The CONCACAF Champions League begins in earnest for MLS teams this week (though diehards and Impact fans will have started watching two weeks ago), as four teams take the field to begin/continue their quest for North America's top club soccer prize. Here are the TV listings for this week's games, and 10 things to know going into the 2014-15 CCL:
- Tuesday 8/19, 8 pm ET: Alpha United vs. Portland Timbers (Fox Soccer Plus, Sportsnet in Canada)
- Tuesday 8/19, 10 pm ET: Real Estelí vs. Sporting Kansas City (Fox Soccer Plus and Univision Deportes, Sportsnet in Canada)
- Wednesday 8/20, 8 pm ET: D.C. United vs. Waterhouse FC (Fox Sports 2)
- Wednesday 8/20, 10 pm ET: CD FAS vs. Montreal Impact (Sportsnet in Canada, Univision Deportes in the US)
1. It's home to the best clubs in North America: Twenty-four of them, to be exact. To get to the CCL, a club needs to either win a title or prove it's one of the best teams in its home country over the course of a full season. The qualification methods vary from country to country and region to region, but the bottom line is that third or fourth place won't get your team here, unlike other parts of the world.
2. The CCL is only seven years old: Though North America's top clubs have been competing for decades, the CONCACAF Champions League itself only started in 2008-09. Previously, the tournament was known as the CONCACAF Champions' Cup, a straight knockout competition that lasted just two or three months. Now it's is a fleshed-out, season-long competition with both a group stage and knockout rounds, on par with its counterparts around the world.
3. An MLS team has never won the CCL: D.C. United (1998) and the LA Galaxy (2000) both won the Champions' Cup, but since the CCL came around, MLS teams have been shut out. Real Salt Lake came closest, losing by one aggregate goal in the 2010-11 final, but the continent's top prize has remained firmly in Mexican control.
4. Another stage for the US-Mexico rivalry: As you may have guessed, the tournament provides another venue for this regional tug of war to play out. The shift to three-team groups means MLS and Liga MX teams don't face each other until the knockout rounds, but that may only increase the stakes as the two countries battle on for bragging rights.
5. Expanding horizons: Maybe you've never heard of Guyana. Maybe you have and you just want to find out more. Whatever the case, following the CCL can provide you with some nice geography lessons – did you know Estelí is the third largest city in Nicaragua? – as well as some insight into life and soccer in the rest of North America.
6. The ... variables: The opportunity to travel abroad may bring new experiences, but it also presents new challenges. Whether it's fans outside your hotel keeping you up all night or the flood of stretchers that come and go as opposition players drop like flies, there are certain on- and off-the-field challenges that you won't find in MLS.
And there's your cricket-turned-soccer field:
Guyana away pitch. Welcome to CCL! pic.twitter.com/52nBPVBDoS— Merritt Paulson (@MerrittPaulson) August 18, 2014
7. A ticket to Asia: The 2014-15 CCL winner will be entered into the 2015 Club World Cup, to be hosted in either Japan or India. It's the annual tournament involving continental champions from every confederation and the only chance MLS teams have to rub shoulders with teams from Europe and South America at a competitive level.
8. Scouting the next wave of MLS talent: Central America and the Caribbean have long been an important source of talent for MLS teams, and it is not uncommon to see players make the move north after featuring prominently in the CCL. Recent examples include Columbus Crew left back Waylon Francis, who featured against the LA Galaxy with Costa Rica's Herediano, and the Galaxy's own Marcelo Sarvas, previously with Costa Rican team Alajuelense.
9. You'll see the effects of player development: Mexican teams haven't necessarily been successful because their best 11 is better than an MLS team's best 11 – it's also down to the fact that they can field much deeper rosters. Therefore, the gap in quality is largely felt in players 12 through 18, the guys who are coming off the bench and will inevitably be needed to take on midweek starts in the midst of a congested schedule. As those same players on MLS rosters rise in experience and in quality, we may well see the fortunes of MLS teams follow the same trajectory.
10. It's fun: Once you learn to take the curveballs the CCL throws you, it can be a whole lot of fun to follow. Whether it's griping with fellow fans about getting "CONCACAF'd," watching your second-string forward announce his emergence with a hat trick in Honduras or just witnessing a goal like this, the CCL can provide some unforgettable moments.