The UEFA Champions League, which kicked off this week, is far from a perfect competition. Even so, the history of European soccer, and the huge money spent by the teams there, make the Champions League the top level of the club soccer world. With this in mind, here are three things I love about this year’s Champions League.
First, the fascinating dueling narratives of Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo, having won three consecutive Champions League titles with Real Madrid, forced his way out to Juventus this summer. Anything less than a title with Juve would be considered a failure, certainly by the great man himself. Meanwhile, Real’s players are all but saying they’re happier without Ronaldo around.
The twists of fate all but guarantee that Juventus’s road to the title will end up running directly through Real Madrid. The conflict, and Ronaldo’s quest, will be the top story of this Champions League season. Ronaldo added a dash of spice by getting himself sent off in Juventus’s first Champions League game this week, too.
The second reason is the presence of Liverpool. Manager Jurgen Klopp has turned Liverpool into the continent’s most entertaining team to watch, a hectic, high-pressing jet engine of a squad that can hang multiple goals on any team in Europe.
Its 3-2 victory over heavyweight Paris Saint-Germain, in its first group-stage game this year, was more evidence that Liverpool’s run to the final last season was no fluke. One question is whether the team has enough firepower to compete for both the English title and the Champions League.
The third reason for Champions League love is true every year, but it’s more important as the gap between Europe’s haves and have-nots widens: Fans can watch the powerhouses of Europe finally put on even footing. At least three of Europe’s biggest five leagues begin the season all but knowing which team will win the title. Virtually every other league in Europe is dominated by two or three teams. It tends to make the weekly league grind a little humdrum, to the outsider, with the same teams winning every week.
Put all those teams together in the Champions League, though, and the playing field is leveled. Consider a team like PSV Eindhoven, the Dutch champions in three of the last four years. In the Champions League, Eindhoven is suddenly an upstart underdog. Just as the NCAA basketball tournament gives the best of smaller colleges a chance to play in the big time, the Champions League cuts local giants down to size. Teams like Red Star Belgrade or FC Porto have a chance to prove themselves among the biggest clubs. Teams like Bayern Munich finally have other bullies to stand up to them.
In the soccer section of any bookstore, you’ll find florid books that insist that soccer is more important than life and death. It’s a game that spans the globe. Short of the spectacle of the World Cup, though, it rarely feels more important than when the best of Europe, the biggest clubs in the world, are butting heads. This sense of global importance has made countless people into fans — including me.
• Ever since Toronto lost in the CONCACAF Champions League final on penalties this spring to Chivas, the Reds have struggled mightily. They’ll need a minor miracle to make the playoffs this year after winning the MLS Cup last year. On Wednesday, they played Mexican champions Tigres in the inaugural Campeones Cup and got pasted 3-1, at home, even though Tigres is also struggling. Tough times have returned to Toronto.
• U.S. women’s national team coach Jill Ellis announced the 20-woman squad for the CONCACAF championship next month, which also serves as qualifying for next year’s World Cup. Eleven of them were on the 2015 title-winning team. Defender Hailie Mace, a senior at UCLA, is the only player to make the squad from outside the NWSL.
• The United Soccer League, the current second-division league in the United States, has begun announcing teams for a new third-division league for next season. They include such long-established clubs as the Richmond Kickers and Rochester Rhinos. At the moment, there aren’t concrete plans for promotion and relegation between the USL and the new league, called USL D3, but it may just be a matter of time.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
NWSL championship: North Carolina at Portland, 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Lifetime. North Carolina, the all-conquering regular-season winner, needs only a playoff title to round out its trophy case. Portland is at home, in front of its record-breaking crowds, and looking to repeat its win over the Courage in last year’s championship match. It’s Round 2, with the title on the line.
Writer Jon Marthaler gives you a recap of recent events and previews the week ahead. • firstname.lastname@example.org