MICHAEL HADLEY - Thursday, July 5, 2012
The 2012/13 Europa Legue kicks off on Thursday with four Yanks set to be action in the tournament's first qualifyng round.
KuPs - Llanelli
Kuopion Palloseura, also known as KuPS, and Etchu Tabe of the Finnish Veikkausliiga will take on Llanelli of the Welsh Premier League on Thursday in Kuopio, Finland
Despite finishing runners up to Helsingin Jalkapalloklubi (HJK) in the Finnish Cup final, KuPS were awarded the Europa League spot after HJK qualified for the UEFA Champions League. Llanelli on the other hand earned their spot after finishing fourth in Wales and winning the 4-team playoff.
While Wales uses the typical winter-based schedule, the KuPS advantage is likely minimized by their recent run of form. The Finnish side is currently 11th of 12 teams in the Veikkausliiga, one of the few summer-based leagues in the world, securing a lackluster 15 points from 16 games.
Tabe, a 25-year-old American defender, is in his first year with KuPS, appearing in nine of the 16 games and receiving three yellow cards in his time.
JJK - Stabaek
Despite having major financial problems and are almost certain to be relegated after this sason, Stabaek have made it into the Europa League qualifying rounds through FIFA's fair play rankings
The troubled club are in their 100th season and have been in and out of European competition over the last few decades.
Norway, Finland and the Netherlands were the in the top three of the ranking system, with the Norwegians ending up victorious. Their so-called prize was entering a fourth team into the Europa League pool, and with the top three clubs in Norway's own Fair Play rankings already qualified through their own means, Stabaek was left to reap the benefits.
Their opponent, Jyvaskylan Jalkapalloklubi (JJK) from Finland will make their Europa League debut after finishing third in the Veikkausliiga regular season.
Sean Cunningham, a 19-year-old defender from Troy, Michigan, has played all 16 games for Stabaek, receiving two yellow cards for the last place team.
Stabaek will have a mountain to climb, regardless of starting the two games set at home. They are a club out of form going up against a Finnish startup with plenty to prove on the European stage.
MTK Budapest vs. Senica
After playing nearly his whole life in the FC Nurnberg system, American forward Jann George has been loaned to Senica who will take on MTK Budapest in their opening Europa League qualifying match on Thursday.
For the Slovakia-based Senica, 2012 marks their second straight year qualifying for the Europa League, this time finishing as runners up to Zilina in the Slovak Cup.
Their opponents, 23-time Hungarian champion MTK Budapest, lost their bid for a 24th to Debrecen in a shootout, falling to the Europa League rather than the Champions League. Senica finished fourth of 12 teams in the Corgon Liga, taking 57 points from 33 matches.
George is on loan from FC Nurnberg and is looking to make an impact at the forward position. Senica has yet to play a competitive match with the 20-year-old American on their game day roster.
Bohemians FC vs. Thor Akureyri
Despite playing in the second tier of Iceland, Giuseppe Funicello and Thor Akureyri of Iceland will head to Ireland to face Bohemians FC from Dublin.
Thor qualified for the Europa League following an impressive run to the finals of the Icelandic Cup, finishing runners up to KR Reykjavik. Their 2011 regular season was far less spectacular, landing them in the relegation zone and demoting them to the nation's second tier.
Funicello is currently in his second stint with Thor after spending time in Finland with both IFK Mariehamm and VPS. His current side are experiencing a slight slide after early season success, falling most recently to fourth of 12 first division teams. They've taken just 13 points from 8 matches despite winning two of their last three.
Bohemians FC aren't enjoying much more success, finding themselves at 18 points after 15 games, allowing and scoring exactly one goal per match. While not much has gone especially well for the group from Dublin, their away record (3 wins, 0 draws, 5 losses) could potentially bode well for the Funicello and his crew.