By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 30, 2019) US Soccer Players – The annual pomp and circumstance of the UEFA Champions League draw unfolded in Monaco on Wednesday evening. That included the requisite recently retired luminaries on hand to both take in the event and, in some cases, aid in its execution.
Former Netherlands winger Wesley Schneider, who ended his career this summer after playing for Ajax, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, and others, dutifully pulled balls out bowls to place the 32 teams group stage qualifiers into eight groups.
Paris Saint-Germain, one of two uber-rich clubs alongside Manchester City playing the Sisyphean role year after year in the competition landed in Group A with Real Madrid, Club Brugge, and Galatasaray. City got a cakewalk of a draw in comparison, slotted into Group D with Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb, and Atalanta. Going to Eastern Europe is never easy, and Atalanta plays a high-powered brand of attacking soccer that could make games interesting. City will nevertheless be massive favorites to win the group.
Barcelona, Dortmund, and Inter Milan were drawn together in Group F, a circumstance that would have been of significant interest to American soccer fans as recently as a year ago. Christian Pulisic appeared in 17 Champions League games while playing for Dortmund. If he were still with Dortmund, he’d be playing in this year’s “Group of Death”.
Of course, Pulisic swapped Dortmund for London this summer thanks to a $70 million transfer to English powerhouse Chelsea. The Blues are working through a period of transition. Pulisic has had ample chance to show he was worth the hefty fee under new manager Frank Lampard.
Despite his youth, Lampard will undoubtedly lean on Pulisic’s experience the Champions League this season. Chelsea did not land in a group with a club as big as Barcelona. Instead, it will face off against Ajax, Valencia, and Lille of Ligue 1 in Group H.
Group H will be of significant interest to American soccer fans and not just because of Pulisic. 2018-19 semifinalist Ajax also has an American in its squad, 18-year-old Sergino Dest. If fans didn’t know about Dest before through his exploits with the U20 national team at this year’s U-20 World Cup in Poland, he’s now part of the senior squad for the September friendlies. Dest was instrumental in getting the Eredivisie side into this year’s group stage. Despite making the final four last year, Ajax had to beat PAOK of Greece and APOEL Nicosia of Cyprus in qualifying.
Dest won Man of the Match from the Ajax fans in attendance at Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam on Tuesday night for his contributions to a 2-0 win over APOEL. The versatile fullback is a menace going forward and has enough skill on the ball to dribble out of the type of pressing that dominates at the highest levels. There’s no reason for Ajax manager Erik ten Hag not to play him against the Champions League group stage opponents.
There’s another American in Group H, too. Pulisic is the superstar name and Dest is the up-and-coming national teamer-in-waiting, but Tim Weah of Lille is also primed to play his first Champions League minutes this season. Weah moved to Lille this summer after starting his career at Paris Saint-Germain. The most presumably comes with the promise of more playing time for a talented youngster who is ready for more minutes.
Weah is injured, hence his absence from the USMNT roster, but he’ll be back shortly. That means a potential clash against Pulisic and/or Dest.
That trio getting drawn together virtually guarantees a matchup between two American players in the Champions League this season. That’s only happened three other times in history, most recently in 2018 when Pulisic’s Dortmund faced Ethan Horvath’s Club Brugge.
Horvath is in this year’s tournament, too. Though Simon Mignolet usurped the 24-year-old goalkeeper’s number one spot with Brugge, Horvath is a talented goalkeeper who might get a shot to repeat some of the heroics he displayed in last year’s tournament. Against Monaco last November, Horvath made several crucial saves and helped his club to its only win of the group stage. Club Brugge landed in Group A with PSG, Real Madrid, and Galatasaray. That gauntlet makes getting another Champions League victory a daunting task.
Leipzig will have a much better chance of advancing. The Germany boat-rocker got a kind draw, moving out of Pot 3 into Group G with Zenit St. Petersburg, Benfica, and Lyon. Parity reigns in Group H and Leipzig might even be a favorite to win the group.
That should mean plenty of opportunities for Tyler Adams to play in the world’s premier club soccer competition. Adams’s work in the second half of the 2018-19 season after transferring from the New York Red Bulls won him plaudits both inside and outside of Germany. New head coach Julian Nagelsmann is smart and savvy and will us Adams in the midfield role the American grabbed last season.
Adams does have to get back on the field for that to happen. Like Weah, he’s out injured. He missed the start of RB Leipzig’s Bundesliga campaign and won’t be with the USMNT for the two friendlies next in September. The groin problem that kept him out of the American Gold Cup squad remains the issue.
There’s one more American presence in the Champions League this season, but it isn’t a player. Adams’s former coach with the New York Red Bulls and assistant with RB Leipzig, Jesse Marsch, will lead Red Bull Salzburg of Austria into the Champions League group stage.
Marsch is blazing a trail with Salzburg. He’ll be the first American coach in the group stage of the Champions League when his club faces Genk of Belgium on September 17. He’ll be expected to win his debut, with the game at Salzburg’s Red Bull Arena.
The remaining matches in Group E will be more difficult. Salzburg will face the defending champions, Liverpool, and Italian contenders Napoli. Both of those clubs have significant advantages on Salzburg in terms of talent and spending. Marsch will get a chance to show his tactical acumen across four games.
The early returns on Marsch’s tenure in Austria are excellent. Through five games this season, Red Bull has five wins and a +19 goal differential. That bodes well for the Champions League campaign, even accounting for Salzburg’s status as reigning the Bundesliga champion. Red Bull won’t be the favorite against Liverpool or Napoli, but it doesn’t figure to be pushover, either. An American will pace the sidelines on a European night at Anfield. That’s something.
Every Champions League in recent has had some modicum of American presence. A sprinkling of players who represent the United States internationally typically dot the group stage. This year is no exception, though the American element in the tournament is younger and more accomplished than ever before. That should make for an interesting competition to watch through Red, White, and Blue-colored glasses.
And there’s the coach. American players made in-roads over two-plus decades in Europe, but the coaching ranks appeared to be closed off to soccer men born and bred in the USA. That’s no longer true. It’s that, maybe even more than the likes of Pulisic, Adams, Weah, and Dest getting their chance to play in the tournament, setting this year’s Champions League apart.
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