The draw for the UEFA Champions League play-off round, the final hurdle before the lucrative group stage, was made on Tuesday afternoon, setting possible qualification paths for James Sands, Malik Tillman and several other Americans.
Due to the highly convoluted nature of European qualification after the addition of the third-tier Europa Conference League, the draw for late-August’s play-off was made before the third-round ties that will decide the participants have kicked off.
Nevertheless, the potential matchups set on Tuesday have laid out the paths that several Americans might face on the way to playing on Europe’s biggest stage.
In the so-called “League Path” for teams playing in second-tier UEFA countries who were not champions of their respective leagues, the Yanks at Rangers – James Sands and Malik Tillman – will have a significant hurdle if they make it that far.
Should they overcome Belgians Union Saint-Gilloise in the current round, which kicks off Tuesday night, they will face either oligarch-connected French team AS Monaco, or classic Dutch powerhouse and 1988 European Cup winners PSV Eindhoven.
Should PSV advance past their current third-round tie versus Monaco, this could set American attacking midfielder Richard Ledezma up for some kind of appearance, however he has so far been sparingly used by PSV and is rumored to be headed out on loan prior to the end of the summer transfer window.
In the “Champions Path” for the winners of lower-tier European leagues, both Americans still remaining in the competition have highly plausible, even if uncertain, paths to the group stage.
Defender Henry Wingo, who plays with Hungarian powerhouse Ferencváros, is set to begin a two-legged third-round series against Azerbaijani team Qarabağ FK on Wednesday. Should he and his teammates advance, they will face either Moldovans Sheriff Tiraspol or Czech team Viktoria Plzeň in the final step before the group stage.
Sheriff were a minor sensation in last season’s Champions League group stage, where the Moldovan minnows upset both Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Madrid in their first two games, before eventually dropping into the preliminary knockout round of the Europa League.
Finally, American keeper Josh Cohen and Maccabi Haifa will begin their difficult third-round tie against Cypriot team Apollon Limassol, knowing that victory over two legs will give them a slightly less daunting pair of games against either Red Star Belgrade or Armenian team Pyunik.
Odds are somewhat stacked against Cohen and his teammates to even reach the play-off, however after having pulled a major upset against Greek champions Olympiacos in the second round, they will be eager to keep the momentum going.
The play-off round will commence in the midweek on August 16 and 17, with the second legs taking place one week later.
The final survivors will find out their fates for the group stage on August 25.
UEFA Champions League Play-off Round Draw
USG/Rangers (James Sands, Malik Tillman) – Monaco/PSV Eindhoven (Richard Ledezma)
Qarabağ/Ferencváros (Henry Wingo) – Sheriff Tiraspol/Viktoria Plzeň
Maccabi Haifa (Josh Cohen)/Apollon Limassol – Red Star Belgrade/Pyunik