Michelle Kaufman: Mad dash for Champions League title is about to begin

In My Opinion

Michelle Kaufman

Things are about to heat up in the Champions League. The Round of 16 kicks off this week and many of the usual suspects are in contention for the title.

Defending champion Real Madrid will try to hang on to the trophy, while crosstown rival Atletico Madrid aims to spoil Real Madrid’s party. Meanwhile, Barcelona — which won in 2006, 2009 and 2011 — is poised to make a deep run as well. Any team with Neymar and Lionel Messi is dangerous.

If it isn’t a Spanish team raising the trophy at the end, it could be one of three top English clubs. Chelsea (with superstar Diego Costa), Manchester City and Arsenal all have an excellent chance. Liverpool was also expected to make the Round of 16 but got knocked out by Basel (Roger Federer’s hometown team).

Then there’s Bayern Munich, always a threat, seeking to win its second title in three years. Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus are also in the hunt.

The action kicks off Tuesday with Bayern Munich vs. Shaktar and PSG vs. Chelsea. Then, on Wednesday, it’s Porto vs. Basel and Schalke vs. Real Madrid. On Feb 24, Manchester City plays Barcelona and Juventus plays Dortmund. And on Feb. 25, Arsenal plays Monaco and Bayer plays Atletico Madrid. Matches are on DirecTV.

▪ The next Bedoya? Two players from Weston FC started for the U.S. under-14 national team in a 2-0 win over Real Madrid’s U-14 team in Madrid last week. Defender Sebastian Serpa and forward Jose Rivas are with the U.S. team on an 11-day training trip in Spain. Weston FC is the club that produced U.S. World Cup midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, who plays for Nantes in the French league.

They are also playing matches against the youth teams of Rayo Vallecano and Extremadura.

“A lot of these boys have never traveled overseas, so it will be their first time on an international trip,” U.S. U-14 coach Brian Johnson said. “Ultimately, we want to measure ourselves throughout the world of where the U.S. is. So to get three games is really important. The style of play is going to be important for us when we’re there, and we feel our opponents are also going to play a style that will suit us, which would be attack-minded, possession-oriented. It will be a good measuring stick for us. A lot of these guys are going to get to watch some La Liga matches, to be engulfed in the culture of another country that loves soccer, so it’s going to be a great experience for them.”

▪ Ellis not panicking: U.S. Women’s World Cup coach Jill Ellis, a Palmetto Bay resident, had this to say after her team lost 2-0 to France last week in a match the French dominated:

“We’re in the process of trying to get answers and playing different players and we knew France would be a fantastic test for us. At this point, we’re in the process of evaluating and also building and that’s why we play strong teams, to test ourselves.

“It’s an evolution. There are certain phases we need to get better at, but we have to continue to grow as the rest of the world is continuing to be better.”

▪ MLS says no to Las Vegas: Major League Soccer dropped Las Vegas as a potential expansion city for now.

Commissioner Don Garber wrote to city officials that “given the timing of our expansion rollout and the uncertainty as to when we might be able to move forward in Las Vegas, we are no longer considering Las Vegas as an expansion market until after 2018.”

Las Vegas, Minneapolis and Sacramento were all being considered for a team, as Garber has said he wants to expand the league to 24 teams by 2020. St. Louis and San Antonio also have expressed interest.

Atlanta and Los Angeles FC are set to join as the 21st and 22nd teams in 2017. The 23rd spot has been promised to David Beckham’s group in Miami, which is still searching for a viable stadium site.

Who’s leading

English Premier League: Chelsea (59), Manchester City (52), Manchester United (47), Southampton (46), Arsenal (45).

La Liga: Real Madrid (54), Barcelona (53), Atletico Madrid (50), Valencia (44), Sevilla (42).

Serie A: Juventus (53), Roma (46), Napoli (42), Fiorentina and Sampdoria (35).

Bundesliga: Bayern Munich (49), Wolfsburg (41), Augsburg and Schalke (34), Monchengladbach (33).

Ligue 1: Lyon (50), PSG and Marseille (48), ASSE (41) Monaco (40).

On the tube

Sunday: Aston Villa vs Leicester City (7:30 a.m., Fox Sports 1 USA), Barcelona vs. Levante (11 a.m., BeIn Sport USA), Toluca vs. Santos Laguna (1 p.m., Univision).