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UEFA Champions League Qualifying/Super Cup Review and Group Stage Preview

Where do we stand now that qualifying is complete?

Ajax v Apoel Nicosia - UEFA Champions League Photo by Erwin Spek/Soccrates/Getty Images

August has been a busy month in Europe. Qualification for the UEFA Champions League has concluded and the stage is set for the Group Stage with a few Americans still standing. On top of that, an American featured in the UEFA Super Cup for only the second time. Let’s take a look at where we stand and have a peek ahead to the group stage that kicks off in the middle of September.

Champions League Qualifying Review

Sergiño Dest (Fullback, AFC Ajax)

If you’re following US Soccer, then you know Dest has been the story of the summer. The 18-year-old has pushed through to the first team for the Dutch giants after a strong preseason. He only just received his Ajax debut about a month ago in the Johan Cruyff Shield, but he’s now featured heavily in the Eredivisie and Champions League qualification. In the third round against PAOK FC, Dest made his debut in European competition when he came on at halftime in the second leg with Ajax only ahead on away goals. They would go on to win 3-2 and advance to the final qualification round. Dest once again came off the bench in the opening leg, but teammate (and right back competition) Noussair Mazraoui picked up a red card in a 0-0 performance to forget for Ajax. That set the stage for the all-important second leg with Dest getting his first start in the competition. He had easily his strongest performance for the club yet and was even voted Man of the Match by the crowd in the stadium as he was instrumental in helping them pull off a 2-0 win which qualifies them for the Champions League Group Stage.

Ethan Horvath (Goalkeeper, Club Brugge)

Not all the American stories are so positive. Horvath has found himself glued to the bench with Club Brugge signing Simon Mignolet from Liverpool and instantly inserting him into the starting lineup. After winning the home opener 1-0 against Dynamo Kiev, they pulled a 3-3 draw in the second leg and advanced to the final qualifying round. Brugge took care of business in both legs (1-0 in the first leg; 2-1 in the second leg) to qualify for the Champions League group stage for the second consecutive season. Horvath was a spectator for all of it and figures to remain so, particularly when you consider that they sent Karlo Letica (who previously backed up Horvath) on loan to Serie A side SPAL.

Super Cup Review

Christian Pulisic (Attacking Midfielder, Chelsea FC)

We had a special treat this year with an American featuring in the UEFA Super Cup for only the second time ever (Jovan Kirovski participated in this competition in 1998 when he featured in both legs for Borussia Dortmund against FC Barcelona). For the uninitiated, the Super Cup pits the Champions League winner, which was Liverpool, against the Europa League winner, which was Chelsea. Pulisic got his first start for Chelsea in this match and had a fine game individually, even contributing an assist on a lovely through ball on the opening goal against the European champions.

He had a goal waved off for being a fraction offside moments later. Pulisic would be subbed off in the 74th minute with the match tied at 1-1, but Chelsea eventually fell on penalties. Hopefully Americans playing in competitions like this become less rare at some point soon.

Champions League Group Stage Preview

The Group Stage Draw occurred on Thursday and we’re likely to see at least four Americans feature, which would be a tie for the most we’ve ever had in the competition. Also, all of these players are pretty young (Horvath is by far the oldest at 24). The top two teams in each group advance to the knockout stage and the third place team in each group qualifies for the knockout stage in the Europa League.

Tyler Adams (Central Midfielder, RB Leipzig)

RB Leipzig qualified for the Champions League group stage following their third place finish in the Bundesliga last season. Tyler Adams figures to play an important role for them as they look to advance to the knockout stage in the spring. The 20-year-old was one of the most impressive additions in the Bundesliga over the winter prior to his injury struggles that have plagued him since April. In their way stands a relatively easy group. They were drawn into Group G along with Russian Premier League Zenit, Portuguese Liga NOS club Benfica, and Ligue 1 side Olympique Lyonnaise (Lyon). Adams will have to force his way into Julian Nagelsmann’s side following a very strong start to the season for them with Adams out and still recovering from his adductor injury. He faces a fight against the clock to be available for their group stage opener. Still, RB Leipzig have an outstanding opportunity to advance to the knockout round this year.

9/17 Benfica (A)

10/2 Lyon (H)

10/23 Zenit (H)

11/5 Zenit (A)

11/27 Benfica (H)

12/10 Lyon (A)

Christian Pulisic (Attacking Midfielder, Chelsea FC)

Pulisic is a Champions League veteran, having featured in each of the last three seasons and helping Dortmund into the knockout round in two of them. Now he will take the field for Chelsea following his massive transfer to the Premier League. Chelsea actually qualified on two fronts. They finished in the top 4 in the EPL and also won the Europa League. Chelsea was drawn into Group H along with Ajax, Valencia and LOSC Lille. This is without question the most interesting group from an American perspective since at least three Americans are likely to feature in these games. Chelsea would probably be favorites to make it out of the group and into the knockout stages, but there are no easy games in this group.

9/17 Valencia (H)

10/2 Lille (A)

10/23 Ajax (A)

11/5 Ajax (H)

11/27 Valencia (A)

12/10 Lille (H)

Sergiño Dest (Fullback, AFC Ajax)

The aforementioned Dest will now have more opportunities to impress on the biggest stage in Europe. Ajax were also drawn into Group H alongside Chelsea, LOSC Lille and Valencia. Dest still has to fight for every minute he gets with the club so there’s no guarantee how much he will feature, but it should be really interesting to see him match up with Pulisic and Weah at different points in the competition. Ajax were within seconds of making it to the Champions League Final last season, but it will be a difficult task to repeat the feat with all the talent they have lost this summer.

9/17 Lille (H)

10/2 Valencia (A)

10/23 Chelsea (H)

11/5 Chelsea (A)

11/27 Lille (A)

12/10 Valencia (H)

Timothy Weah (Striker/Winger, LOSC Lille)

Weah is another young American who could feature in the Champions League this year. The 19-year-old moved to Lille this summer. They finished the season in second place in Ligue 1 which automatically qualified them for the group stage. Weah has already appeared twice for Lille early on this season but an injury in training knocked him out until after the International break. Unfortunately this will make his availability in their first match a question mark. Weah made his European competition debut when he appeared in the Europa League knockout stage with Celtic FC, but he hasn’t yet featured in the Champions League. Lille have a very talented team but face an uphill battle to make it to the knockout round. They were drawn into Group H along with Chelsea and Ajax so we may have as many as six Champions League games pitting Americans against one another. They also will have two games against La Liga club Valencia. This should be a hotly contested group so anything could happen. Hopefully Weah will feature often, but he needs to keep pushing if he wants to start in this competition.

9/17 Ajax (A)

10/2 Chelsea (H)

10/23 Valencia (H)

11/5 Valencia (A)

11/27 Ajax (H)

12/10 Chelsea (A)

Ethan Horvath (Goalkeeper, Club Brugge)

As mentioned earlier, Horvath figures to be the backup keeper for the foreseeable future. However, he is one injury away from being the man in net again so he needs to stay ready. Horvath was very good in his three appearances last year after he won the job back. We’ll see if he gets another shot. Brugge were drawn into Group A and will face a very difficult task of getting out of the group. They will have matchups with Paris St. Germain, Real Madrid and Galatasaray. It will be difficult for them to pick up points so look for them to fight Galatasaray for the Europa League knockout stage berth.

9/17 Galatasaray (H)

10/2 Real Madrid (A)

10/23 PSG (H)

11/5 PSG (A)

11/27 Galatasaray (A)

12/10 Real Madrid (H)

Jesse Marsch (Manager, RB Salzburg)

We get a bonus this year as we have an American coaching in the Champions League for the first time. Marsch has gotten off to a fantastic start to the season with RB Salzburg winning each of their first five games in the Austrian Bundesliga in dominant fashion. Salzburg were drawn into Group E along with Liverpool, Napoli and KRC Genk. Salzburg has a talented team, but they will have their work cut out for them to advance to the knockout stage. A Europa League knockout round is plenty within their reach though. Hopefully Marsch can impress with this fantastic opportunity. Below is a full list of the draw.

9/17 Genk (H)

10/2 Liverpool (A)

10/23 Napoli (H)

11/5 Napoli (A)

11/27 Genk (A)

12/10 Liverpool (H)

All matches will be available on B/R Live (Bleacher Report’s streaming platform). Some of the group stage matches are also available on TNT and/or Univision. Please note that I will be doing a deep dive into each of these player’s performances throughout the season as I plan to expand the coverage for this competition. Hit the comment section to discuss what you think about the draws that the clubs have and what players you are most excited to watch. I can nearly hear the music now!