It's early August – the All-Star Game has come and gone, European teams' tours are wrapping up, and the playoff race is beginning in earnest. But for five MLS teams, a whole new adventure is getting underway.
The CONCACAF Champions League – North America's equivalent to the UEFA Champions League or South America's Copa Libertadores – kicks off Tuesday, with the LA Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, San Jose Earthquakes, Sporting Kansas City and Montreal Impact all seeking to be the first MLS team to win the CCL crown in the tournament's current iteration.
For those new to the competition, the CCL itself is entering just its sixth season of existence, having first been played in 2008-09. Before that, the North American club champion and been decided in the CONCACAF Champions' Cup, a short, knockout tournament, that two MLS clubs – D.C. United in 1998 and the LA Galaxy in 2000 – won.
Much like its counterparts in Europe and South America, the CCL now features a group stage, albeit with 24 teams instead of the 32 you'll find over there. The entrants come from all across the region – four teams from Mexico, four from the US, one from Canada, two from most of the Central American nations, and a total of three Caribbean teams.
Unlike earlier editions of the CCL, there are no qualifying rounds. If you qualify for the CCL, you're in the group stage. The 24 participating teams are divided into eight groups of three. Each team will play the other teams in its group home and away, with the top team entering the knockout rounds when the competition re-starts in 2014.
Though the majority of MLS teams should be able to navigate the group stage, having been drawn away from Mexican teams, the knockout rounds are where it gets tricky. Only Real Salt Lake, in 2010-11, have ever reached the CCL finals, and it was only earlier this year when the Seattle Sounders became the first MLS team to beat a Mexican team in the knockout stages of the competition.
So who has a chance to take that next step and claim not just bragging rights and a trophy, but a coveted spot in the 2014 FIFA Club World Cup? MLS Cup finalists the Galaxy and Dynamo are familiar faces, though it's been a while since the other three teams have participated in continental competition.
The Earthquakes, last year's Supporters' Shield winners, are participating for the first time since the franchise returned to San Jose; reigning US Open Cup champs Sporting KC last participated as the Wizards in 2004, while Montreal have reclaimed the Canadian Championship to participate for the first time since their surprise run as a second-division side in 2008-09.
And let's not forget Club Tijuana, Liga MX champs last December, who boast an abundance of American players, including US internationals Herculez Gomez, Joe Corona and Edgar Castillo, as well as up-and-coming youngsters such as Paul Arriola, Greg Garza and Alejandro Guido.
Fresh off a run to the quarterfinals of the Copa Libertadores, Tijuana will have their eyes firmly set on going one better and claiming their own continental crown, while extending Mexico's streak of consecutive wins to nine.
It will be a tough ask for any MLS team to overcome the formidable Liga MX opposition, but the numbers indicate the gap is closing slowly and surely. With the quality of play and caliber of player in MLS improving every year, this competition remains one of the biggest hurdles for the league to overcome in its quest to become one of the top leagues in the world by 2020, and Commissioner Don Garber has said as much.
So pull up a chair, and be sure to check back here for all the latest coverage of the 2013-14 CONCACAF Champions League.