I was recently asked what one competition I would choose if i could get every snobby euro-loving American soccer fan to watch it. Naturally, it wouldn’t be MLS and surprisingly not even my beloved professional lower leagues. My first instinct was the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, which is currently in the semifinal stage of it’s 98th year. That’s right, 98 years of national cup soccer competition, which makes it 3 years older than the Coupe de France, 8 years older than the Coppa Italia and only 12 years younger than the Copa del Rey. The quality of play in the Open Cup increased sharply with the establishment of the MLS in 1996, and only one non-MLS has won the trophy since then (I’ll give you a hint, they’re from Rochester). But even the cup is not the tournament I think all American soccer fans should tune into this year, that title belongs to the CONCACAF Champions League.
So a reasonable question to ask is, “what exactly is it?” Well at it’s base, it’s the Champions League of the CONCACAF region. Well, duh.
I’m sure anyone reading this has at the very least heard of the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) Champions League. This tournament is highly regarded as the best competition in the world, by people like Jose Mourinho who tend to know some things about soccer, and features most of the greatest talents in the world. Teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Liverpool (traditionally), Bayern Munich, Olympique de Marseille, Inter Milan and AC Milan trade blows every year to determine the most dominant team in the most rigorous club tournament. To qualify for the Champions League, a team must win the league in it’s country. In order to generate more revenues, UEFA allows teams finishing in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th from the most successful countries (England, Spain, Germany and Italy) also compete in the tournament. There are play-offs and qualifying rounds to determine the 32 clubs that make up the group stage, 8 groups of 4 teams. From there, the teams face off in 2-leg matches until the grand final.
That’s all exciting stuff, but it’s all the way across the pond and not directly relevant to America. As European countries are governed in soccer by the UEFA, the United States is subject to CONCACAF. That jumble of alphabet soup stands for the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football. Recently CONCACAF changed it’s continental club competition from a single elimination knockout tournament to the more profitable “league” format. 4 teams from Mexico (the winners and runners-up from last season’s torneos), 4 teams from USA (regular season winner, Open Cup winner, and the two MLS Cup finalists) and 1 from Canada (winner of the entirely fake Nutrilite Canadian Championship) qualify alongside 12 teams from the 7 Central American countries and 3 teams from the Caribbean. Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama and El Salvador all get two entrants into the tournament while Belize and Nicaragua only get 1. The Caribbean teams qualify through the Caribbean Football Union Club Championship, which is, in and of itself, a small champions league and has been dominated by Puerto Rican, Jamaican and Trinidadian clubs. Most recently in 2011, there were 11 nations that entered a team (or two) into the tournament, while 19 countries chose not to participate.
In a preliminary round of the CCL, 8 of the 24 qualified teams are eliminated to leave 16 teams that are drawn into 4 groups of 4 teams each. These teams then play each other team home and away for a total of 6 matches between August and October. The two teams from each group with the highest point total (3 points for a win, 1 point for a tie) advance to the next stage. From March through April, the remaining 8 teams are narrowed down to the two finalists by playing two-legged knockout stages. This means that a team will play at its home stadium and at its opponent’s stadium in an aggregate goals contest, if the score is tied then the team that scored more goals away from home than its opposition advances.
That bit can get complicated for people not familiar with that format (it’s the same as in Europe’s CL), but what is fascinating this year is the performance of MLS teams. This season is only the fourth edition of the tournament but much progress has been made. To recognize how far MLS teams have come, you should know where they started in regards to this competition. For a while everyone was stuck in this Catch 22 scenario in which American clubs did not see value in the competition because of lack of fan awareness/appreciation and the low prize money involved. However, the prize value would not increase without gaining the American television market and more lucrative sponsorship deals. Also, fans would not pay attention to the competition and watch the matches if their teams were still performing poorly. But teams would not put more effort into these competitions because it would detract from their league campaigns that supporters actually watched.
A point of contention that was singled out during last season’s CCL was that the MLS restricted a team’s roster to 25 players for any and all competitions. This means that a team would have to use the same 25 players for all league encounters, cup games, and champions league matches. During the latest reforms, the league administration increased this number to 30 players and increased the salary cap, allowing teams more lee-way in terms of player rotation. This resulted in strong teams (Los Angeles, Dallas) being able to rest a few starters in league games that they were going to win so that they could put out their best 11 in the continental competition.
As a matter of fact, American teams are all undefeated and sitting in first place in their groups after the first two rounds of play. Dallas became the first American team to win on Mexican soil when they beat a Pumas reserve/youth side after Pumas underestimated the quality FC Dallas possesses (and paid for it). A week later, Seattle travelled to defending CCL Champions Monterrey and beat their first team with a squad made up of four or five back-ups.
None of these three things had ever happened before, sitting in first place, beating a Mexican team at home, and outplaying a Mexican club’s first choice 11 at home. This could just be a blip on the radar, a temporary flare-up, a lucky spike if you’re cynical. But this could be the changing of the guard in continental competition. Whereas in the previous 3 seasons, 5 out of 6 of the finalists were Mexican teams, this year could see a Mexican team dropped out of the group stages for the first time and see every single American and MLS (Toronto is in MLS but qualifies through Canada) team advance to the knockout stage. This is something that gets me really torqued up and I’d love to be able to share this excitement with all the snobby American soccer fans who say they only watch European games, or especially only the English Premier League. There are going to be some quality games between the best clubs CONCACAF has to offer and MLS teams are going to show on the continental stage how good they really are.