge surprises, though who Arena neglected from his original 40-man short list is a bit of a shock to the system (Players can be called into the mix after the group stage, which is a fairly simple affair for the USMNT to navigate versus Panama, Martinique, and Nicagarua).

Arena is going with Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson, and Bill Hamid in a trio that fails to impress. Hamid does have a big crowd of fans who’d like to see him get a chance to assert himself as the future, and hopefully either Johnson or Hamid finds time between the sticks against a serious opponent like Panama. No surprise that Tim Howard and Joe Bendik didn’t leap into the trio (EDIT: This post initially questioned the omission of Jesse Gonzalez, but his one-time switch from Mexico to the USMNT has yet to go through).

We’ll ignore the omission of Danny Williams for the most part considering he was absent from the 40-man list, but he must have said something seriously awful to Arena or someone at U.S. soccer.

The group of forwards leaves little to complain about, as Juan Agudelo and Dom Dwyer very much deserve their chances to compete for playing time with Sounders star Jordan Morris, but the midfield provides some head-scratching. Gyasi Zardes may be a longtime Arena favorite, but the Galaxy man has been ice cold in MLS. The 25-year-old has a single assist in almost 1000 minutes of play this season, and that came back on April 8. Tommy McNamara has not lighting the league on fire and Chris Pontius and his six assists are 30 years old, so much of the grief should be directed at the 40-man again, but Zardes has to embrace this opportunity. And maybe it’s a way to help the Galaxy and Zardes get a little mojo.

As an aside, Wil Trapp is among leaders in several MLS passing stats, which leads me to believe Arena is going to play Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta a ton and doesn’t see much of a need for Trapp in this tournament, not ever.

Defenders Steve Birnbaum and Jonathan Spector were not rewarded with looks, though Graham Zusi was included in what must be an arm reaching out for USMNT experience. Birnbaum is leading MLS in aerials won per game and Spector is by far Orlando’s top rated player since returning from England. Yes, Spector is 31 but this is about still qualifying for next summer’s World Cup, not the 2022 cycle. Spare a thought for Matt Polster, who has been decent since returning from a knee strain. This is nothing against Zusi, a consummate professional who won’t kill the team by any means and will be an tremendous asset in leadership.

What about you? Any other gripes? Or do you love the bunch?