DAVID SMITH - Friday, August 26, 2011
Friday afternoon saw groups set for the Europa League, with each of the eight teams involving Americans remarkably avoiding each other entirely in group play.
Fulham begin what they hope will be a second successful run to the latter stages of the competition with a tricky group K that includes three teams who all came directly into the groups via Champions League qualification, including respective Dutch and Danish runners up FC Twente and Odense BK, and Polish champions Wisla Krakow.
Steve Cherundolo and Hannover have also been rewarded for their improbable aggregate win over Sevilla with a pair of teams falling out of Champions League qualification in Danish powerhouse Copenhagen and Belgian second-place team Standard Liege. In addition, they must also face Ukrainian sixth-place team Vorskla Poltava, who traversed from the second round of qualification to the group stage.
Jonathan Spector and Birmingham City FC have the unique situation of both playing in the second tier of their domestic system as well as in Europe, thanks to last season's concurrent relegation from the English Premier League and a win in the League Cup.
As they struggle for promotion, they will also face a pair of teams who finished fourth in their respective domestic leagues last season in Portugal's Braga - the losing finalists in the most recent edition of the Europa League - and Belgium's Club Brugge.
Rounding out their schedule, Birmingham will also play a pair of group games against Slovenian champions Maribor FK, who were responsible for one of the big shocks of the play-off round when they knocked out Rangers FC and their trio of Americans.
The team which was responsible for knocking Rangers out of Champions League qualification several weeks earlier and setting up their embarrassment at the hands of Maribor, namely Swedish champions Malmö FF, will also face American competition in the group stage as they have been drawn with Jozy Altidore and AZ Alkmaar.
Altidore netted his first two European goals as AZ soared to a 6-0 home-leg over Norwegians Aalesunds FK, and in addition to having the chance to avenge his international teammates in a pair of games against Malmö, will also face Austria Wien and Ukrainian third-place finishers Metalist Kharkiv.
Jozy Altidore netted his first two European goals as AZ Alkmaar soared past Aalesunds FK with a 6-0 win in the second leg of their playoff.
Sacha Kljestan and Anderlecht squeaked by their play-off opponents Bursaspor, and will face a long trip east to take on Russians Lokomotiv Moscow, south to face AEK Athens, and a much shorter hop over Germany to Austria where they will duel with Sturm Graz.
Rounding out the draw, Tottenham is saving ageless Brad Friedel for domestic competition, so he is unlikely to face the team's group opponents Rubin Kazan, PAOK Thessaloniki and Shamrock Rovers.
Similarly, central defender Oguchi Onyewu will most likely only be a bench option for Portuguese team Sporting CP as they take on Lazio, FC Zürich and FC Vaslui, and Jermaine Jones could be merely a bit player for Schalke's games against Steaua Bucharest, Maccabi Haifa and AEK Larnaka.
Group play commences on Thursday, September 15.
Europa League group stage draw
Tottenham, Rubin Kazan, PAOK, Shamrock Rovers
FC Copenhagen, Standard Liege, Hannover 96, Vorskla Poltava
Sporting CP, Lazio, Zurich, Vaslui
AZ Alkmaar, Metalist Kharkiv, Austria Wien, Malmö FF
Braga, Brugge, Birmingham City, Maribor
Schalke Steaua Bucharest, Maccabi Haifa, AEK Larnaka
FC Twente, Fulham FC, Odense BK, Wisla Krakow
Anderlecht, AEK Athens, Lokomotiv Moscow, Sturm Graz