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Your quick guide: Copa Libertadores groups drawn

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Europe did their bit yesterday. Today, it was South America’s turn.

Well, South America and Mexico. This time around, Liga MX not only has up to three teams in the group stage (one still to play in), one of them is likely closer to you (geographically) than your favorite Premier League team.

That team would be Xolos, or Club Tijuana. You know, the club that employs five Americans. The club that won the Mexican title. They got drawn into a group with the world champions.

That’s right, soccer fans in San Diego County. The team that holds claim to having the best team in the world is coming to your area (even if I’m completely exaggerating the validity of that claim). Get your trolley tickets now. You’re crossing at San Ysidro.

Over at The Score, Jerrad Peters has the post I would have done if I was near as good on South America as he is. So allow me to shameless cherry pick some of his group thoughts while I take you though the draw:

Group 1

Barcelona (Ecuador), Boca Juniors (Argentina), Nacional (Uruguay), Toluca (Mexico)

Boca and Nacional are titans. Together, they’ve won this competition nine times. It’s going to be difficult for either Barcelona (first place finishers in Ecuador’s last tournament) or Toluca (perhaps one tournament semi-wonders in Mexico) to break through. According to Peters, this is the Group of Death, and while I don’t see any of these quartets living up to that label, this has a claim to being the tournament’s toughest group.

Group 2

Libertad (Paraguay), Palmeiras (Brazil), Sporting Cristal (Peru), winner of Tigre (Argentina)-Deportivo Anzoategui (Venezuela)

If Tigre, forfeiters of the Sudamericana final, get through, they could win this group, though Palmeiras may still be the packet’s best team despite their recent relegation to the Brazilian second division. Their domestic cup win qualifies them for this championship, so … yay frivolous invites.

I’m not as high on Libertad’s chances as Peters, but if one of Tigre and Palmeiras shoot themselves in the foot, the Paraguayans will do through. So I guess that means I actually agree with Jerrad. Regardless, this is a weak packet.

Group 3

Atlético Mineiro (Brazil), Arsenal (Argentina), The Strongest (Bolivia), winner of São Paulo (Brazil)-Bolivar (Bolivia)

So Atlético Mineiro – arguably the best team in Brazil by the end of the Campeonato – should be grouped with São Paulo, recent winners of the Sudamericana. And there’s an Argentine team in here along with an experienced (if, likely, ineffective) Bolivian team? Yeah, this group’s a little strong.

Sucks for The Strongest: For the second year in a row, they’re likely going to be grouped with two Brazilian teams. Their Silver Linings Playbook: Three strong home matches before being eliminated.

But back to the Brazilians. Let’s just go through some names here, very quickly. Atlético will be a fan favorite because of the presence of Ronaldinho, but they also have former Manchester City strike Jo, the recently acquired Gilberto Silva, and one of the continent’s best keepers in Victor.

São Paulo, on the other hand, have the likes of Paulo Henrique Ganso, Luis Fabiano, Jadson, Paulo Assuncao, Denilson, and Lucio as their well-known calling cards. And their goalkeeper, Rogerio Ceni, has 52 career goals in the Brazilian league.

So those two teams are going through.

Group 4

Emelec (Ecuador), Peñarol (Uruguay), Vélez Sarsfield (Argentina), winner of Iquique (Chile)-León (Mexico)

No matter which of Iquiqui and León move through (I like the newly Rafa Marquez-toting León), this will be one of the competition’s deepest groups. Any of the teams could go through, though Peñarol and Vélez will probably be the favorites. Like Peters, I have my doubts about Vélez’s chances, though his doubts are actually more an admiration of Emelec than reservations about the Argentine champions.

Regardless, the gap between one and four is just not that big, and given Peñarol fell in an equally balanced (though more difficult) group last year (which they flamed out of), I can’t help but feel for the Uruguayans.

Group 5

Corinthians (Brazil), Millionarios (Columbia), San José (Bolivia), Tijuana (Mexico)

Peters astutely notes that this group means a lot of traveling for the world champions (did I mention that’s Corinthians). Two trips to northern South American countries plus another to the Mexico-U.S. border? Has any team racked up so many miles?

They’re still the favorites here. Millionarios – to whom Seattle Sounder Fredy Montero’s been thinly linked – will fight it would with Tijuana for the second spot. Given TJ’s never been in this competition before, it’s hard to predict how they’ll respond.

Group 6

Cerro Porteño (Paraguay), Real Garcilaso (Peru), Santa Fe (Colombia), winner of Deportes Tolima (Colombia)-César Vallejo (Peru)

The one group that makes Group 2 look strong. Cerro Porteño and Sante Fe will be the favorites, but in most other groups, they might not advance. There is no possible matchup of these five teams that will be the best game of a day’s competition. However, if one of these teams catches fire and racks up points, they could use the group’s weakness to leverage a high seed for the knockout round.

Group 7

Deportivo Lara (Venezuela), Newell’s Old Boys (Argentina), Universidad de Chile, winner of Olimpia (Paraguay)-Defensor Sporting (Uruguay)

One side of my brain: Newell’s Old Boys have the talent to get out of this group regardless of who comes out of the playoff.

Other side: They had trouble scoring goals in Argentina’s Inicial and were too often drawn (nine times in 19 games). That’s a bad combination for road games in Copa.

La U is going through regardless of how their transition from Jorge Sampaoli to Dario Franco progresses. Today, I’m picking Newell’s to join them, but if Peters is picking Defensor Sporting, know Argentina’s runners up are vulnerable.

Group 8

Caracas (Venezuela), Fluminense (Brazil), Huachipato (Chile), winner of Gremio (Brazil)-LDU Quito (Ecuador)

There’s going to be a divide between the group’s top two (Fluminense and the playoff winner) and the packet’s bottom half. Even within that playoff, a bolstered Gremio (third in this year’s Campeonato) should be favored, though insert cautions about Quito’s altitude here.

Even if the Ecuadorians advance, they should join Fluminense, a team that will look to push on from their Serie A title to compete for the Libertadores’ crown. Caracas and the rabbit track are just along for the ride.

Chelsea confirm Diego Costa available for selection

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 30:  Diego Costa of Chelsea celebrates scoring his sides second goal during the Premier League match between Southampton and Chelsea at St Mary's Stadium on October 30, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Diego Costa is once again available for Chelsea.

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In his press conference on Friday, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte revealed that Costa would be available for selection against Hull City at Stamford Bridge on Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Costa, 28, is Chelsea’s leading scorer in the Premier League with 14 goals and five assists and he also leads the PL charts in scoring. However, he was not in the squad for their 3-0 win at Leicester City last weekend after news broke of a possible training ground bust up with Conte and his staff amid a back injury.

Since then reports have stated that clubs from the Chinese Super League were offering Costa over $368,000 per week which may have unsettled him, but after training on his own earlier this week and then rejoining the team in the past few days he is now ready to return and lead Chelsea’s title charge once more.

Speaking to the media, Conte revealed that Costa is no longer struggling with a back issue and is fully fit to participate for the Premier League leaders.

“The player wants to stay at Chelsea. He is very happy to stay with us. I don’t see any problem,” Conte said. “I heard a lot of speculation about Diego but now the most important thing is that he has trained with us and he has no pain in his back. He is available to come back in our squad against Hull City.”

This is a massive boost for Chelsea as they look to extend their seven point lead at the top of the table, but Conte wouldn’t confirm if Costa was fit enough to start against Hull.

“Diego is an important player for us. We all know this. When he stays in a good form he has always played for me,” Conte said. “I will see on Sunday [if he starts against Hull]. I don’t want to give an advantage to our opponents.”

With Costa’s mind seemingly back on matters at Chelsea despite a monster contract offer from China lingering in the backdrop, news that he is back fit and ready to score goals will send a shudder of disappointment to Chelsea’s title rivals in the Premier League.

Mourinho reveals why Memphis had to move on

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 03:  Memphis Depay of Manchester United in action during the Wayne Rooney Testimonial match between Manchester United and Everton at Old Trafford on August 3, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Memphis Depay spent 18 months at Manchester United but it just didn’t work out for the Dutch winger.

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Memphis, 22, will officially join Ligue 1 side Lyon on Friday as the clubs agreed a $18.4 million with a buy-back clause reportedly inserted. 

The Dutch international scored seven goals in 52 appearances in all competitions for United, yet he has appeared just eight times this season and has failed to score for the Red Devils.

Speaking to the media on Friday ahead of United’s clash at Stoke City on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) Mourinho revealed that Memphis’ attitude was always exemplary even though chances to play were at a premium.

“He was a fantastic professional. If somebody thinks it didn’t work because he was not a great professional it is totally wrong,” Mourinho said. “One thing is some picture that somebody takes with him in an amazing car or dressing in a very specific way but the image is totally wrong. The guy is a fantastic professional, he is a kid who respected everyone. A kid that worked hard to have more chances. A kid that was frustrated because he was not having that. I only have good things to say about him. I think this is much more important.”

But why did Memphis’ time at United run out?

“If I can find a little reason it is to say that he is a player form one position, the only position, where we have overbooking,” Mourinho explained. “He is a winger and wingers is what we have more. It is the position to have chances. Where it is more difficult to be the next choice. It is a position where we never have problems. We have Lingard. We have Mata. We have Mkhitaryan. We have Martial. We have Ashley Young. We have Marcus Rashford. It is a position where we have like six possibilities. Even Rooney played a few times from the left.

“It is a position where we even have difficulties when we want to do rotation. Even when I was doing rotation and trying to rest players and trying to play some in the Europa League and another one in the League Cup and another one in the FA Cup, even when I was doing rotation I had like seven guys for two positions. For me, I will stay with these two things: on one side he is a fantastic professional. By the other side we had too many players in his position.”

Okay, so Memphis was up against strong competition to get minutes at United but is there a potential he could return to Old Trafford with talk of a potential buy-back clause in the deal?

“Of course. Potentially he is a very good player. I think when Mr. Van Gaal decided to buy him he did well,” Mourinho said. “He knew him very well from the national team. He was very young when in the World Cup he had flashes of top quality. He was playing well in Holland. We know the Dutch league is not the same but he was showing very good things. I think Mr. Van Gaal and Manchester United did very well to buy him. He didn’t succeed in his 18 months, I would say, but he is very young but it is important for the club to keep control of this talent and we all wish he plays very, very well at Olympique Lyon. And why not to come back? Because everyone here still likes him.”

So, the door is well and truly still open for Memphis at United and if he rips it up at Lyon for the rest of this season and maybe the start of the 2017-18 campaign, perhaps he will be back at Old Trafford once and for all. Yet there will be a lingering feeling of “what if” for United’s fans and the Dutchman as he showed flashes of brilliance in his time in the Premier League but could never hold down a consistent spot or position in United’s lineup.

Memphis is set to make his debut for Lyon on Sunday against Marseille as they currently sit 11 points behind Ligue 1 leaders Monaco but have a game in hand.

New St. Louis stadium plan calls for state land contribution

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ST. LOUIS (AP) Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens has made it clear he’s opposed to state funding for stadiums, yet a revised proposal for a $200 million soccer stadium in St. Louis calls for the state to contribute land that’s potentially worth millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, a city aldermanic committee delayed a vote Thursday to advance a measure putting the proposal, which also requires city voters to approve $60 million in funding, on the April ballot.

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The investor group SC STL’s proposal calls for a 22,000-seat stadium near Interstate 64 and Union Station, a key component in the group’s effort to lure a Major League Soccer expansion team. MLS officials have expressed strong interest in St. Louis, but only if a stadium is built.

Time is of the essence: The league is expected to award two new expansion teams in the fall, with play starting in 2020.

St. Louis’ project was on life support after Greitens, a Republican who took office this month, said repeatedly that he opposed taxpayer funding for stadiums, calling it “welfare for millionaires.” SC STL had been seeking $40 million in state tax credits.

But a provision of SC STL’s revised financing plan, presented at Thursday’s meeting at City Hall, says the state would contribute the majority of the 24-acre project site, which is currently owned by the Missouri Department of Transportation, and perform some site clearing and infrastructure work.

The value is still being appraised, but given its location and the amount of land, it likely is worth several million dollars.

Greitens spokesman Parker Briden told The Associated Press in a statement that the governor “remains opposed to state funding to build the soccer stadium.” He did not immediately respond to a question about how the potential donation of land doesn’t conflict with Greitens’ hard-line stance.

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The first hint of compromise with the governor came in an email from SC STL spokesman Jim Woodcock late Wednesday, when he wrote that a “path forward” had been reached after two weeks of meetings.

“Gov. Greitens has made it clear to us that he is very supportive of adding a new professional sports franchise to the State of Missouri, and that’s a sentiment we wholeheartedly share,” the statement said.

The stadium project also requires taxpayer help from the city. The city Ways and Means Committee heard from SC STL officials Thursday, but no vote was taken on whether to ask the full Board of Aldermen to place the issue on the April ballot. The committee is expected to reconsider the measure Monday.

SC STL would be responsible for at least $95 million of the project cost, the entire $150 million expansion fee and all maintenance costs going forward.

Bundesliga returns: Will Bayern hold off competition again?

MUNICH, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 05: Sebastian Rudy of TSG Hoffenheim is challenged by Douglas Costa of FC Bayern Muenchen during the Bundesliga match between Bayern Muenchen and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim at Allianz Arena on November 5, 2016 in Munich, Germany.  (Photo by Boris Streubel/Getty Images)
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Germany’s top flight returns to action Friday when Bayern Munich travels to Freiburg in an attempt to keep the pressure on new boys RB Leipzig.

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For those who haven’t paid a ton of attention to the Bundesliga this season or need a bit of a refresher after several weeks away, here’s what to monitor over the next several months.

Really Big surprise Leipzig looks to keep title race going

Formed in 2009, RB Leipzig is a lot of German fans’ least favorite club after cash infusions caused a rapid rise into the top flight.

The new club is looking down at most of the haters, however. League leaders for much of the first half, Leipzig is three points shy of league leading Bayern Munich.

Bayern waxed Leipzig 3-0 before the holiday break, and the two sides won’t meet again until May 13. How long can the new boys keep up the show?

Historic relegation candidates

What does USMNT strikers Bobby Wood and Aron Johannsson share besides a national team? Both are on sides that have been in Germany’s top tier longer than the players have been alive.

Wood’s Hamburg has six national titles and hasn’t seen the second tier in 54 years. That’s the longest stretch in the league, two more seasons than Bayern Munich. Hamburg is a currently third-bottom, which would force them into a relegation-promotion playoff against the third-placed team in 2.Bundesliga.

As for Johannsson, his Werder Bremen side is just three points ahead of Hamburg. Bremen has been in the top flight for 36 seasons.

Chasing the Golden Boot

Robert Lewandowski has scored the most goals in two of the past three seasons, with Alexander Meier of Eintracht Frankfurt seizing the honor in 2014-15.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is leading the pack by three goals, but is with Gabon at the Africa Cup of Nations to help open the door for the rest of the bunch.

Koln’s Anthony Modeste is second with 13, while Lewandowski has 12. Two players, Timo Werner (RB Leipzig) and Sandro Wagner (Hoffenheim), have nine.

Can surprise Europe-chasers hold up?

Hertha Berlin was in 2.Bundesliga a few seasons ago, while Eintracht Frankfurt was there a season prior to that. RB Leipzig, as mentioned earlier, wasn’t even a club until 2009.

Eintracht made a Europa League run one year later, but neither was expected to be competing for a spot in Europe this season. As it stands, all three are in the mix.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 16 12 3 1 38 9 29 7-2-0 5-1-1 39
 RB Leipzig 16 11 3 2 31 15 16 6-1-0 5-2-2 36
 Hertha BSC Berlin 16 9 3 4 24 16 8 7-0-1 2-3-3 30
 Eintracht Frankfurt 16 8 5 3 22 12 10 5-3-0 3-2-3 29
 1899 Hoffenheim 16 6 10 0 28 17 11 4-5-0 2-5-0 28
 Borussia Dortmund 16 7 6 3 35 19 16 5-3-0 2-3-3 27
 1. FC Köln 16 6 7 3 21 15 6 4-4-0 2-3-3 25