Champions League preview: 4 teams that could surprise

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With the Champions League group stage set to begin play on Tuesday, the world’s biggest annual soccer tournament is back in our lives on the big stage.

To get the content started, we look at four teams who aren’t favorites that could potentially make noise this season.

Last year, Malaga, Valencia, Shakhtar Donetsk and Schalke shocked many and not only progressed into the knockout stage but Malaga and Schalke actually won their groups ahead of teams such as Arsenal and AC Milan.

Malaga’s run to the quarterfinals actually vaulted manager Manuel Pellegrini to a big stage, where he landed the job at Manchester City.

So who this year could surprise the world under its brightest spotlight?  The gaps between top, mid-tier, and bottom are quite large, so surprises may be hard to come by.  But we here at ProSoccerTalk enjoy the banter as always, so we dive in:

1) Schalke 04

This season, success from the German club wouldn’t be nearly the surprise it was last season, but they still haven’t garnered the world-renowned respect they possibly should.  They went undefeated in group play last season, beating Arsenal 2-0 on the road and maintaining a bend-don’t-break attitude that led to three draws but the goose egg in the loss column.

Maybe the reason last season’s surprise group stage run made almost no noise is because they proceeded to fizzle out against Group H runners-up Galatasaray in the first knockout round, losing 2-3 at home in a disappointing second leg.

This season, they’ve vastly improved, landing a coup by signing one Kevin Prince-Boateng from AC Milan.  It was rumored, unsurprisingly, that Boateng had offers from many top clubs but Schalke turned his head the most and the midfielder with both holding and attacking skills will be a force in the middle.

They brought in attacking options as well to support the aging but still reliable Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.  Schalke signed Adam Szalai from FC Mainz, and partnering with young star Julian Draxler (pictured, right) on the wings, this German club is a good bet to come out of a group with Chelsea, Basel, and Steaua Bucuresti.

source: Getty Images
Can Rafa Benitez lead Napoli to European success?

2) Napoli

Somehow a Pot 4 team despite numerous European appearances in the past few years, naturally the Serie A club created a terrible Group of Death with Arsenal, Marseille, and last year’s runners-up Borussia Dortmund.

Having finished 2nd in Italy last season, Napoli brought in Rafa Benitez to replace the departed Walter Mazzarri who left for Inter.  The former Chelsea manager completed a run of absolutely brilliant transfer business, making this squad much-improved on an already successful base.

Benitez sold Edinson Cavani to PSG for a hefty price, and used the cash to buy players like Gonzalo Higuain, Raul Albiol, Jose Callejon, Dries Mertens, and Pepe Reina.

The overhaul has worked to perfection so far, as Napoli have begun the Serie A season with three wins in three, on a total goal differential of 9-2.  Higuain has two, Callejon has two, and – perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Napoli’s market moves – incumbent attacking midfielder Marek Hamsik has four.

Despite a worst-case-scenario draw, Napoli have the tools to make a Group of Death splash and ruin the Champions League for Arsenal or Borussia Dortmund.

3) Bayer Leverkusen

Not the strongest German team to ever grace the Champions League, but with a good draw, Bayer could make some group stage noise.

Led by German international Lars Bender and striker Stefan Kiessling, they’ve started the Bundesliga season scorching hot, with wins over quality opponents in Wolfsburg, Monchengladbach, and Stuttgart, and their only loss coming to Schalke.They added Korean striker Heung-Min Song from Hamburg, and invested a fair bit of money in him, and he’s rewarded them with two goals and an assist in six matches so far.

Their group is interesting – Manchester United is the only top-tier team in the pack, leaving presumably the second spot open for the taking.  However, Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Sociedad are no pushovers, and thus it will be a battle.

4) Anderlecht

American Sacha Kljestan has gotten his Juliper Pro League season off to a roaring start, and he brings that with him into the Champions League Group C.  Kljestan has 4 goals in 7 league matches so far, a hefty tally for a defensive midfielder.

Anderlecht are a wild card this year, drawn into a really weak group – possibly the weakest one of the tier.  Their Pot 1 team Benfica is a weak Pot 1 side, and only PSG look like a lock.  It’s tough for any Pot 4 team to ever make noise, so Anderlecht have their work cut out for them no matter where they end up, but this is an intriguing scenario for the Belgian side.

They’re led by red-hot Argentinian striker Matias Suarez, who at 25 years of age is just entering the prime of his career.  He has a whopping six goals and six assists in Anderlecht’s seven league matches so far, and he will look to bring that success into Tuesday’s match with Benfica in Portugal.

So who do you have advancing in the 2013/2014 Champions League? We’ll have much more coverage here on ProSoccerTalk of the upcoming group stage openers on Tuesday, including a complete preview, group analysis, and predictions.  Stick around!

Sounders nearing potential game-changing transfer for Gonzalez

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And another one.

Major League Soccer’s trend of adding younger players still entering their prime is set to continue with a significant Seattle Sounders acquisition from Dynamo Kyiv.

Derlis Gonzalez is the name, and you may recall it from Copa America Centenario scouting reports. The Paraguayan 23-year-old has four goals for his country, including markers against Brazil and Argentina.

[ MORE: Gold Cup Final preview ]

Gonzalez joined Benfica in 2012, taking a pair of loan seasons before moving to Basel in Switzerland. He moved to Ukrainian champs Dynamo in 2015, and operates as a left wing with the ability to play central or right if necessary.

Sounder At Heart says Gonzalez will play in Dynamo’s UEFA Champions League match against Young Boys on Wednesday before jetting to Seattle. In 21 UCL appearances, Gonzalez has five goals and three assists. He’s scored against Real Madrid, Besiktas, and Porto on two occasions.

So, yeah, this would be a significant addition for not just the Sounders but MLS. Bravo. The transfer fee is will also be an interesting figure.

Roma edges Tottenham in wild ICC affair

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Tottenham opened its 2017 International Champions Cup account in style on Sunday, however, the reigning Premier League runners’ up had no such luck at Red Bull Arena.

[ MORE: Chelsea falls 3-2 to Bayern in Singapore ]

Italian giants AS Roma knocked off Spurs, 3-2, on Tuesday night in New Jersey after Marco Tumminello’s 92nd minute finish dismissed a late push by Tottenham.

The sell-out crowd of 26,192 witnessed a largely dominating performance from Roma, who bounced back well from their opening ICC defeat against PSG — which came last Wednesday on penalty kicks.

Spurs fell behind after just 13 minutes when American defender Cameron Carter-Vickers was caught with his hand away from body, thus drawing a penalty kick for Roma.

Perotti stepped up to the spot on the ensuing kick, before burying the attempt for the Italian side’s opener.

Meanwhile, second-half substitute Under pounced on a rebound in the 70th minute to double the Roma advantage.

Spurs looked more dangerous in the second stanza, with Harry Kane and Dele Alli creating more attacking chances for the PL club, but Roma’s back line stood tall on several occasions.

Mauricio Pochettino‘s side finally found a breakthrough with under four minutes remaining after Harry Winks blasted home a close-range shot following a scrum inside the Roma penalty area.

Vincent Janssen did the unthinkable, leveling the match up in stoppage time for Spurs, however, it wasn’t enough as his finish was cancelled out just seconds later by Tuminello.

Tottenham will continue its ICC campaign on Saturday against fellow PL side Manchester City, while Roma turns its attention to defending Serie A champions Juventus the following day in an all-Italy affair.

Report: Galaxy seal capture of Villarreal’s Jonathan Dos Santos

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The rumors look set to come true: A report from Goal.com’s Ives Galarcep says the LA Galaxy have doubled their Dos Santos with a $5 million purchase of Jonathan Dos Santos from Villarreal.

Jonathan joins older brother Giovani with the Galaxy, and if he has half the impact of his sibling it’s going to be a high-flying half-season for Los Angeles.

[ MORE: Gold Cup Final preview ]

Jonathan Dos Santos is an organizing center midfielder with offensive upside; For a quick Premier League comparison, think Danny Drinkwater or James McCarthy. The 27-year-old has 29 caps for Mexico, and played in four of El Tri’s Confederations Cup matches this summer.

He’ll help facilitate chances for star attackers Romain Alessandrini, Giovani Dos Santos, and — hopefully — Gyasi Zardes.

Giovani has 23 goals and 18 assists in 52 games for the Galaxy.

Bruce Arena blends intense demands with humor to lead USMNT

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Bruce Arena bites his fingernails religiously, a habit he has had since age 10.

Among some other unmentionables.

“Are you kidding me? I’m sure there’s plenty of those,” the U.S. coach acknowledged with a chuckle, “I don’t make that public information, though.”

Arena walks across midfield soaking in the California sun and surveying the scene as his players take a lap and begin stretches ahead of training on a practice field adjacent to Avaya Stadium, home of the San Jose Earthquakes.

[ MORE: PST’s Gold Cup Final preview ]

He crosses his arms and paces – side to side, forward and backward – eyes up always. He shifts his hands to his hips and steals a glance downfield to where the goalkeepers are doing individual work.

“I’m thinking about my investments and retirement and things like that,” Arena cracked, then added: “I’m observing the players and looking at their habits, trying to learn as much as I can about players on a daily basis. It’s not only game day. When you have a team and there’s 23 players, every player is important. So sometimes your contributions aren’t only on game or on the field and it’s other things. You look at the qualities of players both on and off the field.”

With his quick wit off the field and demanding nature on it, Arena has instilled a calm and a swagger the U.S. squad needed, and that has bred success again after fans reached panic mode. Now, Arena can become the first to coach three CONCACAF Gold Cup titles if the Americans can beat surprising Jamaica on Wednesday night. The U.S. won under Arena in 2002 and `05.

“I came in with Bruce in January and I think initially you saw someone who’s trying to get points across and be pretty serious about it, but as we realized his demands and his intentions he’s been able to kind of dial it back a little bit,” midfielder Graham Zusi said. “Very dry, good sense of humor. It’s important, especially in these long camps, to have some kind of comic relief as well.”

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up? ] 

On Monday, Arena reminded his players it was here in the Bay Area where the Americans regained momentum in March by beating Honduras 6-0 in a World Cup qualifer.

Arena, a member of the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame who turns 66 in September, has led the team to an 8-0-5 record since he returned in November for a second stint as coach, replacing Jurgen Klinsmann after the Americans’ first 0-2 start in the final round of qualifying in the North and Central American and Caribbean region.

“Four months ago we were rebuilding our program, a program that was in desperate shape of being in a position to qualify for a World Cup and all other things,” Arena said. “We’ve made great strides over the last four months. This is a great opportunity for us to continue to make progress. We’d love to win the Cup.”

The U.S. is seeking its sixth Gold Cup title and first since 2013. Nine different players have scored so far this tournament, most notably Clint Dempsey‘s record-tying 57th goal in a 2-0 semifinal win against Costa Rica on Saturday that matched Landon Donovan’s mark.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

“Coming into the situation, into the job, we were in a tough spot,” Dempsey said.

Under Arena, the Americans have momentum again regardless how Wednesday turns out. Qualifying resumes with matches against Costa Rica on Sept. 1 at Harrison, New Jersey, and four days later at Honduras. The hex concludes against Panama on Oct. 6 in Orlando, Florida, and at Trinidad and Tobago four days after.

“It’s a good group of guys, let’s start there,” veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “But Bruce has kind of come in and kind of took the edge off a little bit. That’s who he is as a person, that’s how he manages us, and he’s kind of allowed us to be ourselves and have that swagger. The one thing I would say about Bruce, which has kind of always been the case but more so now, I think he is more relaxed off the field and much more demanding on the field. He’s always kind of had that balance but it’s more extreme now, and it’s a very good thing. He asks the world of us on the field, whether it be training or games he asks us for 110 percent every day, and then when you’re off the field he’s joking, he’s very jovial and he kind of lets us be who we are.”

Arena took over with little room for error. A decade ago, he never would have envisioned himself in this spot now.

“I’m enjoying it, and I’ve always thought about what I was going to do in my mid-60s,” Arena said. “I thought I was going to retire at 55, so I’m a little bit behind schedule right now. Probably going to keep going for a while, doing something. I’m thinking from what I can tell I probably could be a sportswriter and do pretty well.”

Then added with one of those sly grins, “Nah, I’m only kidding.”