No, the MLS regular season doesn’t start for another week and a half, but two MLS teams will be playing competitively in just a matter of days as the quarterfinals of the 2014-15 Scotiabank Champions League get underway.
For those of you just starting to follow along, the Montreal Impact and D.C. United are the sides beginning their seasons a little earlier than normal – Montreal on Tuesday against Mexican team Pachuca (10 pm ET, Fox Sports 2 in US, Sportsnet One in Canada) and D.C. on Thursday versus Costa Rica’s Alajuelense (8 pm ET, Fox Sports).
What’s all the fuss about, then?
In short, the Champions League is an annual tournament put on by CONCACAF, the governing body of soccer in North America, and is equivalent to the UEFA Champions League in Europe or Copa Libertadores in South America.
Each year's field is composed of the best club teams from each country in the region, who get together every year to play for the honor of being called the best in North America. The payoff? Bragging rights, prize money, and of course, a berth in the annual FIFA Club World Cup, in which the top teams from every continent square off.
Pretty cool, right?
Unfortunately for MLS fans, the CONCACAF Champions League has not traditionally been kind to American and Canadian teams. United (in 1998) and the LA Galaxy (in 2000) are the only two MLS clubs to win a CONCACAF title. That was back when the tournament was known as the CONCACAF Champions Cup and sported a much easier road to the trophy. Since the tournament became the Champions League, added a group stage, and switched to a fall-spring calendar for the 2008-2009 tournament, no MLS team has taken the title. The closest they came was Real Salt Lake's inspired run to the final in 2010-11.
This brings us to another key point – if we’re already at the quarterfinals, what happened in the group stage?
Because of the way the MLS and CONCACAF calendars align, the group stage actually takes place during the second half of the MLS season. Over the course of three months last fall, D.C. (right, vs. Jamaica's Waterhouse FC) and Montreal were the only two MLS clubs to win their three-team groups and thus advance to the quarterfinals. The Portland Timbers, Sporting Kansas City and the New York Red Bulls (in Montreal’s group) all fell short.
If the Impact or United can write a new history and score a trophy, it will be an important feather in MLS's cap. MLS Commissioner Don Garber has has stated that winning the CCL is a major goal, especially given that it has been dominated by Liga MX clubs.
It's worth noting that the challenges faced by MLS teams in CONCACAF play are no different than the kinds of occurrences that take place when the US or Canadian national teams travel within the region for games – gamesmanship, questionable playing surfaces, hostile crowds, and often times oppressive heat, humidity and altitude. Nontheless, the conditions are the same for everyone.
There will, of course, be stiff competition not just in the upcoming quarterfinals, but throughout the field of remaining teams. One of the two other quarterfinal ties pits some of the region's most successful teams – Club América (Mexico) and Deportivo Saprissa (Costa Rica), with eight combined titles – against each other, while Olimpia (Honduras) and Herediano (Costa Rica) face off in the fourth quarterfinal.
But what if my team isn’t playing? you might be asking. When will I get a chance to see them in the Champions League?
If you’re a fan of the LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, D.C., RSL, or the Vancouver Whitecaps, you’re in luck – all five have already qualified for the 2015-16 edition of the tournament. I won't go into the nitty-gritty of the distribution of qualification spots, other than that there are slots reserved for the previous year's MLS Cup, Supporters' Shield and US Open Cup winners, the best-placed team in the conference opposite the Supporters' Shield winner, and the winner of the Amway Canadian Championship.
So if you're hoping to see your team in the CCL, success in one of those competitions in 2015 is the way in for the 2016-17 tournament. Good luck!