The NFL season might be over, but the Champions League knockout stage is just beginning. After being off since December, Europe’s biggest soccer tournament is returning this week with the round of 16 streaming right here on CBS All Access. One of the benefits of CBS Sports being CBS Sports is that we have lots of experts to bring together. So let’s talk to NFL writer Jared Dubin and together figure out which Champions League teams fans of the various NFL playoff teams might enjoy picking up and rooting for.
This year there were 14 playoff teams in the NFL, so a couple of the Champions League teams are going to get left out in the cold. So, if you’re a fan of a non-playoff team consider checking out Atalanta, RB Leipzig, Lazio or Borussia Monchengladbach, but for everybody else let’s find you a soccer team.
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Alright Jared, let’s start with the worst and work our way up. Tell me, who was terrible but made the playoffs anyway, and we’ll go from there.
Washington Football Team
Jared Dubin: Oh, that would be the Washington Football Team. The Team won the NFC East — the worst division in football — with a 7-9 record. They benched their starting quarterback, then later released him after he violated the league’s COVID-19 protocols, even though he was drafted in the first round just last year. (Although, that pick was reportedly made by a mandate of the owner, over the objections of the previous management group.) Washington is an absolute mess off the field, thanks in large part to owner Daniel Snyder, who has fostered a horrific culture that has been the subject of multiple allegations of mistreatment.
Despite all that, Washington did still have one of the best stories of the year, with Alex Smith returning from a two-year absence after suffering a truly terrifying leg injury and becoming the team’s starting quarterback over the second half of the season, earning himself Comeback Player of the Year honors. I’ll be honest, I’ll be some combination of impressed and scared if there is a Champions League side that fits even remotely the same description as the Washington Football Team.
Mike Goodman: Yeah, the Washington Football Team really is its own unique brand of mess. There are a lot of dysfunctional soccer teams, including a number of the sides still vying for Champions League trophies this season, but nothing quite matches the Daniel Snyder experience. So, I’m going to cop out and approach it from another angle.
Porto aren’t particularly more dysfunctional than any number of other teams, but they are the best team from the worst league still represented in the tournament. They’re from Portugal’s Primeira Liga, which is according to the formula that determines such things the sixth-best league in Europe. It’s the lowest league represented, and as such Porto have the longest odds of any of the 16 teams of winning the tournament. So, if you like an underdog story, and maybe want a little less of the yucky feeling the Washington Football Team is known for providing, take a look at Portugal’s Porto.
JD: I will never get used to soccer teams being referred to with plural verbs. (It should be “Porto isn’t particularly more dysfunctional,” and that’s that!) Anyway, is there a Champions League team that has been a sad-sack loser for almost the entirety of its recent history but made a miracle run to the tournament this year after a coaching change and some solid offseason signings? Or even just one that ended a particularly long drought? I feel like we should introduce Cleveland Browns fans to that squad.
MG: That’s a tough ask for the Champions League. To qualify for the tournament you have to be successful in your domestic league, usually finishing in the top three or four spots. So you can’t be a total sad sack and still be in the tournament. And then on top of that we’re at the last 16 now, meaning everybody has advanced out of the group stages already, so some of the longer shots have already surpassed expectations. There are, however, some teams that have become known for being perennial disappointments within the Champions League, despite having domestic success.
One of which, I suspect you’re a little familiar with. Manchester City are one of the favorites to win the tournament, so they’re not like the Cleveland Browns at all. But, imagine if the Browns all of a sudden spend the next five to seven years being a great regular season team. They waltz to division titles, get first-round byes, and just in general end a generation of being bad by becoming spectacularly successful in the regular season. And then every year they fall on their face in the playoffs. For a year or two you excuse it, because they’re new to this whole winning thing. Stats nerds point out that the playoffs are a high variance competition and it’s nothing to worry about, but everybody else starts talking about winning DNA, and needing to get over the hump, and culture etc., etc., etc. That’s what Manchester City are. They used to be lovable loser, they’re now rich, fantastic winners. And yet. The Champions League hurdle remains.
Verdict: Manchester City (possibly, some time in the future)
New Orleans Saints
JD: I am first going to have to take a few minutes to emotionally and spiritually recover from Manchester City being compared to the Cleveland Browns. Largely because, well, the Browns have not actually had any of that success you speak of. They don’t have the same quality of caliber of star talent, and they certainly don’t have the equivalent of Pep Guardiola on the sidelines.
I think the New Orleans Saints are a much cleaner fit for City. The Saints of recent vintage have been spending money like it’s going out of style, trying desperately to win another Super Bowl before Drew Brees retires. They are loaded with stars on both sides of the ball, from Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas to Marshon Lattimore and Cameron Jordan. They have an offensive genius coach (Sean Payton) who has won big before (the aforementioned Super Bowl) but with a previous version of the team and has spent recent years dominating the regular season only to suffer heartbreaking defeats in the playoffs. As a City fan myself, I feel like the fit is pretty seamless.
MG: That’s interesting. I had the Saints pegged for another team. When I think of a team with stars on both sides of the ball, spending money like it’s going out of style to bring in talent to maximize on the closing window of their longtime star, I think Barcelona. It’s true that the coaching comparison doesn’t match as well, and Drew Brees, great as his career has been, obviously doesn’t match up to Lionel Messi (though outside of maybe Tom Brady, who does?) but where they are as a franchise tracks pretty well to me. Barcelona are having a pretty miserable year all things considered, and they’ve got a tough matchup against Paris Saint-Germain to kick off the round of sixteen this week, but there’s a chance that if Messi is at his best, and the surrounding cast manages to catch lightning in a bottle they’ve got one more run left in those aging bones. And then they’re gonna face the economic realities of what they’ve done to try and max out for one more title.
JD: Messi as Brees is certainly a more direct parallel than anyone on City. Although, both he and Aguero (City’s closest parallel in terms of age and career production) are still at the top of the sport when they’re on the field, so neither is a *perfect* comp, considering Brees’ backslide this season. Does Barca have a Taysom Hill-type guy that the manager inexplicably loves and gives a lot of playing time, much to the chagrin of everyone watching games?
MG: They actually have the opposite problem. For a handful of years now Barcelona managers have been reluctant to play some prospects rather than some expensive, yet underwhelming, additions. This year a combination of injury and desperation have meant guys like Pedri and Riqui Puig are actually getting minutes though. I’ll also just awkwardly shoehorn in here that Barcelona have a pair of young Americans sharing the same rarified air as Messi at the moment. Segino Dest is a fullback who actually plays and Konrad de la Fuente, an attacker who rarely does.
Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams
JD: That sounds vaguely Seahawks-y to me, but if you spin it a bit. Instead of young prospects and old guys, pretend you’re talking about Letting Russ Cook and Establishing The Run. It certainly didn’t help that the Seahawks ran into the Rams in the first round of the playoffs this year. Could the Rams be PSG? PSG have Neymar, who could be like the soccer equivalent of Aaron Donald. He’s even set to miss the game, and Donald got injured during the Seahawks-Rams contest. The parallel would really be helped if PSG also have like a midfielder who used to be good and now is suddenly bad and might be traded/sold? (Like Jared Goff.) Or a whiz kid coach? (Like Sean McVay.) Or a shutdown center back who could be the equivalent of Jalen Ramsey? Or maybe crafty wingers and fullbacks like Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods? No? Anyone? Bueller?
MG: The whizz kid coach angle definitely works for PSG. Well, kind of. Mauricio Pochettino is like 15 years older than him, but on a career that’s taken him from Espanyol to Southampton to Tottenham and now PSG, he’s on the younger edge of coaches at this level, and he replaced Thomas Tuchel in December after the German manager got fired. PSG is such a star-studded team that you don’t have to look too far to find somebody who used to be en vogue and now is riding the pine. They do have a great young, up and coming center-back in Presnel Kimpembe. Neymar as Aaron Donald definitely works.
As for the Seahawks, I’m kinda thinking Real Madrid for them. They’ve been football royalty for a while, but they’ve lost some of their biggest stars/most talented players and others have gotten old. They’re still good obviously, but just not quite as good as they were. Russ in particular has gone from a guy who was good sandwiched between a great defense and a dominant running game, and now the team is good when he’s the guy. It’s a little like Karim Benzema playing next to Cristiano Ronaldo for years, being great but a supporting character, and then after Ronaldo left morphing into the boss.
Verdicts: Rams = PSG; Seahawks = Real Madrid
JD: Does Real Madrid’s manager think that whatever the soccer equivalent of the defense-and-running-game is, is still the strength of the team? Because that would really hammer home the Seahawks comparison. Pete Carroll 1,000 percent believes that to be the case.
Also, is there a Champions League team that acquired a controversial prospect in the recent past, saw him struggle for a season or two, but kept surrounding him with other exceptional talents and eventually saw him blossom into a star? I’m trying to find a parallel to the Josh Allen-led Buffalo Bills. He has an absurd wealth of talent but really struggled during his first two years in the league. He finally broke out this season, after the Bills put the finishing touches on their roster overhaul.
MG: I honestly have no idea what Zinedine Zidane — who left Real Madrid before they melted down in six months without him and then came back Billy Martin style –thinks the strengths of that Madrid team are. As for the Bills, they feel a little bit like Borussia Dortmund. Although it’s unclear exactly which of their young stars would be Josh Allen, and which would be the other exceptional talents. But, between Jadon Sancho, Erling Haaland, Gio Reyna (another American) and Jude Bellingham that’s four guys who regularly start and do jaw-dropping stuff, none of whom are over 20 years old. As you might expect for such a young team they kind of have a tendency to self destruct and their defending is, well it’s pretty optional, but man are they fun.
Verdict: Borussia Dortmund
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JD: Let’s just say Reyna is Josh Allen because that will help the USMNT in the World Cup if he’s that good.
I am fascinated to know who the Champions League parallel to the Baltimore Ravens might be. They are built around a singular, exceptional talent in Lamar Jackson, and they play a brand of football that is unlike any other in the league. They also have a fantastic defense and each of their coordinators has been a candidate for head coaching jobs around the NFL over the past couple years. They’re also a model organization that had a lot of success in the 2000s and early 2010s before taking a step backward late in the Joe Flacco era, at which point they pivoted from being a very traditionally constructed team into what they have now become.
MG: I have one question for you. Is Jan Oblak elite? Atletico Madrid haven’t really had the fallow period the Ravens went through, but everything else tracks. Diego Simeone coaches that team to play an extremely unique brand of defensively oriented soccer that keeps them punching way above their weight. They don’t really have a Lamar Jackson equivalent per se, but youngster Joao Felix might get there. He’s a hybrid winger/striker, which Simeone needs to make the system work (it’s a roll that Barcelona’s Antoine Griezmann occupied before his big money move across La Liga), though he’s still more prospect than star.
As a side note, soccer assistant coaches don’t generally go on to become head coaches in quite the same way coordinators do. There are just so many head coaching jobs that need to be filled in European soccer that usually the route is being a head coach in a lower or smaller league rather than a big-time assistant. That said, a bunch of Atleti’s defenders and their last keeper, Thibault Courtois have gone on to anchor other elite units around European soccer. So squint and you can see it.
Verdict: Atletico Madrid
JD: Well, neither Greg Roman nor Don Martindale got a head-coaching job anyway. John Harbaugh was a special-teams coach before he became head coach of the Ravens, though, and there are some people that make the argument that special-teams coaches are best-suited to the top job because they essentially coach their own smaller team made up of parts of other teams. (Offensive and defensive players also play special teams.)
Is Atleti the only team from its league in the Champions League this year? Or is there perhaps another team that started the season undefeated but slowly unraveled, like this year Pittsburgh Steelers? Does that team maybe have a Ben Roethlisberger type, who has won championships in the past and carries the weight of name recognition but can’t physically do the things he used to do? Is there any team like that at all, even from a league that Atleti doesn’t play in?
MG: Yes! Well. Kind of. Sevilla were never supposed to be great, but they got off to a hot start in Spain while Barcelona and Madrid struggled, and Atleti was just kinda plugging along. They’re a classic ball-control team, defensively oriented in that they want to keep the ball so you can’t score, but they aren’t too terribly interested in doing that much with it. But! They also just acquired Papu Gomez from Atalanta (another team who we haven’t really mentioned yet). Gomez is a 31 year old attacker who was the heart and soul of Atalanta for years, but much like Big Ben has just gotten older and a little bit less productive at everything he does. He only arrived in January though so it’s too early to say whether he’ll, like, make Sevilla a fun team to adopt.
Now look, Papu Gomez is not Tom Brady. But I can certainly think of another team that succeeded by bringing in an aging superstar to run the offense in recent years. It feels absurd to compare little Sevilla and Papu Gomez to the Buccaneers and Tom Brady, but I’m having trouble figuring out which of the Champions League favorites they might compare with.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
JD: It might be helpful to look to other parts of the Bucs for a better comparison, then. Are there any managers that wear lots of Kangol hats, like Bruce Arians? Players who used to be stars on other teams but joined up on one squad in warmer weather, like Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Ndamukong Suh, and Jason Pierre-Paul? Any longtime veterans who were super underrated because their team wasn’t that good, but stuck around and got rewarded like Mike Evans and Lavonte David? Any team that somehow has all of those things?
MG: If forced, and since I came up with the idea of doing these comparisons I am in fact forced, I guess I’d lean on Chelsea. They’re a collection of really good players of a bunch of different profiles. You’ve got your older veterans like Olivier Giroud and Thiago Silva who are there (though probably not for London’s climate). Lots and lots of high-profile signings ranging from young prospects like Kai Havertz and (hello another American) Christian Pulisic to superstars who aren’t quite clicking like Timo Werner, to good players who may not be right for Chelsea like Hakim Ziyech. There’s also a contingent of Chelsea grown players like Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Tammy Abraham. Plus everybody loves midfielder Ngolo Kante who is a Chelsea staple, although he first was the center of one of the most historically unlikely championship-winning teams ever in Leicester City.
All of this is to say that Chelsea, who just fired club legend Frank Lampard as manager and replaced him with Thomas Tuchel (who does not wear Kangols to my knowledge), are a lot of really good players who aren’t quite a really good team when you put them altogether. At least not yet. But there’s a chance that Tuchel achieves that.
Ok, so we’ve got two NFL teams left. Bayern Munich are considered co-favorites to win the tournament, with Manchester City. They’re just a great all around team spearheaded by one of the best strikers in the game, who is still at his best despite his advancing age and is surrounded by younger talent at the winger and midfield positions, although perhaps his defense is lacking. Does that ring any bells?
Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs
JD: Did this striker perhaps get motivated by the team bringing in his successor earlier than expected, come out and dominate the league like a younger version of himself, then announce a surprise engagement during his MVP acceptance speech? If so, that sounds like a mirror image of the Green Bay Packers. What would really drive it home would be if they had a good record but seemed sort of fraudulent last season, leading people to expect a down year from them this year, only they came out and crushed it.
And then there are the Chiefs. They have the best player in the sport (Patrick Mahomes) and should be dominant for years to come. They climbed the mountain last year but ultimately fell short this time around, largely thanks to poorly timed injuries at extremely important positions. Is there a team left that fits the bill?
MG: It’s not a perfect comparison between the Packers and Bayern because Bayern were, if anything more dominant last year than this. And there were to my knowledge no engagements. But Robert Lewandowski sure seems like he’s driven to light teams up forever at this point, regardless of whether Bayern buy a replacement for him some time.
As for the Chiefs, Liverpool are pretty close. They don’t exactly have the best player in the world, though in injured center-back Virgil Van Dijk you could argue they have the best at his position. But the injury piece definitely tracks. They were the best team in the world last year (though they didn’t win the Champions League, they did easily walk away with their domestic trophy in the Premier League). And the thing I really like about this comparison is Andy Reid and Jurgen Klopp.
This is both of their second stops at the highest level. Both fell just short at their first stop (though Klopp won the Bundesliga unexpectedly earlier in his time with Borussia Dortmund, he lost in the finals of the Champions League to domestic rivals Bayern Munich), but went to different destinations and took their teams to win championships. They’re also both just kind of likable dudes? Anyway, injuries brought down the Chiefs this season, and it seems likely the fact that Liverpool’s three best center-backs being out for the season is going to make winning the Champions League for the second time in three years a tall order. But it’s just hard not to root for them.
Is there anything else you wanted to mention. I feel bad because I forgot Atalanta who are a truly lovable and exciting little Italian team, but oh well you can’t compare ’em all I guess.
MG: So to recap…
- Washington Football Team = Porto
- Cleveland Browns = Manchester City
- New Orleans Saints = Barcelona
- Seattle Seahawks = Real Madrid
- Los Angeles Rams = PSG
- Buffalo Bills = Dortmund
- Baltimore Ravens = Atletico Madrid
- Pittsburgh Steelers = Sevilla
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers = Chelsea
- Green Bay Packers = Bayern Munich
- Kansas City Chiefs = Liverpool
JD: I’m just glad I don’t have to hear whatever depressing team you’d pick for my Cowboys.
MG: I mean obviously it’s Manchester United
JD: You are one of the true monsters of history.
MG: And on that note make sure you tune into the Champions League on CBS All Access this week!