Are you a soccer fan in North America, or a general sports fan in North America for that matter? Yes? Then I have an exciting competition to introduce you to: The CONCACAF Champions League.
The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) is the governing body of soccer in the western hemisphere north of the Panama Canal. Each continent has their own confederation which oversees and organizes different club and national team competitions between member nations. The most famous of which is the United European Football Association, or UEFA. CONCACAF works similarly to UEFA so think of it through that lens if you are familiar with UEFA.
CONCACAF organizes the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) where the best club teams on the continent compete for a trophy and a birth into the FIFA Club World Cup. Club teams qualify for the Champions League by performing well in their domestic league. Bigger leagues, receive multiple births into the Champions League; for the 2019 edition Mexico and the United States received 4 births each, Canada, Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras all received 1 birth each, a Caribbean league including multiple countries received 1 birth, and 1 final birth is awarded to the winner of a qualification tournament which includes many smaller CONCACAF nations. In total 16 teams will participate.
The Champions League itself is more of a tournament with a straight bracket, starting with a Round of 16, then Quarterfinals, then Semi-finals, and lastly a single-game Final to decide a champion. Every round beside the final round is a two-legged affair, meaning there will be two games, one where each participating team gets to host. The bracket is decided by placing teams into pots. The Mexican, and American teams are placed in one pot, and the rest are placed in another pot. Then match-ups are made by picking one name from each pot.
Now that you have the basic facts of the tournament, here are some reasons you should watch:
The Best Soccer Played on the Continent
Personally, as a fan of MLS, I want MLS to be one of the best leagues in the world. Of course, it is very far away from that. The first step in the process is being the best league on this continent, which MLS has yet to prove (Mexican teams have won the last 10 CCL titles). Additionally, if you are a fan of any sport, you should support that sport at a local level. Your support, especially financial support, allows that local product to improve. After enough support from enough people over a long enough period of time, any local sports team can become the best in the world. Since CCL is the best version of local soccer you’ll see on this continent, you should definitely support it. This goes for Mexican fans too. Even though you have already showed dominance in this competition, you need to prove it every year and continue to push it forward.
Multiple Rooting Interests
Personally, I support one team in MLS during the regular season, and that team often plays in CCL, but barring an MLS vs. MLS match, I root for all MLS teams in this competition. Watching Toronto and New York down Mexican teams last year was exciting regardless of being a regular fan or not. Plus, if one MLS team wins CCL, it is good for the whole league. It shows domestic and foreign players that MLS is just as good as Liga MX. As the saying goes, rising tides lift all boats. Luckily there are more MLS teams than any other league (4 American and 1 Canadian; it helps that the two geographically largest countries play in one league). Therefore, there are plenty of games with rooting interests.
More Competitive Now Than in the Past
Historically speaking, Mexican teams have dominated this competition, but last year hinted that that trend may be coming to a close. Toronto FC made it to the Final of the 2018 edition of CCL and quite frankly should have won. They outplayed the eventual winners, Chivas Guadalajara, but Chivas caught some lucky bounces and were clinical with the few chances they had. Chivas similarly beat the New York Red Bulls in the semi-final prior. Before falling to Chivas, RBNY beat Mexican powerhouse Tijuana, and Toronto beat tournament favorites Tigres and Club America, both from Mexico. This year we will find out whether MLS turned a corner or whether 2018 was a blip on the radar. And I haven’t mentioned them much but teams from Costa Rica are not push overs. Costa Rican side Saprissa are making their 8th appearance in the last 10 years of CCL, the most of any team in the 2019 iteration. They know what to expect. Lastly, only one team participating this year has previously won CCL (Monterrey of Liga MX).
Qualification for the FIFA Club World Cup
The winner of this competition gets to play against the best club team from Europe, South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania in a tournament known as the Club World Cup. The European teams dominate this competition while playing mostly substitutes and/or reserves but it’s another way to measure the gap between CONCACAF competition against the best in the world. In fact it’s the only ‘competitive’ tournament where we can do that. I have to mention that FIFA is looking at making changes to the Club World Cup to make it more competitive. It looks like The Club World Cup may replace the Confederations Cup and would take place every 4 years, they year prior to a World Cup. The format would be expanded to include multiple Champions League winners from each continent, although with a decided preference for European teams (the suggested format had 24 teams, 12 coming from Europe). Regardless of format changes, the winner of CCL will still have an opportunity to play in the FIFA Club World Cup.
I hope I’ve convinced you and that you too catch #CCLFever this Febuary! Dates and times for all Round of 16 games can be found here!