UEFA Champions League draw: MLS exports to watch in 2023-24


As Major League Soccer enters the final stretch of the 2023 regular season, leagues across Europe are getting their respective 2023-24 campaigns underway – highlighted by the continent’s crown jewel of club competitions: the UEFA Champions League.

Thursday’s group stage draw in Monaco set the stage for the tournament proper that kicks off Sept. 19, building to a June 1 final at Wembley Stadium in London.

MLS fans will see plenty of familiar faces taking part in the action across the pond. Here’s a rundown of the former league stars who are vying for 2023-24 Champions League glory.

Alphonso Davies (D, Bayern Munich)

  • MLS club: Vancouver Whitecaps FC
  • Champions League: Group A

The Vancouver homegrown export and Canadian international already knows what it’s like to lift ‘La Orejona,’ having won the 2019-20 edition of the tournament in his first season at Bayern Munich after completing a then-MLS-record transfer to the Bundesliga giants.

This time around, Davies – who was linked to Real Madrid over the summer – faces stiff competition in Group A against Manchester United, Galatasaray and FC Copenhagen.

Ricardo Pepi (F, PSV Eindhoven)

  • MLS club: FC Dallas
  • Champions League: Group B

After a disappointing stint at FC Augsburg, who paid FC Dallas a club-record transfer fee for the USMNT forward in early 2022, Pepi redeemed himself last season while on loan with Groningen, scoring 13 goals in 31 appearances across all competitions for the Eredivisie side.

His reward? A contract with Dutch powerhouse PSV Eindhoven, giving him the chance to play Champions League soccer. The 20-year-old is making the most of his opportunity, scoring a goal in the UCL qualifying round to help his new club reach the group stage, where they’ll take on Sevilla, Arsenal and Lens.

Brenden Aaronson (M, Union Berlin)

  • MLS club: Philadelphia Union
  • Champions League: Group C

The Philadelphia Union academy product begins a new career chapter this season at Union Berlin, who acquired the 22-year-old on loan from Leeds United. In addition to staying in top-flight soccer (he’s competing in the German Bundesliga after Leeds were relegated to the Championship), Aaronson will also make his Champions League return, after appearing in eight games during the 2021-22 competition with former club Red Bull Salzburg.

Aaronson’s first UCL experience included a trip to the knockout stages. It will likely take a monumental effort to repeat that feat, as Berlin were drawn with 14-time champions Real Madrid, Italian Serie A title holders Napoli and Portuguese side SC Braga.

Taty Castellanos (F, Lazio)

  • MLS club: New York City FC
  • Champions League: Group E

The 2021 MLS Cup champion and Golden Boot presented by Audi winner with NYCFC made the successful transition to Europe last season while on loan at LaLiga side Girona, tallying 14g/2a in 37 games across all competitions – including a four-goal outburst against Real Madrid.

Taty’s impressive performances generated interest from plenty of high-level suitors, with 2022-23 Serie A runners-up Lazio ultimately winning out on his services by shelling out a club-record transfer fee to NYCFC. Now the 24-year-old Argentine will look to continue his upward trajectory in Group E of the Champions League, against the likes of Feyenoord, Atlético Madrid and Celtic.

Miguel Almirón (M, Newcastle)

  • MLS club: Atlanta United
  • Champions League: Group F

After a 20-year absence, Newcastle United are back in the Champions League. A big reason for that is Almirón, whose breakout 2022-23 season helped the Magpies end a two-decade UCL drought thanks to a top-four Premier League finish.

Things weren’t always this rosy for Almirón at St James' Park, where he initially struggled to justify the still-MLS-record $27 million outbound transfer fee Newcastle paid Atlanta United for his services in early 2019. But Miggy silenced the doubters (most notably Jack Grealish) last season with an 11g/2a campaign, winning Premier League Player of the Month honors for October in the process. Now, Paris Saint-Germain, Borussia Dortmund and AC Milan await in Europe.

Sam Vines (D, Antwerp)

  • MLS club: Colorado Rapids
  • Champions League: Group H

The 24-year-old left back (while recovering from a broken leg) has gone almost a year without a USMNT call-up, after playing the full 90 minutes in a September 2022 friendly against Japan. What better way for the Colorado Rapids homegrown to get back onto Gregg Berhalter’s radar than with some strong Champions League performances?

Vines and Royal Antwerp were drawn in Group H, where they’ll face FC Barcelona, Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk.

Alistair Johnston (D, Celtic)

  • MLS clubs: CF Montréal, Nashville SC
  • Champions League: Group E

It’s been a whirlwind few years for Johnston, whose rapid rise up the MLS and Canadian national team ranks earned him a trip to the 2022 FIFA World Cup, followed by a winter transfer to Scottish powerhouse Celtic FC.

The 24-year-old defender has already racked up three trophies in Scotland (Premiership, Cup, League Cup), but now comes the biggest challenge of them all: Champions League tests against Feyenoord, Atlético Madrid and Lazio.

Przemysław Frankowski (W, Lens)

  • MLS club: Chicago Fire FC
  • Champions League: Group B

The 28-year-old Polish international tallied 10 goals and 13 assists in 63 appearances with the Chicago Fire between 2019-21, leading to a transfer to Ligue 1 side Lens – who also acquired former New England Revolution forward Adam Buksa during the next transfer window.

Buksa is gone (he’s on loan at Süper Lig club Antalyaspor), but Frankowski remains and he’ll hope to play a key role as Lens look to advance from Group B against Sevilla, Arsenal and PSV Eindhoven.

Marcos López (D, Feyenoord)

  • MLS club: San Jose Earthquakes
  • Champions League: Group E

López, one of MLS’s most consistent left backs during his nearly four-season stint with the San Jose Earthquakes, became an immediate contributor at Feyenoord following his summer 2022 transfer, appearing in 19 league games as the Dutch titans captured their 16th Eredivisie title.

The 23-year-old Peruvian international also played in the Europa League last season, but in 2023-24 will get to enjoy Europe’s biggest club stage as Feyenoord do battle with Atlético Madrid, Lazio and Celtic in Group E.

Honorable mentions

Caden Clark: The New York Red Bulls homegrown is still on the books at RB Leipzig (Group G), but has yet to play an official match for the club that bought his rights in June 2021. It remains to be seen whether he’s in the team’s plans for the 2023-24 Bundesliga season, let alone the Champions League.

André Horta: The former LAFC midfielder made little waves during his 2018-19 stint with the Black & Gold, but has been far more productive with Braga (Group F), who just last year signed Horta to a contract extension through 2027.