Postcard from Europe: It's Champions League time again
AMSTERDAM — It's August, which means it's almost that time again: The Champions League is working its way through qualifying to the tourney proper. As has now become customary, Americans will play a part.
With Sacha Kljestan and Anderlecht on to the playoff round, there could be four clubs with Americans in the group stage this time. Oguchi Onyewu's AC Milan, Maurice Edu's Rangers and Jermaine Jones' Schalke each have a pass straight to the group phase.
Of course, Kljestan became the latest American to score in Champions League play with his early opener against Welsh side The New Saints last week in their third-round qualifying tie first leg. He went 73 minutes for the Mauves in the second leg on Tuesday, a 3-0 win for the Belgians.
Anderlecht will be seeded in the league champions pool for the playoff-round draw. Already in the opposite pool are Auxerre, Sampdoria and Werder Bremen, while the likes of Ajax, Braga and Dinamo Kiev may also end up as possible opponents for a place in the group phase.
Milan have been involved in a few Champions League tales involving US stars, and stateside fans are hoping for more when Onyewu returns to full power. The 'Nats defender made his competitive debut for the club as a substitute in a loss to group foe FC Zürich last September. With Milan’s current back line featuring several aging or brittle defenders, Onyewu is ignoring loan interest to focus on cracking the lineup at San Siro.
Edu will be after his Champions League debut, joining DaMarcus Beasley and Claudio Reyna as Americans to have appeared in the tourney for the Ibrox crew. Rangers have gone as far as the semifinals (in 1960) and have reached the quarters four times, most recently in 1988.
Schalke could have back one of their key cogs from a quarterfinal run two years ago in Jones. The prospective US international played in eight games during that campaign, scored a key winner against Rosenborg in the group stage and buried the clinching penalty kick to get the Miners past favored FC Porto in the round of 16.
Jones missed all of last season, as well as a chance at the US squad for the World Cup this summer, thanks to a befuddling leg injury. He made his return this week, in the German Super Cup semifinal against Hamburg. He scored the winner from distance just two minutes after entering the match.
Relative to Argentines and Brazilians and the like, Americans are still greenhorns in Europe’s most prestigious tournament. But there have been some moments over the years.
Columbus Crew defender Frankie Hejduk had trouble getting games with Bayer Leverkusen in the 1999-2000 campaign, but he worked five of six in the Champions League that year. In fact, Hejduk twice earned Man of the Match honors.
The only other American with as many as two such Man of the Match awards is Beasley, who also leads all countrymen with six Champions League goals—two with Rangers and four with PSV Eindhoven.
John O'Brien and Ajax had a decent run back in 2003. Having missed much of the season with the first of a string of injuries that would eventually cut short his promising career, the redhead handyman returned in time to work key draws against AS Roma and Valencia to help the Amsterdammers to the knockouts, where they eventually fell to AC Milan in the quarterfinals.
Of course, the only American to ever claim a Champions League winners medal is Los Angeles Galaxy attacker Jovan Kirovski. He only played sparingly for Borussia Dortmund in the 1996-97 edition, but bagged the middle goal in a 3-0 victory at Sparta Prague in the group stage and reaped the rewards with his teammates when they bested Juventus in the final.
There's no telling who will be the next American to create some Champions League folklore for fans in the States, but Edu, Jones, Kljestan and Onyewu will be the next ones to get the chance.