Los Angeles Soccer: 1860 Munich
RSC Anderlecht's aim is to remind everyone in Belgium who's boss. Rangers just wants more hardware.
The second-tier European powerhouses, both featuring Southern California talent, have quickly made their points, racing atop their leagues' standings -- and one of them is threatening to run away from the field.
Scottish giant Rangers, with Alta Loma's Carlos Bocanegra and Fontana's Maurice Edu, returned from the international break on a sour note -- a 1-1 home draw with St. Mirren -- but stand seven points ahead of Motherwell and 10 in front of archrival Celtic. More impressive: Gers has a plus-19 goal difference after just 11 games.
The Glasgow club, founded in 1872, has won 54 top-tier league titles -- that's a world record -- and is seeking its fourth straight championship. Hated crosstown/sectarian rival Celtic, which has won 42 Scottish league championships, is, as always, the real competition.
Rangers or Celtic have won every title since 1986.
Brussels-based Anderlecht, Belgium's foremost club, blew it last year, nosediving during the playoff phase after winning the regular-season title, and the Mauves must make amends.
With Huntington Beach's Sacha Kljestan taking on a more influential role in midfield this season, RSCA is off to a 7-1-2 start, good for a one-point lead on Club Brugge, and coming off a 5-0 rout of Standard Liege, last year's runner-up and the Jupiler League champion in 2009.
EUROPA REDUX: UEFA's Europa League returns to action Thursday. Group L leader Anderlecht (2-0-0) plays at Austria's Sturm Graz (1-1-0). Tottenham (1-0-1), without former UCLA star Brad Friedel -- he's Spurs' league goalkeeper -- is home against Russia's Rubin Kazan in first-place showdown.
Ally McCoist finally notched his first victory as Rangers FC's manager, but it arrived four days late.
The reigning Scottish champions, with Fontana's Maurice Edu in midfield, bounced back from a startling draw in their Premier League opener to swat St. Johnstone, 2-0, on Saturday, the first triumph for the club's former star striker in three competitive games since taking over for retired Walter Smith.
He needed a win last Tuesday in the Blues' home leg of their qualifying series with Sweden's Malmö FC in the UEFA Champions League, the biggest of all club competitions -- bigger, yes, than even the Club World Cup that the victor qualifies for.
A 1-0 defeat, on Daniel Larsson's 18th-minute goal, has the Glasgow giant on the verge of elimination just as its campaign is starting. They'll require a victory -- by two goals or with two or more goals -- Wednesday in Sweden to move on to the playoff round, the final phase before group play.
WORTH NOTING: Irvine's Matt Taylor enjoyed a most fruitful return to Rot Weiss Ahlen, the third-division German club for which he starred last season. The former Chivas USA striker netted a hat trick -- goals in the 30th, 71st and 83rd minutes -- as second-tier SC Paderborn 07 destroyed the Red-Whites, 10-0, in a German Cup opener. ... Pasadena's Yura Movsisyan missed a first-half penalty kick, and Krasnodar settled for a 1-1 draw with Russian Premier League leader CSKA Moscow.
Fontana's Maurice Edu has emerged as a force in central midfield this season for Scottish giant Rangers FC, taking on more responsibility in attack and contributing mightily to the club's bid to win four trophies.
The Blues are out of one competition, ousted from the Scottish Cup by "Old Firm" archrival Celtic, but two championships are within grasp -- and a showdown Thursday at home against Dutch power PSV Eindhoven could send them to the last eight of the UEFA Europa League.
They can win the Scottish League Cup title Sunday, when they take on Celtic for the fifth time since New Year's, and are in command in the Scottish Premier League despite sitting two points behind Celtic in the standings.
And Edu (Etiwanda HS), whose stoppage-time goal three weeks ago sent Rangers past Sporting Lisbon and into the round of 16 in Europe's No. 2 club competition, is basking in his opportunity to play an important role for a storied European club against top competition.
"It's great getting the chance to play against the best teams in the world and test yourself against them," Edu, a U.S. national team midfielder who played in last summer's World Cup, told Major League Soccer's Web site this week. "You dream of playing in these competitions, so I'm just glad it's become a reality for me."
Injuries, mostly, limited Edu to 19 league starts in his first year and a half with Rangers, but he's made 27 starts -- and scored five goals -- in all competitions since the season kicked off last August. The goal against Sporting Lisbon was the biggest, by far, guaranteeing the SPL a second automatic berth in the lucrative UEFA Champions League.
"At the beginning of the season, the manager [Walter Smith] challenged me to get a few more goals ...," Edu said. "He's encouraged me to get forward and make late runs to support the strikers. I've been fortunate to grab a few goals. I like it because I've always seen myself as a box to box-type player. Hopefully, I can add to my tally before the end of the season."
He'll get his chance against PSV, which Rangers held to a scoreless draw in the first leg last week in Eindhoven. That gives the Blues the advantage heading into their home leg, but a tie with goals would send PSV through.
Sacha Kljestan has been in and out of RSC Anderlecht's lineup since joining the club from Chivas USA last summer, and things are going south again.
He's featuring less and less as the reigning Belgian champion hits the pivotal part of the schedule, and if that's just part of being a young pro in a competitive European environment, it doesn't make it any easier.
“It's tough to deal with," Kljestan, who has started just one off Les Mauves' eight games since the Jan. 23 return from winter break, told Major League Soccer's Web site last week. “I played 4½ years and I think I started every game but one in MLS. It takes some adjustment, but I think I have a good mentality. I fight for my place every week, and whether I'm in the lineup or not, I support my teammates. I think my coaches and teammates recognize that.”
Kljestan (Huntington Beach/Huntington Beach HS) supported his teammates from the bench in both legs of the UEFA Europa League round-of-32 loss to Ajax Amsterdam, and he didn't feature in Friday's showdown with Genk, which is tied on points with Anderlecht (both are 18-3-7) but ahead on goal difference atop the Belgian Jupiler League standings.
The club is winless in its last four games and outscored, 8-1, in that span -- after a two-month stretch with nine successive shutouts. Kljestan, of course, started during part of that streak, then sat for three games, then returned as a late substitute in two more. He's played just 54 minutes in Anderlecht's last nine games, getting 45 in his lone start, a 2-0 debacle at Westerlo two weeks ago.
Kljestan sees the bigger picture. He's experiencing Europe -- he and his fiancee, model Jamie Lee Darley, have enjoyed trips to London and Paris -- and working on his game, with hopes of going to a bigger club and playing a big role with the U.S. national team.
“We have a healthy competition in training for selection every week. I think it's making me a better player -- but obviously, I want to be on the field to help my team the most,” he told the MLS Web site. "Every day in training, I have to test myself a little more, and I think I've become a better 90-minute player in all aspects.
“In MLS, I played as more of an attacking midfielder. Here I've played as more of a defensive midfielder, so that part of my game has improved. At the end of the year, I'll be able to say that my game has become more well-rounded.”
OLD FIRM LOSS: Fontana's Maurice Edu and Rangers FC is out of the Scottish Cup following a 1-0 loss Celtic in last week's fifth-round replay, the Blues' second defeat to their Old Firm rival in 11 days.
Could the past week have gone any better for Rangers FC?
The Scottish champs bounced back from the previous weekend's debacle against Old Firm rival Celtic to claim a spot in the UEFA Europa League's last 16 -- in most dramatic fashion, and through our local hero, and doing a good deed for Scotland all the while -- then took command, in a way, in the Scottish Premier League when its hated nemesis was unexpectedly beaten.
Fontana's Maurice Edu was the hero in Lisbon, scoring in stoppage Thursday to give Rangers a 2-2 draw with Sporting. That made for 3-3 aggregate, and the away-goals tiebreaker favored the Blues, 2-1.
The victory provided Scotland a second automatic spot for the 2012-13 season in the Champions League, pushing the SPL above Switzerland's league to 15th in the UEFA table used to dole out European berths. That does one of two things: Ensures Rangers a Champions League berth even if it doesn't win the league title next season, or gives despised Celtic that berth.
Maybe that spurred Celtic's gift Sunday. As Rangers dispatched St. Johnstone, 4-0, the first-place Bhoys -- unbeaten in their last 17 -- were dismissed, 2-0, at fifth-place Motherwell, reducing the gap to their Old Firm nemesis from eight to five points. Because Rangers has two games in hand, it controls its fate. Of course, the final-stage showdown, probably in May, likely will decide the champion.
The Glasgow-based clubs meet twice before that, Wednesday in a Scottish Cup fifth-round replay and March 20 in the League Cup final.
ETC.: Former Galaxy forward Edson Buddle came off the bench to score the final goal in FC Ingolstadt's 4-1 rout at Karlsruhe, his second goal in six appearances since arriving in January. … Alta Loma's Carlos Bocanegra tested Nice goalkeeper David Ospina, Saint-Etienne's only shot on goal in a 2-0 defeat, its third in a row. Les Verts (9-8-8), once a prime player in the race, now sits nine points out of a European spot. The gap to the relegation zone is only slightly larger, at 10. … Michael Bradley watched Aston Villa's 4-1 romp over Blackburn from the bench, and Brad Friedel lost his shutout on a deflected shot with nine minutes to go. … Huntington Beach's Sacha Kljestan and Belgian champ RSC Anderlecht have a top-of-table clash Friday against Genk. Both are 18-3-6; Genk is No. 1 on goal difference.
Rangers FC's back-to-back Scottish Premier League titles might not get another “-to-back.” Sunday's 3-0 loss in the fourth of seven “Old Firm” meetings this season with archival Celtic FC has left Gers on the verge of elimination in two competitions.
And the Bhoys can end Rangers' title hopes in two more competitions, too.
Gary Hooper scored twice in the first 28 minutes Sunday at Celtic Park as Celtic's lead over Rangers (18-4-2) reached eight points, 64-56. The Blues, with Fontana's Maurice Edu a constant in central midfield, have two games in hand, but another loss could leave a gap too great to be bridged.
“Celtic deserved to win the game -- I don’t think we can have any complaints,” Rangers manager Walter Smith told reporters. “Our possession and defending was poor. It was as disappointing an Old Firm game since [returning to the club in 2007 after a decade away]. … The pressure is now on us to try and get a level of consistency in our game to make sure that when the next Old Firm game comes round, we’re in better shape.”
There are three more Old Firm meetings to go: in a March 2 Scottish Cup fifth-round replay at Celtic Park, in the March 20 Scottish League Cup final at Hampden Park, and at Rangers' Ibrox home in the championship bracket during the SPL season's final phase. Celtic is 2-1-1 in the first four this season, with two successive SPL wins.
Rangers has won 53 Scottish League titles, but not three in a row since a string of nine ended in the 1997-98 season. Celtic has 43. The last time a club other than Rangers or Celtic won? 1985 (Aberdeen).
Rangers' first priority: getting past Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League's round of 32, a task made more difficult by last week's draw at Ibrox.
EUROPA LEAGUE: Neither Rangers nor Belgian champ RSC Anderlecht managed the kind of result their were looking for in the Europa League's knockout openers. At least Rangers remains alive.
Maurice Edu's Rangers FC and Sacha Kljestan's RSC Anderlecht return to European action this week with the resumption of the UEFA Europa Cup, the continent's No. 2 club competition.
Scottish champion Rangers is home against Sporting Lisbon and Belgian titlist Anderlecht plays host to Ajax Amsterdam on Thursday as the knockout stage begins with round-of-32 first legs. All second legs will be a week from Thursday.
Fontana's Edu, who last month returned from a knee injury, has been a fixture in central midfield for the Blues, who joined the Europa League fray after finishing third, at 1-2-3, in group play in the first-tier UEFA Champions League.
Sporting won its Europa League group and is 7-3-0 in the competition, but that was last fall. The club is in crisis after selling top star Liedson, then firing sporting director Costinha when he railed publicly against the move. The president is leaving, chief creator Marat Izmailov is looking for a new home, and manager Paulo Sergio seems to be cracking under the pressure.
Huntington Beach's Kljestan, who has been in and out of Anderlecht's lineup (and has been a late substitute the past two weeks after sitting out the previous two), went 2-3-1 in Europa group play; Ajax, like Rangers, falls from the Champions League after finishing a point behind AC Milan in its group.
If Rangers reaches the round of 16, French club Lille or Holland's PSV Eindhoven will be the foe. Anderlecht's opponent would be Russian power Spartak Moscow or Switzerland's FC Basel.
The full Europa League slate:
Manchester City (England) at Aris Thessaloniki (Greece)
Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands) at RSC Anderlecht (Belgium)
Sporting Lisbon (Portugal) at Rangers FC (Scotland)
Villarreal (Spain) at Napoli (Italy)
Sporting Braga (Portugal) at Lech Poznan (Poland)
Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine) at Besiktas (Turkey)
FC Twente (Netherlands) at Rubin Kazan (Russia)
VfB Stuttgart (Germany) at Benfica (Portugal)
Paris St.-Germain (France) at BATE (Belarus)
Liverpool (England) at Sparta Prague (Czech Republic)
Spartak Moscow (Russia) at FC Basel (Switzerland)
Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia) at Young Boys Berne (Switzerland)
CSKA Moscow (Russia) at PAOK Thessaloniki (Greece)
FC Porto (Portugal) at Sevilla (Spain)
PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands) at Lille (France)
Bayer Leverkusen (Germany) at Metalist Kharkiv (Ukraine)
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: The first four of eight round-of-16 series begin this week in the UEFA Champions League. Tottenham visits AC Milan and Schalke 04 plays at Valencia on Tuesday; Barcelona plays at Arsenal and Ukraine's Shakhtar Donetsk at AS Roma on Wednesday. The other four series begin next week.
BRADLEY'S FIRST: Manhattan Beach's Michael Bradley made his English Premier League debut Saturday, struggling to make an impact as a second-half substitute in Aston Villa's 1-1 draw at Blackpool.
There were a lot of clubs looking closely at Michael Bradley, but as soon as the U.S. national team midfielder got word that Aston Villa was interested, his departure from Borussia Moenchengladbach was a done deal.
The 23-year-old midfielder, the son of U.S. coach Bob Bradley, on Monday joined Villa, arriving on loan until summer.
The Birmingham-based club, mired in a disappointing English Premier League campaign, has an option to purchase Bradley's contract, which runs until summer 2012. The announcement follows by days Pasadena's Yura Movsisyan's move from Danish club Randers to Russian Premier League side FC Krasnodar.
Bradley, whose family lives in Manhattan Beach, won't be cleared to play in Villa's game Tuesday against Manchester United, but he could debut Saturday against U.S. teammate Clint Dempsey and Fulham.
“Within the last week or so I heard that the manager [Gerard Houllier] was interested in bringing me here,” Bradley told Aston Villa's Web site. “From the moment I heard that, I was really excited and really just hoping that everything could get done. For me, the Premier League is the best league in the world. You watch a game in the Premier League, and the speed of the game, the pace and the power all stand out.
“To have the opportunity to come here and test myself at the highest level, week in and week out, is incredible, and to try to take the things I do as a player and make them count at the highest level -- it's a great challenge.”
Bradley's father was linked to the Aston Villa managerial job until Houllier, a former French national team coach, was hired in early September. The club is owned by Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner and features three other Americans: goalkeepers Brad Friedel and Brad Guzan and defender Eric Lichaj.
Bradley, who signed with MLS's MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls) at 16, moved to Holland's Heerenveen at 18 and joined Gladbach in 2008 on a $3.43 million transfer, has quickly risen in international soccer. He enjoyed a breakthrough World Cup in South Africa and was one of few pluses this season for the German club, which sits at the bottom of the Bundesliga standings.
Bradley's representatives asked for a transfer during the Bundesliga's winter break, Gladbach technical director Max Eberl told German newspaper Express, and there was immediate interest from England's Sunderland, Turkey's Galatasaray, Italy's Palermo and several Bundesliga clubs.
Reports Friday had Bradley headed to Galatasaray on a $6.8 million transfer, but he spent the weekend in England finalizing details and taking a medical exam.
Bobby Wood's climb from the youth teams at Germany's TSV 1860 Munich has reached the club's top side, and he's hoping to make his first-team debut this weekend.
The 19-year-old forward from Irvine, who was just out of eighth grade when he joined 1860 at 14, was called up last week after strong performances for the club's under-19 and under-23 teams, with seven goals in 18 appearances.
He didn't suit up for Friday's victory at VfL Osnabrueck but could play Saturday against MSV Duisburg. 1860 is 8-5-6 and sits eighth in the second-tier 2. Bundesliga.
“I usually play on the right or left side or as a forward,” the versatile Wood told the Yanks Abroad Web site last summer. “I like to get the ball into space and try to use my speed as an advantage. I also like to take players on and create chances.”
Wood, who attended Lakeside Middle School in Irvine and developed through the Irvine Strikers, one of the area's elite youth soccer clubs, also is among the top forwards for the U.S. under-20 team . He is expected to be in the Americans' starting lineup when CONCACAF qualifying for next summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup begins in April.
“Before I moved to Munich, I was never good enough for the national team,” Wood aaid. “I was never called up or I was not even known, but now it seems like the sacrifices are paying off. Ever since I have moved to Munich, I have developed so much as a player and person.”
Americans who have played for 1860 include Galaxy defender/assistant coach Gregg Berhalter, former U.S. forwards Josh Wolff and Taylor Twellman, and, until earlier this month, forward Kenny Cooper, who has joined the Portland Timbers.
ANOTHER GOAL: Matt Taylor's sizzling form for Germany's Rot Weiss Ahlen returned intact from winter break. The former UCLA and Chivas USA forward scored his eighth goal in 12 league appearances in the third-tier side's 3-2 loss Saturday to TuS Koblenz.