Concacaf Champions League: Ranking the MLS contenders
The 2023 Concacaf Champions League is just a month away, with North America’s finest set to battle it out for the big prize.
As always, the sides from Liga MX will be the favorites, but just last year, Major League Soccer ended its long wait for a title as the Seattle Sounders went all the way.
This year, another five-team MLS cohort make their attempt at emulating Seattle. On their day, any one of them could get it done, so let’s rank their chances:
The Whitecaps return to CCL for the first time since 2016 thanks to their 2022 Canadian Championship success.
Vanni Sartini’s side didn’t enjoy the best MLS campaign, finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference and missing out on the Playoffs. However, they looked much stronger toward the end, and in the likes of Ryan Gauld and Julian Gressel, have some of the best players in the league in their respective positions.
VWFC should see off Honduran side Real Espana in the round-of-16 but next up would likely be a tie against MLS Cup champions LAFC that they’re just not currently equipped for.
It’s been a long time coming but after establishing themselves as MLS Cup Playoffs regulars, Orlando City are now a Concacaf Champions League team thanks to their US Open Cup triumph.
The Lions have been hard at work strengthening an already impressive roster, and in Facundo Torres, they have one of the most dangerous players in CCL this year.
A lack of experience on this stage may hurt them, while they have a terribly difficult opening clash against Tigres to negotiate. But don’t write Orlando off, they’re an outside bet.
Austin FC have a favorable opening match against Haitian side Violette before, most likely, facing a Club Leon outfit struggling in Liga MX.
That gives the Verde and Black a very realistic route to at least the semi-finals. Once there, watch Sebastian Driussi and Co. come to life – the Argentine was a frontrunner in the MVP race last season and should be in contention again this time around.
Like Orlando, a lack of experience may kill Austin before the end but not before breaking a few hearts.
At long last, LAFC enter CCL as MLS Cup champions.
The last time the Black and Gold were on this stage, they went all the way to the final and were just 29 minutes away from winning it before a late, gut-wrenching Tigres comeback.
Now, give us the LAFC roster from MLS Cup with the likes of Gareth Bale and Cristian Arango and we’d certainly have them as favorites. However, those two – along with the likes of Latif Blessing and Cristian Tello – have gone and despite some shrewd signings, this does make LAFC weaker.
But would you bet against players like Carlos Vela and Denis Bouanga?
Like LAFC, the Union have lost players from their run to MLS Cup. However, unlike the champions, their departures haven’t been foundational pieces, with Paxten Aaronson and Cory Burke very much rotational.
In fact, with a couple of smart moves like Andreas Perea and Joaquin Torres, Philly are even stronger.
The Union reached the semi-finals in 2021 and with a route that should see them face Liga MX middlers Atlas following Alianza of Honduras, we should at the very least see a repeat. That could see them take on LAFC and at present, they’re the stronger of the two best teams in MLS from 2022.
Elche 0-4 Barcelona: Player ratings as Blaugrana cruise to routine win
Barcelona continued their push towards the La Liga title with a comfortable 4-0 victory over the division’s bottom side Elche on Saturday.
It wasn’t a particularly inspiring performance from Xavi’s side but the gulf in quality between the two sides ensured it never needed to be, with Robert Lewandowski scoring twice and both Ansu Fati and Ferran Torres getting in on the action in the second half.
Elche made a bright start but soon reverted to type, backtracking and sitting deep in an attempt to frustrate Barcelona – doing so fairly successfully for the first 19 minutes before Lewandowski opened the scoring.
Ronald Araujo knocked a free-kick back across the box and Lewandowski did well to shuffle the ball out of his feet and arrow a strike into the corner of the goal.
Elche responded well and actually enjoyed some nice spells of possession, although the next real chance fell to Lewandowski once again as the Pole leapt highest to meet a cross inside the six-yard box, but he got his jump all wrong and somehow sent the ball over the bar.
Jules Kounde then saw an effort blocked on the line by Omar Mascarell as Barcelona ended what was a bit of an ugly first half on top.
Elche had an excellent chance to snatch an equaliser early in the second half when Jose Angel Carmona went bursting through one-on-one, but before he could get his shot away, the full-back’s hamstring gave up on him and sent him crashing to the ground.
Moments later, Fati thundered home a second, driving from deep and sending a low effort across goal and into the bottom corner.
Lewandowski added the third 65 minutes in, picking up the ball after Gavi had stolen possession and drilling home to remove any doubt about the result.
With the floodgates now fully open, Torres soon added a fourth, cutting inside from the right wing and bending the ball beyond Badia.
As had been the case all game, Elche refused to lie down and they did manage plenty of half-chances, but they simply did not have the quality needed to break Barcelona down in the end.
GK: Edgar Badia (4); RB: Helibelton Palacios (4); CB: Pedro Bigas (5); CB: Omar Mascarell (6); LB: Carlos Clerc (5); RM: Tete Morente (5); CM: Jose Angel Carmona (5); CM: Gerard Gumbau (6); LM: Lautaro Blanco (5); AM: Fidel Chaves (5); ST: Pere Milla (5).
Substitutes: Raul Guti (6), Nicolas Fernandez (6), Josan (5), Ezequiel Ponce (5).
GK: Marc-Andre ter Stegen – 6/10 – Busier than he’ll have expected to be and had to ride his luck at times.
RB: Jules Kounde – 7/10 – Played more like a winger but should have done better when in front of goal.
CB: Ronald Araujo – 7/10 – A classy knockdown for Lewandowski’s opener.
CB: Marcos Alonso – 7/10 – Defensively solid and always willing to get involved in attack where possible.
LB: Jordi Alba – 7/10 – Looked fresh as he tried to get involved as much as possible.
DM: Eric Garcia – 6/10 – A solid showing in midfield. Not tested much defensively but kept things ticking over with some nice passing.
CM: Sergi Roberto – 6/10 – Unspectacular but effective. Advanced possession well but struggled to break down Elche’s defence.
CM: Gavi – 8/10 – Electric. Looked back at home in midfield as he charged around to get involved in almost everything positive for Barcelona.
RW: Ferran Torres – 6/10 – A quiet showing aside from his well-taken goal.
ST: Robert Lewandowski – 8/10 – Took his goals very well and could have easily had more.
LW: Ansu Fati – 6/10 – Not a particularly impressive performance but can’t fault the end product.
Franck Kessie (68′ for Gavi) – 6/10 – Kept things ticking over.
Pablo Torre (77′ for Araujo) – 6/10 – Brought good energy in limited minutes.
Aleix Garrido (83′ for Fati) – N/A
Xavi – 6/10 – Barcelona weren’t particularly impressive but didn’t need to be. Xavi set his side up and then waited for their superiority to bring results, and that’s what happened.
Player of the match – Robert Lewandowski (Barcelona)
Bayern Munich 4-2 Dortmund: Player ratings as Tuchel returns with huge win
Bayern Munich made a dominant start to their new era under Thomas Tuchel by thumping Bundesliga title rivals Borussia Dortmund 4-2 to regain top spot in Germany’s top flight.
Dortmund went into the international break as the league leaders but crumbled in familiar fashion in Bavaria on Saturday as Gregor Kobel embarrassingly skewed a Dayot Upamecano pass into his own net early on.
Thomas Muller netted a quick-fire double to put Bayern 3-0 up in 25 minutes before Kingsley Coman slid in to make it four at the start of the second half.
Dortmund were once again overawed by the Klassiker occasion but did manage to pull two goals back as Emre Can converted a penalty before Donyell Malen rattled one in during stoppage time.
New Bayern boss Tuchel did face former side Dortmund recently in the Champions League in 2019/20 with Paris Saint-Germain, coming out 3-2 aggregate winners in the last 16. However, the former Chelsea manager couldn’t have expected such a generously poor start from BVB in his first outing with Bayern.
The visitors did craft a decent opening before conceding the lead as Marius Wolf teed up Marco Reus, but Matthijs de Ligt covered to blocked his shot on goal.
But moments after Can was booked during a heated exchange with the referee, a serious lapse in judgement from goalkeeper Kobel handed Bayern the lead in the 13th minute. Upamecano’s hopeful punt upfield could have been gathered by the Swiss stopper in his area, but instead he slashed at it and made only the slightest of connections, the ball trickling behind him and into the net.
Dortmund have crumbled in recent trips to the Allianz Arena and they were clearly familiar with the script as some statuesque defending allowed De Ligt to head a corner towards Muller, who stayed onside to turn in from close range.
Bayern’s grip on the game intensified when Dortmund quickly lost possession in their own third. Leroy Sane’s shot from distance was parried by Kobel into Muller’s path and the German forward reacted quickest to grab his second of the game.
Dortmund were hit by an injury to centre back Nico Schlotterbeck just before half time, with Mats Hummels coming off the bench to face his former club. They did engineer a decent move as Julian Brandt and Raphael Guerreiro combined to set up Julian Ryerson, but the left-back fired over.
it could have been 4-0 before the break when Coman ran onto Leon Goretzka’s through ball, but the French winger tripped up on the turf when attempting to round Kobel.
A BVB cross almost found Sebastien Haller at the start of the second half, but instead Bayern countered to net their fourth goal of the evening. Sane controlled a booming switch of play and crossed low – nutmegging Muller in the process – towards Coman who prodded in at the back post.
Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting had an acrobatic effort disallowed before being denied by Kobel having latched onto Sane’s fizzed pass.
Dortmund saw a faint glimmer of hope when substitute Serge Gnabry brought down Jude Bellingham, allowing Can to beat Yann Sommer from the penalty spot.
Their second goal came slightly too late to force a grandstand finish as Malen produced an instinctive finish after neat interplay with Guerreiro in the 90th minute.
Bayern saw out the remaining few minutes to usurp Dortmund at the top of the Bundesliga, leading their rivals by two points.
GK: Yann Sommer – 6/10 – Had to gather a few ambitious shots but his work load was pretty minimal. A bit too rooted for the second goal.
RB: Benjamin Pavard – 7/10 – Rarely had to be worried about Reus or Guerreiro in behind.
CB: Dayot Upamecano – 7/10 – Might claim the first goal if he’s feeling lucky. Made a few tackles which kept Bayern in the ascendancy. Booked and suspended for Bayern’s next game.
CB: Matthijs de Ligt – 7/10 – Great header gave Muller a tap in. Could have done more to prevent Malen on another day.
LB: Alphonso Davies – 7/10 – Made a couple of mistakes in quick succession early on but his recoveries in defence and outlet in attack made up for any rustiness.
CM: Joshua Kimmich – 7/10 – Engineered another Klassiker victory for Bayern, picking out Muller in dangerous areas.
CM: Leon Goretzka – 7/10 – Created a couple of big opportunities and didn’t lack a goal threat himself.
RW: Leroy Sane – 8/10 – Was allowed to dribble unopposed at times, which obviously plays to his strengths. Nice ball across the box set up Coman.
AM: Thomas Muller – 8/10 – Great anticipation to be in the right place to score two easy goals in the first half.
LW: Kingsley Coman – 8/10 – A constant threat with the ball at his feat and arrived on the spot to convert Sane’s pass.
ST: Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting – 7/10 – Just strayed offside before controlling, swivelling and shooting past Kobel.
Sadio Mane (69′ for Choupo-Moting) – 5/10 – Joined in the frequent Bayern attacks but couldn’t cash in.
Serge Gnabry (69′ for Muller) – 5/10 – Gave away a penalty minutes after his introduction. Had a goal disallowed late on.
Joao Cancelo (79′ for Davies) – N/A
Jamal Musiala (79′ for Coman) – N/A
Ryan Gravenberch (86 for Goretzka) – N/A
Thomas Tuchel – 7/10 – Was handed a fair amount of joy by Dortmund’s poor defending and might not have learned too much about his side. Still, victory in Der Klassiker is as good a way for Tuchel to start.
GK: Gregor Kobel – 2/10 – You can file Kobel’s mistake for the first goal under ‘Silly Things That Dortmund Do in Der Klassiker‘. Completely unnecessary and yet totally becoming of BVB.
RB: Marius Wolf – 5/10 – Put in some threatening crosses from the right and made a handful of important tackles.
CB: Niklas Sule – 3/10 – Bit clumsy and never had a grip on where Bayern’s elusive attackers were.
CB: Nico Schlotterbeck – 4/10 – Overwhelmed alongside his teammates in the first half before being subbed off.
LB: Julian Ryerson – 3/10 – Never got to grips with Sane and came off at the break.
RM: Julian Brandt – 3/10 – Also substituted at the break. Is Dortmund’s top league scorer this season but never looked like netting here.
CM: Jude Bellingham – 5/10 – Did well to win a penalty in the second half but did struggle against Goretzka and Kimmich with Can all over the place.
CM: Emre Can – 5/10 – Scored Dortmund’s penalty but Can was positionally errant throughout as Bayern stormed up field. His early booking definitely affected his performance in that regard.
CM: Raphael Guerreiro – 4/10 – Didn’t really expect left-back Raphael Guerreiro to cut it in midfield in Der Klassiker. It didn’t really work out but he did get an assist for Malen late on.
LM: Marco Reus – 4/10 – His attempts at ingenuity were snuffed out regularly by Bayern’s alert defenders.
ST: Sebastien Haller – 5/10 – Dortmund never had a base to build from to involve Haller further up the pitch. Brought off just after the hour.
Mats Hummels (44′ for Schlotterbeck) – 3/10 – Turned like a truck and looked like he was running in quicksand in comparison to Sane and Coman.
Donyell Malen (46′ for Brandt) – 7/10 – Jinked in from the left to squeeze a late effort past Sommer to make the scoreline a little more respectable.
Salih Ozcan (46′ for Ryerson) – 5/10
Youssoufa Moukoko (61′ for Haller) – 6/10
Mahmoud Dahoud (61′ for Reus) – 6/10
Edin Terzic – 4/10 – Can’t really help his side conceding an awful opening goal, but the same mental fragilities are present for Dortmund. Big question marks over their character in the title run-in remain.
Player of the match – Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich)
Arsenal 4-1 Leeds: Player ratings as Gunners restore eight-point lead at Premier League summit
Arsenal restored their eight-point lead at the Premier League summit with an ultimately commanding 4-1 victory at home to Leeds United on Saturday afternoon.
The Gunners will have watched Manchester City close the gap with a second-half dismantling of Liverpool earlier in the day – the match was shown on the Emirates’ big screens – and began their game in a fog of hesitancy. Although, their visitors warrant some credit for that.
Javi Gracia had lost all three of his previous meetings with Arsenal by an aggregate score of 0-6 but arrived in north London with a plan to frustrate. Jack Harrison on the left and Rasmus Kristensen, a right-back shunted into midfield, were tasked with plugging the gaps between Leeds’ full-backs and centre-backs, the half-spaces from which Arsenal have wreaked so much havoc this season.
With Arsenal’s regular avenues to goal protected by a military blockade of neon camouflage kits, the hosts had to rely upon a returning weapon of their own. On his first Premier League start since the World Cup, Gabriel Jesus roamed around in constant search of space. The Brazilian nodded a header over the bar after ten minutes before wriggling into the box with the ball at his blurring feet.
Chopping away from Kristensen, Jesus sent Luke Ayling to the turf but soon joined him on the grass when the Leeds skipper carelessly left his studs dangling. Jesus dusted himself off and cooly slotted the spot kick he had worked so hard to win down the middle of the goal, finding the net for the first time since the opening day of October.
Leeds had enjoyed the better of the opening half-hour but their stubborn resolve melted in the wake of Arsenal’s opener. Jesus soon launched a counter-attack which culminated with Gabriel Martinelli watching his 40-yard lob hurriedly scrambled off the line by Ayling. Within two minutes of the restart, Leeds’ beleaguered captain couldn’t stop Martinelli’s cross from bouncing along the box for Ben White to crash in at the back post.
The tight stitching in Leeds’ rearguard was well and truly frayed thereafter. Jesus, who had spotted whispers of room throughout, revelled in the newfound patches of green grass. Arsenal’s number nine picked out Leandro Trossard in the box, surging beyond a trailing pack of disheartened visiting players to receive a return pass and stuff it past Illan Meslier after 55 minutes.
Just as the final 15 minutes threatened to meander towards a tame conclusion, Kristensen exploited his advanced positioning with a thumped shot from the D. Aaron Ramsdale was unsighted by a wicked deflection from Oleksandr Zinchenko and gave up yet another clean sheet; Arsenal have conceded in seven of their last eight home games.
Granit Xhaka restored Arsenal’s three-goal advantage within ten minutes, bursting into a scantily-clad box and guiding Martin Odegaard’s feathered cross into the corner. A matter of hours after City underlined their title credentials against Liverpool, Arsenal responded with a 4-1 win of their own, the club’s seventh consecutive top-flight victory – the longest run of any team at any point of the season.
GK: Aaron Ramsdale – 4/10 – Alert right from the opening whistle, making a save inside the first ten seconds but very shaky with the ball at his feet.
RB: Ben White – 7/10 – No punches were pulled against his former club with a spiky, stud-filled showing.
CB: Rob Holding – 6/10 – Rarely ventured away from a safe pass but managed to clear most of the danger that fell his way.
CB: Gabriel – 7/10 – Commanding on and off the ball.
LB: Oleksandr Zinchenko – 5/10 – Struggled when lured into a one-on-one out wide but limited those scenarios as he spent much of his time in midfield.
CM: Martin Odegaard – 6/10 – Grew into the game as space opened up between the lines.
CM: Thomas Partey – 7/10 – Exerted a sense of reassuring serenity in possession.
CM: Granit Xhaka – 7/10 – Readjusted well when faced with the initial obdurate shape but continued to crash the box when space opened up.
RW: Leandro Trossard – 8/10 – Starting on his unfavoured right flank, Trossard was brilliantly disciplined when counter-pressing and set up Jesus’ second.
ST: Gabriel Jesus – 9/10 – Breezing around the final third, Jesus was back to his untameable best.
LW: Gabriel Martinelli – 8/10 – The Brazilian’s unwavering directness helped pierce Leeds’ stubborn resolve.
Bukayo Saka (60′ for Jesus) – 5/10
Jorginho (60′ for Partey) – 5/10
Emile Smith Rowe (85′ for Odegaard) – N/A
Fabio Vieira (86′ for Xhaka) – N/A
Kieran Tierney (86′ for Zinchenko) – N/a
Mikel Arteta – 7/10 – Watched on as his players unpicked the problem in front of them with admirable cunning and creativity.
GK: Illan Meslier – 5/10 – Sharp off his line but not always so decisive.
RB: Luke Ayling – 2/10 – The former Arsenal academy graduate played as though he was still harbouring north London leanings.
CB: Robin Koch – 4/10 – Rash when robbed of the extra security provided by so many extra players flooding into Leeds’ backline.
CB: Pascal Struijk – 6/10 – Safe and sturdy on the left of Leeds’ rearguard.
LB: Junior Firpo – 5/10 – Curbed his natural attacking instincts as Leeds were reluctant to commit more than the front three forward.
CM: Rasmus Kristensen – 6/10 – Despite nominally starting further forward, Kristensen’s defensive discipline was integral to tracking Xhaka’s roaming.
CM: Marc Roca – 5/10 – Sweeping up at the base of midfield, Roca sometimes slipped in the backline himself as well.
CM: Jack Harrison – 6/10 – Dropping as deep – and sometimes deeper – than Leeds’ left-back Firpo.
RW: Luis Sinisterra – 5/10 – Skirting around the fringes of the contest.
ST: Brenden Aaronson – 4/10 – A striker in name only, the flitting attacking midfielder drifted in and mainly out of the contest.
LW: Crysencio Summerville – 7/10 – A wriggling menace as Leeds swept forward in transition.
Weston McKennie (66′ for Aaronson) – 5/10
Rodrigo (66′ for Sinisterra) – 5/10
Liam Cooper (74′ for Koch) – N/A
Georginio Rutter (74′ for Summerville) – N/A
Patrick Bamford (85′ for Harrison) – N/A
Javi Gracia – 5/10 – Deployed his side in a compact shape that also threatened in transition until the opening goal.
Player of the match – Gabriel Jesus (Arsenal)
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