By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 25, 2022) US Soccer Players – With qualifying matches wrapping up on Wednesday, the final field of 32 for this season’s UEFA Champions League learned their group-stage assignments during UEFA’s always-entertaining draw on Thursday afternoon. Compressed into a tighter time window (nine weeks) than usual due to the unprecedented fall placement of the FIFA World Cup, the Champions League group stage kicks off on Sept. 6-7 and concludes on Nov. 1-2.
The 16 survivors advance to the knockout bracket come 2023, setting up the final sprint to the grand final at Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul on May 28. Full schedule details are expected to be released sometime this weekend.
After last season’s edition set a new record for USMNTers involved, the competition widely hailed as the loftiest level of club soccer on earth will again feature a double-digit haul of United States representation. Every one of the eight groups will include at least one US-eligible player. Here’s a rundown of their Champions League outlook.
Group A: Rangers return to the big stage
After suffering financial meltdown and a resulting plunge down the pyramid a decade ago, Scottish giants Rangers FC has finally, painstakingly climbed back to where it and its devoted fans believe they belong, tangling with Europe’s elite.
The Glasgow club navigated past Belgium’s Union Saint-Gilloise and PSV Eindhoven in the UCL qualifying stages this summer, with USMNTers James Sands and Malik Tillman key contributors. Tillman scored and assisted on some massive goals, and Sands earned plaudits for his work at center back, particularly in Wednesday’s nerve-jangling second-leg win at PSV.
“We want to compete with the best teams in Europe. It will be difficult but it’s an experience I will love,” said manager and former Rangers player Giovanni van Bronckhorst after his side’s 1-0 win and 3-2 aggregate triumph in the Netherlands. “Ten years ago we were at our lowest point and it has taken a lot of work, energy and time from a lot of people to build the club back to this level.”
That’s earned Rangers placement alongside three aristocrats in Group A: Ajax, Liverpool, and Napoli. Even in their home dates at imposing Ibrox, the Scots are likely underdogs against all three. They’re also likely to happily embrace that role and look to spring some surprises this fall.
Group B: Club Brugge aims high
After finding playing time hard to come by under coach Philippe Clement at Club Brugge last season, Owen Otasowie has earned increased minutes in the early stages of the Belgian champions’ 2022-23 campaign. He’ll aim to build on that as the Blauw-Zwart (“Blue-Black”) prepare for a tricky Champions League assignment.
Brugge will face Porto, Atletico Madrid, and Bayer Leverkusen, three sides with real pedigree and a wealth of quality on their rosters. It’s a rugged group but less daunting than their draw last year, where they were unlucky to fall in with Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, and RB Leipzig and finished last in Group A.
Brugge, which is also home to Canadian internationals Tajon Buchanan and Cyle Larin, won’t be picked to advance to the knockout phase by too many pundits. They bid farewell to last season’s leading scorer, Charles De Ketelaere, via a high-dollar transaction with AC Milan and reports suggest that other talents could move along to higher-profile clubs in the final days of the summer transfer window. That may well open up space for Otasowie, 21, to become a regular contributor.
Group C: Plotlines galore
Robert Lewandowski’s reunion with his former club became a massive talking point from the moment Bayern Munich and FC Barcelona were drawn into the same jar on the UEFA stage. There’s also a common thread here for Sergino Dest, who reportedly came close to joining Bayern before moving from Ajax to Barcelona in 2020.
Barca will be hungry for vengeance after Bayern inflicted painful Champions League setbacks on them repeatedly in recent years. In the bigger picture, it’s whether Barca coach Xavi Hernandez’s renewal project has advanced far enough to give them realistic hopes of a deep UCL run. Bayern and Inter Milan should provide telling tests, while Czech champions Viktoria Plzen are seen as the outsiders here.
Inter won the 2010 Champions League but subsequently went a decade without reaching the knockout stage until returning to the final 16 last season. Spearheaded by strikers Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez, the Nerazzurri look a solid contender to advance out of this group. Bayern, for their part, are real contenders to win the tournament that has become their top priority amid sustained dominance of the Bundesliga.
Group D: Eintracht seeks another Cinderella story
Looking for a feel-good Champions League tale? Eintracht Frankfurt makes its first return to Europe’s top competition since 1960 thanks to last season’s impressive, unlikely run to the Europa League title.
A club which had to survive a Bundesliga relegation playoff just six years ago now gets to face off against Tottenham Hotspur, Sporting, and Olympique Marseille on one of the soccer world’s biggest stages. Their lack of UCL track record makes it difficult to project how they’ll fare. Yet there’s also the lack of an obvious giant in their group, raising hopes of another upstart surprise. USMNT player Timothy Chandler gets to experience the Champions League for the first time at age 32.
Group E: Chelsea try to regain the summit
Christian Pulisic joined one of the most exclusive groups in USMNT history when he hoisted the Champions League trophy last year. Given the lofty expectations around Stamford Bridge, last season’s subsequent run to the quarterfinals was disappointing by comparison. Pulisic & Co. will go toe to toe with Serie A champs AC Milan in group play and try to avoid potential disappointment against Red Bull Salzburg and Dinamo Zagreb.
Salzburg has come to exemplify the Red Bull model, consistently imposing their high-tempo pressing even against more talent-rich opponents, and even while steadily selling on top players like Sadio Mane, Erling Haaland, and Brenden Aaronson. The Austrians reached the UCL knockout bracket for the first time last season.
Meanwhile, Dinamo outlasted Norwegian champions Bodo/Glimt in a riveting qualifying series that had to be decided via extra time after this week’s second-leg. While the Croatians look like long shots here, they carry substantial experience in UCL and Europa play.
Group F: Celtic meets the champions
After several years away, Celtic are back in the group phase and get to test their mettle against mighty Real Madrid, reigning champs. It’s a timely new chapter in the career of USMNT defender Cameron Carter-Vickers, a chance to measure himself against Europe’s best.
Bundesliga contenders RB Leipzig will also pose steep difficulty and look like the Bhoys’ main rival for advancement, considering that Madrid almost never fail to advance to the knockouts. The wild card in Group F, in both competitive and logistical terms, is Shakhtar Donetsk.
The Ukrainian club has been displaced from its home city since 2014 due to war in that nation’s east, and Russia’s invasion has further complicated their nomadic existence. The Ukrainian Premier League just resumed play this week despite the ongoing conflict, and Shakhtar will play its domestic matches in Kyiv. Their Champions League matches will be held across the Polish border in Warsaw, and the violence has also deprived them of most of their cadre of Brazilian imports.
“We have a young team, a new coach. The most important thing is to enjoy the games that are waiting for us. Unfortunately, there will not be full stands in Ukraine, but I am sure there will be in Warsaw,” sporting director Darijo Srna said on Thursday. “Many of our fans, Ukrainians, will come – they deserve, like all of Ukraine, that we demonstrate good, bright football, so that they get pleasure from our game.”
Group G: All eyes on Gio Reyna
The sheer depth and wealth of Manchester City makes the Premier League champions the odds-on pick to top this quartet. Along the way, new star striker Erling Haaland will cross paths with his former club Borussia Dortmund, where he and Reyna developed strong attacking chemistry in their time together.
It’s the kind of occasion Reyna will be hungry to experience as BVB slowly bring him along after months lost to hamstring and other soft-tissue injuries. The Black-and-Yellow will need to perform if they are to outpace Sevilla, a six-time Europa League winner, to one of the qualification slots, while FC Copenhagen’s respectable record in Europe shows it’s more than just a minnow.
Sevilla has earned a reputation for punching above its weight via smart acquisitions and sales, though it’s fresh off the loss of Mexican winger Tecatito Corona to a serious leg injury. Holding midfielder Thomas Delaney was USMNT eligible due to his American grandfather, but long ago committed his international allegiance to Denmark.
Group H: Can PSG be stopped?
Super clubs PSG and Weston McKennie’s Juventus headline this group, with their pedigree posing a daunting proposition for Benfica and Maccabi Haifa. The latter might be the biggest underdogs in the entire field of 32, surprisingly outpacing Olympiacos, Apollon Limassol, and Red Star Belgrade in qualifying just to reach this point.
Maccabi Haifa feature Josh Cohen in goal, a California native who played for USL Championship clubs Orange County SC, Phoenix Rising, and Sacramento Republic before moving to Haifa in 2019 and becoming a star in his adopted country. Cohen has backstopped his club to two league titles and won the 2021 Israeli Footballer of the Year award. Now Cohen gets to face a fellow Yank in McKennie, as well as Lionel Messi, Neymar and the combined might of PSG, continuing his dream run for at least a little bit longer.
More from Charles Boehm:
- The San Jose Earthquakes choose LuchiBall
- What happened to the Liga MX to USMNT connection?
- US arrivals and 2022-23 dreams for Crystal Palace, Arsenal
- What does the Bundesliga have in store for USMNT players in 2022-23?
Photo by Imago via ZUMA Press – ISIPhotos.com