Destination: Kiev, Next Stop: Budapest

The road to Kiev and the 2018 Champions League final begins for Israeli champions Hapoel Beer Sheva next week as they host Hungarian titleholders Honved Budapest FC in the Negev on July 12. Beer Sheva, fresh off their second consecutive Ligat Ha’al title, made it to the final qualification playoff last year before falling to Celtic, so this year hopes are high that a group stage berth is within reach.

One Round Done, Three To Go

Both Maccabi Tel Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem advanced out of the first round of Europa League group stage qualification last week, with Maccabi advancing 5:0 on aggregate over Tirana (Albania), and Beitar a 7:3 winner over Vasas (Hungary). Both will be back on the pitch this week in the first fixtures of Round Two, with Maccabi hosting KR Rejkavik (Iceland) in Netanya and Beitar hosting Botev Plovdiv (Hungary) in Petach Tikvah. Joining them in Round Two qualification are last year’s surprising State Cup champions B’nei Yehuda, who will travel to Slovakia to take on AS Trencin. My fearless prediction: Maccabi and Beitar will advance, but Bnei Yehuda will be eliminated. What’s still crazy for me, though, is seeing Yossi Benayoun wearing the black-and-yellow of Beitar. I mean, good for him, but wow. It hurts a little.

Fly, Seagulls, Flybrighton and hove albion

After a few years of almost-but-not-quites, Brighton and Hove Albion earned automatic promotion into the Premier League thanks to a second-place finish in the League Championship, their 28-9-9 record landing them a single point behind Newcastle and vaulting them into the EPL without having to run the playoff gauntlet. For Israelis Beram Kayal and Tomer Hemed, it was a sweet conclusion to their two-year run at Albion, and both will be returning to the squad for 2017-18. Things won’t be easy for the Seagulls, though, as they will be tested from the jump with an opening day match at home against Manchester City, followed by a trip to Leicester City on Matchday 2.

Pele, Raul…Moyal

Seemingly out the blue, midfielder Kobi Moyal, fresh off his release from Beitar Jerusalem, landed in, of all places, New York City, where he was signed by NASL’s New York Cosmos, the defending league champions. Moyal had spent the bulk of his career at Beitar, with stops in Moldova and Haifa, but the 30-year-old journeyman with a history of knee injuries is looking forward to his time with the historic franchise that has fielded the likes of Pele (many years ago) and Raul (more recently).

A Blank Czech For Tal Ben Haim

Following a strong season for Maccabi Tel Aviv, forward Tal Ben Haim will be taking his talents to South Beach the south side of the Vltava River in Prague, signing on a Czech League-record $3.2 million transfer fee. Coming one year to the day after Eran Zahavi left the blue-and-yellow for Guangzhou, Ben Haim’s departure is another tough loss for Tel Aviv. The league runners-up from 2016-17 will be looking for another strong season from Icelandic striker Viðar Örn Kjartansson, who led the league in goals last year with 19 in 33 games. Kjartansson will get a chance to impress his countrymen in Maccabi’s aforementioned Europa League qualification fixture against KR before league play kicks off next month.

A Cantonese Extension

Speaking of Zahavi, after a historic 4-year run through Ligat Ha’al in which he scored 124 goals for Maccabi Tel Aviv in 168 appearances, Eran Zahavi packed up for Guangzhou last summer and the Chinese Super League on a $12.5 million transfer. Life in China has suited Zahavi just fine (just follow him on Instagram) as he has netted 29 goals in 34 games, and he recently signed a $7 million per year extension through 2020. Must be nice.

Proud To Be An American

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Kenny Saief wearing the inconspicuous third jersey of KAA Gent

Much virtual ink has been wasted discussing Kenny Saief’s national team affiliation in recent years. The son of Israeli Druze parents, Saief was born on the Florida panhandle and moved to Israel at age 3, where he grew up in the Maccabi Haifa youth academy and eventually debuted in Ligat Ha’al with Bnei Sakhnin in 2011 at age 17. In recent years he has played, and featured, for KAA Gent in Belgium. Saief first popped onto erstwhile USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s radar a few years ago, and since then the talk of whether he would get called up to the US or Israeli national team was a lively one… at least in some circles. While Saief was called up for Israeli NT friendlies, he was inexplicably never capped in a competitive match, so in advance of the Gold Cup the US called him up and Saief officially declared that he would play for the USMNT. FIFA’s approval of his “change of association” request was granted in June, so that’s all she wrote, and Israeli scribes have since gone nuclear at the IFA for not capping him earlier on in his career- and with Israel’s national team reeling in World Cup qualifying, it’s not an unfair criticism. Unfortunately for Saief, though, his first cap for the US will have to wait, as a groin injury in Gold Cup training knocked him off the roster. Following a listless 1-1 draw against Panama on Saturday, one can’t help but wonder if Saief might have been helpful.

A Historic Signing In Tel Aviv

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Karam Masour on the line

In a first for Israel’s most storied basketball team, Maccabi Tel Aviv signed Israeli Arab small forward Karam Mashour to a 2-year contract last week. Mashour, a 6’4” former player at UNLV and Morehead State, had played for Bnei Herzilya, where he led the league in rebounding last year and featured in all three of Bnei Herzilya’s victories over Maccabi, so in true Patriots-from-the-Bills fashion, they signed him to their squad at the first opportunity (ahem, Wes Welker, Chris Hogan…). Coming off a historically bad season, Maccabi will be looking to Mashour to make an immediate impact. I’ll be rooting for him.

Dubs Add Casspi

And finally, in news which makes me very happy, Omri Casspi, who was a small piece of the Boogie Cousins trade to New Orleans this past season before breaking his thumb, getting released, and then signed by Minnesota, was signed by the Golden State Warriors last week. Now that’s a beautiful jersey that I might be very interested in getting. But for real: Curry, Durant, Thompson, Green, Pachulia, Young, JA-VALE MCGEE… and Omri Casspi. There is nothing to not like about that. Nor about Javale on Shaqtin. Enjoy.

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