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.

MLS Snapshot: Sounders in firm control after Leg 1

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The game in 100 words (or less): The Seattle Sounders took full control of the Western Conference finals with a resounding 2-0 win over ten-man Houston. The Sounders already had hit first in the 11th minute through Gustav Svensson but the red card to Jalil Anibaba changed the game. Houston had some chances later but fatigue meant the focus and control was off. Former Dynamo striker Will Bruin’s goal may have put the tie to bed.

Three moments that mattered

11′ — Gustav Svensson Goal — The Sounders wanted to set the tone early and they picked up an early goal off a corner kick, as Svensson redirected a header past Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis. The goal changed the complexion of the game to that point, until our next big moment.

28′ — Jalil Anibaba red card — Joevin Jones was a menace to deal with tonight and after getting past Anibaba, the latter pulled Jones down and as it appeared to be denial of a goal-scoring opportunity, Anibaba was given his marching orders. Suddenly, Houston, down a goal and down a man, had a lot more to do to stay in the tie. Nicolas Lodeiro missed the subsequent penalty kick but Will Bruin picked Lodeiro up later.

42′ — Will Bruin goal — The former Dynamo man scored a massive goal against his former club on a great cross from Jones on the left wing. While the tie isn’t over, the Sounders are in firm control and look set to repeat as Western Conference playoffs champions.

Man of the Match: Joevin Jones

Three things: Sounders cruise after (and before) early red

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The Seattle Sounders all but booked a return appearance in the 2017 MLS Cup final on Tuesday, doing so by beating the Houston Dynamo 2-0 in the first (away) leg of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday. The game wasn’t as close at the final score might appear to indicate.

[ RECAP: Sounders take 2-0 lead over Dynamo ]

We learned the following three things over the course of the 90 minutes…


The red card hurt Houston

No way, you’re kidding, right? Clearly a 28th-minute red card (shown to Jalil Anibaba for the denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity) is going to have a massive impact on the outcome of a game. But, it really crippled Houston, given the way they play — having a numerical advantage in the center of midfield is so important to Wilmer Cabrera’s side, in the name of frantically winning the ball back after conceding half or even two-thirds of the field.

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When you have to haul off one of three central midfielders, in hopes of still being about to force-create chances on the rare occasion you recover the ball and move it forward, three things are bound to happen: 1) legs are going to get very heavy, very quickly; 2) the clock appears to be counting up in double-speed; 3) you begin to concede two-thirds and three-quarters of the field instead — every move Seattle worked during the second half came after a waltz in the final third before finally meeting resistance.

At right, you can see every Sounders pass originating in Houston’s half of the field — remember, Seattle are the away team here. Playoff games rarely, if ever, come much easier than that.


Addition by subtraction… again?

This one isn’t so much a lesson from Tuesday’s game, as much as it’s a trend played out over the course of an entire season: much like they wound up being in 2016 following Clint Dempsey‘s heart condition robbing him of the final four months of the season, the Sounders are once again, dare I say it, better without another indomitable figure: Osvaldo Alonso.

Here’s the numbers to back it up: without Alsono in the starting lineup this year, Seattle went 6W-2D-2L. In those 10 regular-season games, they scored 20 goals (2.0 per game, versus 1.3 with him in the lineup) and conceded 12 (1.1 per game, same when he played).

The central midfield pairing of Cristian Roldan (7) and Gustav Svensson (4) has proven a formidable foe for anyone and everyone during the second half of the season. On Tuesday — granted, against 10 men for more than an hour — they could do no wrong. (Passes attempted on the right; defensive actions on the left — green triangles are tackles won, orange are recoveries, blue are interceptions, purple are clearances, red are tackles lost.)

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Alonso has been an unbelievable servant for nine MLS seasons, he’s an MLS Cup champions, a four-time U.S. Open Cup winner, a Supporters’ Shield winner and one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS history. He’s also 32 years old with a growing history of lower-body injuries that seem to never fully heal, and he’s now clearly third in the pecking order behind Roldan and Svensson. It’s clearly an oversimplification to say that soccer is a young, mobile man’s game these days, but it’s certainly true of MLS, and the results are in near total agreement.


May I have some hope, please?

Here’s a not-so-fun fact if you’re a Dynamo fan: your team won one — singular — game on the road in 17 tries this season. Not a dark enough outlook? OK, have this: that lone away win came against D.C. United, who finished 21st out of 22 teams if you put MLS into a single table.

Maybe Seattle weren’t so good at home this year… I’m really just searching for anything at this point, you’re thinking. OK, it’s possible, I suppose. They lost once at home all season, to Toronto FC, the best regular-season team in MLS history, by the final score of 1-0, in the month of May.

We’ll see you in Toronto or Columbus for MLS Cup, Seattle Sounders.

MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC hold Crew on the road

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The game in 100 words (or less): Without two of its stars, Toronto FC set out to play compact and hold on for a draw on the road, and that’s exactly what they did. Michael Bradley recorded 17 recoveries and a trio of interceptions as TFC broke up play and covered the passing lanes, frustrating the Columbus Crew all night. The best chance fell to Harrison Afful late, but TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono made a crucial save to keep it at 0-0.

Three moments that mattered

0′ — The starting lineup — In a game with chances few and far between, the tactical set-up by Greg Vanney – in which his side without Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore came out in a 4-1-4-1 formation – proved to be the difference in the game, frustrating the Crew all night.

52′ — Pedro Santos penalty kick no-call — Justin Meram plays a neat pass through the TFC backline that Santos runs on to, and he appears to be taken down in the box by Bono. Referee Robert Sbiga doesn’t blow the whistle and lets play continue, where Ola Kamara takes a shot that’s deflected away. Santos appeals for video review, and receives a yellow card for his efforts.

85′ — Big Save Bono — Gregg Berhalter’s 77th minute substitution to bring on Kekutah Manneh helped to push Afful higher up the field, which led to this late-game chance. Bono, who hadn’t had a whole lot to do, came up with a massive stop to keep the tie level.

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

Man of the Match: Alex Bono, Toronto FC

Three things: Being happy with 0-0, and sabotage by Precourt

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On what felt sure to be a seminal night in franchise history, Columbus Crew SC were held by Toronto FC to a 0-0 draw in the first leg of the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday. Leg 2 will be played next Wednesday, Nov. 29.

[ RECAP: TFC hold Crew SC to scoreless draw in leg 1 of East finals ]

We learned (roughly) three things over the course of the 90 minutes…


Who’s happiest with 0-0?

There’s a case to be made that both sides will be quite happy with Tuesday’s result — Crew SC for the fact they conceded no away goals, and TFC facing no deficit whatsoever before their home leg — but it’s quite clear that TFC should be the happier of the two, given 1) they were the best regular-season team in MLS history, this season; and, more importantly, 2) Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore were suspended for leg 1 (they’ll both be back for leg 2) and Crew SC failed to capitalize anywhere meaningful.

TFC lost once at BMO Field all season, while Columbus managed just four victories away from home. Granted, any draw where both sides score would see Crew SC through to MLS Cup, which they would host no matter the opponent (54 points in the regular season; Seattle Sounders and Houston Dynamo finished on 54 and 50, respectively).


TFC’s tactical adjustment pays off

For all of the regular season, TFC head coach Greg Vanney deployed a back-three, with great success — 69 points, an all-time regular-season record. Nov. 21, three games from lifting (or losing) MLS Cup, is hardly the ideal time to deviate from the only path you’ve known.

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Alas, the absences of Giovinco and Altidore, TFC’s permanent strike partnership in the 3-5-2, changed everything. Without Altidore’s hold-up play bringing the best player to ever grace the league into attacking moves, the 3-5-2 would have quickly devolved into a 5-3-2, followed in short order by a 5-4-1. Columbus need no invitation to hold north of 60 percent of possession in a given game, which is exactly what would have happened. Not just meaningless possession, either, but camping-inside-TFC’s-defensive-third possession; 50-crosses-into-the-box possession; get-the-center-backs-forward-too possession.

Vanney was proactive with his starting lineup, putting another body in midfield by sacrificing a striker for another man in the middle, and it paid off. At right, you’ll see Crew SC’s attempted passes into/from TFC’s defensive third. Woof.


Anthony Precourt sinks to a new low

How low is Anthony Precourt willing to go in order to sabotage Crew SC, the club he owns and efforts to move to Austin, Tex., without so much as a phony attempt at a non-relocation resolution, and alienate the fans that have supported the franchise since MLS’s debut season in 1996? Tuesday night saw Precourt and Co. up the ante as they intentionally restricted entry (two gates for the entire stadium, causing thousands to miss the game’s opening minutes) into MAPFRE Stadium with the presumed intent of a half-empty venue when the television broadcast kicked off and panned left to right.

You pay good money for a ticket so you can see your team play, which ultimately results in filling the pockets of the villain whose no. 1 goal it is to steal your team, and this is how you’re treated on gameday.

This is shameful stuff from all parties involved — Crew SC, under the leadership and direction of Precourt, and MLS, who have allowed this entire saga to be played out in a public forum and enabling Precourt every step of the way.