By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 9, 2023) US Soccer Players – The final sprint for European soccer’s top club prizes begins next week as the knockout phases of the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League kick off. Several USMNT players could be right in the thick of it. Here’s a rundown of who’s involved and what’s at stake.
Borussia Dortmund vs Chelsea
This meeting of two of the USMNT’s top attackers is a match-up many USMNT watchers have had circled for some time. Unfortunately the knee injury Christian Pulisic sustained in early January makes it unlikely he’ll be available for CFC for this meeting with Gio Reyna’s BVB. The healthy gap between the first and second legs could offer some hope if his recovery proceeds quickly. He’d surely aim to take part in the quarterfinals in April if his teammates can navigate past Dortmund.
This tie opens at Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park on Wednesday and concludes at Stamford Bridge on March 7. BVB has won all five of its domestic matches since Germany’s resumption of play following the World Cup, scoring 15 goals in the process. Reyna’s contributions as a super sub have been key to that output. The winger has scored in all three of his appearances since the break, helping the Black-and-Yellow climb to 3rd-place in the Bundesliga standings.
Chelsea hasn’t enjoyed quite the same run of form, winning just once in 2023 with a 2W-3L-3D mark since the World Cup. That said, currently sitting ninth in the English Premier League will do nothing to reduce the Champions League ambitions of the 2021 winners. The Blues were also busy in the January transfer window, with eight players in and five players out, headlined by the high-profile arrivals of Joao Felix, Mykhaylo Mudryk and Enzo Fernandez. USMNT goalkeeper Gaga Slonina has also settled in with the London club but is not on their UCL squad list yet.
Eintracht Frankfurt vs Napoli
The home of Timmy Chandler and Paxten Aaronson is also flying high in 2023. Paced by six goals in five games from emerging superstar Randal Kolo Muani, Eintracht is undefeated across all competitions since October 29. The Eagles are right in the thick of the Bundesliga race, sitting five points back of leaders Bayern Munich, and have advanced to the quarterfinals of the DFB Pokal.
They’ll need to produce two excellent performances to best red-hot Napoli. The Partenopei are in the midst of a dream season, having powered 13 points clear atop the Serie A table while topping a tricky UCL group with a 5-1-0 record and a +14 goal difference. Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen has been a revelation, scoring 16 goals in 17 league appearances to build a healthy lead at the top of the Serie A golden boot race.
Napoli will host the second leg of this series at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona on March 15. The Italians have yet to lose there this season. That home dominance makes it crucial for Eintracht to seize an early advantage in their home leg at Deutsche Bank Park on Wednesday. Chandler is on the Champions League roster, while Aaronson continues to settle in at the club and has yet to make his first-team debut.
Elsewhere in the Champions League
Sergino Dest is not on AC Milan’s squad list for the knockout phases. The Rossoneri hosts Tottenham Hotspur on Tuesday before the return leg in London on March 8. Owen Otasowie is part of Club Brugge’s UCL roster though has yet to make an appearance in this season’s tournament. The Belgians welcome Portuguese frontrunners Benfica to Jan Breydel Stadium on Wednesday ahead of the second leg on March 7.
This competition’s format features a quirk around this time of year, with the eight 3rd-place finishers from the Champions League group stage set to play the eight 2nd-place teams from the Europa League group stage in two-legged playoffs to decide who moves on to the round of 16. They’ll advance to play the UEL’s group-stage winners, which this year includes Matt Turner’s Arsenal. The Gunners will learn their first knockout opponent when the UEL draw is held on February 24. A couple of other Yanks are involved in the knockout round playoffs about to unfold over the next two weeks.
Union Berlin vs Ajax
Jordan Pefok broke a lengthy scoring drought over the weekend with his dramatic, emphatic game-winner for Union vs Mainz. The strike took his season total to four goals and three assists in league play and kept Die Eisernen neck-and-neck with Bayern in the title race.
After a massive visit to 4th-place RB Leipzig on Saturday, Pefok and Union will aim to build further momentum in their UEL playoff vs. Ajax. The Dutch giants host the first leg at Johan Cruijff ArenA on Thursday, a typically daunting environment for visitors. It might not be a bad time to play Ajax, considering the recent turmoil at that club. Coach Alfred Schreuder was recently fired after an extended winless slump and executive Edwin van der Sar has come under heavy criticism during a largely frustrating season to date.
Union will look to keep things tight in the Netherlands before the scene shifts to Stadion An der Alten Försterei on February 23. The Berliners have carved out an unblemished 5W-0L-0D record in the new year and are still alive in the DFB Pokal. That allows them to continue dreaming of a treble achievement that would rank as one of European soccer’s top stories of the year.
PSV Eindhoven vs Sevilla
Richy Ledezma made three UEL appearances for PSV earlier in the campaign. The 22-year-old midfielder will aspire to add to that as his club meet Europa royalty in one of this playoff round’s most intriguing matchups. Sevilla is a six-time Europa League winner, all of them achieved since 2006, making the Andalusians the most successful team in Europa League history.
A 4th-place finish in La Liga last season earned a spot in the Champions League, where they finished third in Group G behind Manchester City and Dortmund. That was during a brutal start to their 2022-23 marked by just two wins in their first fifteen games. First-year coach Jorge Sampaoli oversaw a marked turnaround in recent weeks, though relegation fears will persist until Sevilla can climb into mid-table.
PSV has won eight of its last 13 matches, including a deep run in the KNVB Cup, and sit just four points back of Eredivisie leaders Feyenoord in that league’s crowded title race. Ankle injuries have complicated Ledezma’s climb from second-team regular to first-team contributor this season. His club’s busy hunt for hardware may give him important opportunities to contribute in the months ahead.
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
More from Charles Boehm:
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- Defense, identity, and urgency from the USMNT vs Serbia
- The Olympic angle at this January camp
- Into a new era of North American soccer broadcasting
Photo by James Heaton – News Images via ZUMA Press Wire – ISIPhotos.com