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.

UEFA Nations League wrap: Batshuayi stays hot, Croatia keeps England alive

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Belgium and Croatia picked up big wins in UEFA Nations League play on Thursday, the most notable events from the day’s action

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Croatia 3-2 Spain

England is alive thanks to a wild second half between two World Cup powers, with Spain twice equalizing before falling victim to a goal deep in stoppage time. That goal was the second from — excellent name alert — Tin Jedvaj.

If Croatia beats England on Sunday, Croatia moves onto the semifinals. If England wins, the Three Lions move on. A scoreless draw pushes Spain onto the finals and relegates Croatia, while a scoring draw moves Croatia above England and relegates the Three Lions.

Belgium 2-0 Iceland

Why he didn’t work for Chelsea, we don’t know, but Michy Batshuayi has scored everywhere else. That includes his national team, as the Red Devils now have firm control over Group A2 with a 2-0 defeat of Iceland. A draw against Switzerland in the group finale will be enough for Belgium to reach the semifinals.

Elsewhere
Austria 0-0 Bosnia and Herzegovina
San Marino 0-1 Moldova
Luxembourg 0-2 Belarus
Andorra 1-1 Georgia
Kazakhstan 1-1 Latvia
Hungary 2-0 Estonia
Greece 1-0 Finland

Calls for new head coach grow, as USMNT lack direction

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LONDON — It is clear that the U.S. national team has been in quite a strange place for the last 13 months. And not good, strange.

[ MORE: Angry Pulisic hits out

Since Dave Sarachan took charge on an interim basis last October after the huge blow of not making the 2018 World Cup, the U.S. have played friendly and friendly and used over 50 players to try and find out whatever they can about the next crop of talent.

But what is the end game? What direction are the U.S. heading in?

Against a reserve England side at Wembley on Thursday, Sarachan’s youngster started slowly and never fully recovered despite Christian Pulisic and Bobby Wood going close to scoring in each half. They were outclassed throughout the 3-0 defeat and their play lacked a cutting edge. Subconsciously they must feel like they’re stuck in a holding pattern until the next permanent head coach arrives.

The fans, players and everyone who watches the team want the next step now. They want to move on from the wreckage of World Cup qualification failure.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned | Player ratings ] 

Sarachan has done all he can to push these players on and give them chances, but with so many players coming in and out the disjointed nature of the USMNT’s recent displays are to be expected.

But the reports of Gregg Berhalter set to take charge rumbling on for at least another few weeks, a lack of direction appears to be hurting this team badly.

“Dave is doing what he can and obviously he wants to win these games too, just like we do,” Pulisic said. “It is going to help a lot once we get a permanent head coach, moving forward with a guy who has a real plan and a style we want to play. He is going to help us a lot.”

Pulisic is only saying what everyone is thinking.

Brad Guzan, who was the most experienced U.S. player on the pitch on Thursday with 60 caps, admitted that everyone connected with the USMNT wants this situation sorted out as quickly as possible.

“Everyone is eager to see who that is, not just the players, fans, Dave [Sarachan], everybody involved with U.S. Soccer,” Guzan said. “As a national team, of course you want that direction and whatnot but ultimately when you step across the white line to a certain extent tactics go out of the window and you have to be able to play with a bit of desire and fight. We probably showed them too much respect in the first half.”

Sarachan, to his credit, has been exceptional in his handling of this situation.

He has handed chances to young players against France, Colombia, Brazil and now England, and the way he has encouraged them to step up to the international level must be remembered a few years down the line when the likes of Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Tim Weah are in their prime.

“These fixtures are great fixtures for our young guys. There is a lot of lessons learned when you play teams like England and the form they’re in and and the way they play and the quality they have in a tough environment. It showed,” Sarachan said. “In my mind in the first half we were a little timid and allowed a little too much space, their spacing and movement was very challenging for our group. As much as we talked about it, watched and scouted England, it is still on the players to sort through that.”

Right now, the players need more support from someone they know is going to be around beyond next week. That lack of uncertainty is hurting the development of this team.

13 months on from being hired as an interim head coach, Sarachan is still in charge. This situation should have never been allowed to get to this stage. Of course, the U.S. Soccer Presidential election in February and a change of leadership impacted this situation, but USMNT General Manager Earnie Stewart, who started his new gig in August, should not have waited this long to bring in someone on a permanent basis.

The damage this ‘lost year’ will do on the USMNT long-term remains to be seen but it is clear everyone is pushing for one thing. A permanent head coach. Now.

National Women’s Soccer League recognizes players union

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CHICAGO (AP) The National Women’s Soccer League has formally recognized the NWSL Players Association as the exclusive bargaining representative for the league’s players.

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The NWSLPA represents current and future players who have signed standard player agreements with the NWSL. U.S. national team players who are allocated throughout the league are represented by the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association.

“We’ve now achieved official status as a labor union, but we intend to approach our relationship with the league in a very different way than what comes to mind with traditional labor relations,” said union President Yael Averbuch, who plays for the Seattle Reign. “The NWSLPA is glad to continue a collaborative relationship with the league, with the health and sustainability of the league central to the ongoing relationship.”

The NWSL just wrapped up its sixth season.

USMNT’s Pulisic hits out after England defeat

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LONDON — Christian Pulisic’s mood sums up the current situation around the U.S. men’s national team right now.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Pulisic, 20, missed an early chance to give the USMNT a 1-0 lead but in truth they were always second best as they lost 3-0 at Wembley in Wayne Rooney’s farewell game. Pulisic, who was playing in just his second game for the U.S. in the past 13 months and his first since May, seemed to be a little off the pace throughout the match.

[ MORE: Player ratings

Speaking to reporters after the game, Pulisic was disappointed with the overall team display and he was asked directly if he felt he could have tracked back further to help out defensively on England’s first goal from Jesse Lingard.

“You think that?” Pulisic answered, as he had a face like thunder. He then added “I don’t know” when asked again, and moved on quickly.

His disappointment and anger was clear and in recent days he has seemed fed up with the way the USMNT are drifting along without a head coach (now 13 months and counting) amid a severe lack of direction.

Interim head coach Dave Sarachan and his staff are doing the best they can with this extremely young side but they were clearly second best against a reserve England team, which underlines just how far the U.S. have to go to become competitive among the top 20 in the world.

“You are never happy to lose 3-0. It is a tough result. We need to get a lot better as a team,” Pulisic said. “We can talk about continuing to gain experience. That is not why we are here. We want to win now. We need to win these games. I’m a competitive guy and I know everyone else is in the locker room. It wasn’t good enough today… I had a really good chance in the first half that I need to score and that could change the game, after that they scored two quick ones and that soccer is. It can change real quick and there just wasn’t time for us to recover.”

Moving ahead, the USA’s final game of 2018 is against Italy in Genk, Belgium next Tuesday. Do Pulisic and his teammates feel under pressure to deliver something special in what is likely Sarachan’s final game before a new manager comes in?

“There is no pressure. I don’t feel any added pressure because it is our last game of the year or whatever,” Pulisic said. “Whoever we are playing we want to go out and prove to ourselves and our country we can take down a good team. We want to go out there and we want to win.”