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Everything you wanted to know about soccer but were afraid to ask: The CONCACAF Champions League

How the continental competition works, and why everyone is singing “Champions!” in an operatic voice.


Hello, and welcome to soccer for dummies. Or futbol for football fans. Or footy for Americans. Or how to enjoy a soccer game without feeling intimidated and overwhelmed. Regardless of where you come from, the hope is to bring a little more clarity and a deeper understanding as you support the Columbus Crew.

Months later, the heart still beats a little faster when you say it out loud: the Columbus Crew is MLS Cup champions! By defeating the Seattle Sounders in December, Columbus earned its second star and championship glory.

And to the winner, go the spoils. Along with a shiny trophy, a tidy financial reward, as well as league-wide bragging rights, the Black & Gold have earned a place in several cup competitions. Chief among these is the CONCACAF Champions League, which kicks off this week. What is the CCL? How does one qualify? What happens when you win the competition? All of these questions and more will be answered as we explore the history, format and journey that is the CONCACAF Champions League.

Cup competitions are a long-standing tradition of international soccer. The Champions League, regardless of your continent, is one of the most highly coveted trophies a club can earn. A Champions League competition pits the very best soccer clubs of a single continent in a tournament to determine the best.

The very first continental cup was the early predecessor of the South American CONMEBOL Copa Libertadores in 1948. This tournament of champions inspired other international clubs and in 1956, the first European Cup was awarded to Real Madrid. While the European Cup, later rebranded as the UEFA Champions League Cup, is the most famous international club competition.

In 1962, CONCACAF, consisting of soccer clubs from North America, Central America and the Caribbean region, competed for the first Champions Cup. Originally, the competition was intended as entry qualification for the Copa Libertadores, but as American soccer expanded, so did the CONCACAF.

In the 55 competitions held, 28 different clubs have won the Champions Cup. The most successful country is Mexico, claiming 36 titles with Club América earning seven of those. In the 59 year history, only two U.S. teams — D.C. United in 1998 and the LA Galaxy in 2000 — have won this competition.

Anyone having filled out a bracket this March will be familiar with the concept of a 16-team knockout format. Slightly different from the opening round group stage of the UEFA Champions League, North American teams qualify directly to a 16-team knockout round drawn from 10 direct entrants and six qualified teams.

How does a club qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League? For the 10 direct entrants, things are pretty straightforward. The 10 teams come from two different zones, North America and the Caribbean, and are made up of league champions, four from America, four from Mexico, one Canadian team and one Caribbean side. The Crew earned its spot as MLS Cup Winners. Joining the Black & Gold are the MLS Supporter’s Shield winners Philadelphia Union, as well as the U.S. Open Cup Champion. A global pandemic prevented the 2020 Open Cup from taking place, so 2019’s winners, Atlanta United, claims that spot.

Replacing the usual MLS playoff runner-up is the MLS is Back Tournament champion, the Portland Timbers. Joining the U.S. contingent are the Canadian Championship winners. Like the Open Cup, the Canadian Championship tournament final was unable to be played. For this season, Voyageur Cup finalist, Toronto FC earned the Canadian spot as a consolation prize. Additionally, four divisional champions from Liga MX in Mexico also earn direct entry: Monterrey, Cruz Azul, América and León. The 10th and final spot went to the best-ranked team from the Caribbean Club Championship group stage, Atlético Pantoja from the Dominican Republic.

Filling out the group of 16 are the six teams that qualified via the CONCACAF League league-style competition featuring the best Central American teams. Representing the CONCACAF League are the champions Alajuelense and runners up Saprissa, both from Costa Rica. Joining them are the remaining four teams from the top six, Olimpia and Marathón from Honduras, Arcahaie from Haiti and the Crew’s first opponent, Nicaraguan side Real Estelí.

Each of the 16 teams was drawn into a knockout round that features two-legged ties. A two-legged tie is a home and home series where the winner is determined via aggregate score (total score after both games). In the event of an aggregate tie, goals scored by the away team are the deciding factor.

The two-legged tie format can greatly influence a team's strategy. The Crew’s first match against Real Estelí is away so the results of the first game will be important. If Columbus is ahead after the first leg, watch for head coach Caleb Porter to play extremely conservatively and save legs for the MLS season opener three days later. If the Black & Gold come out of the first leg with a draw or a loss, watch for them to fight for their CONCACAF lives when they open their home season in historic Crew Stadium.

After the round of 16, the remaining teams will compete in two-legged ties for quarter finals and semifinals before playing a one-game final at the end of October. The winner raises the CONCACAF Champions League trophy, but the competitions don’t end there.

The winner of the CONCACAF Champions League earns a spot alongside Champions League winners from Asia, Africa, South America, Oceania and Europe to compete for the FIFA Club World Cup. A CONCACAF champion has never won the cup in the 17 years of competition. Only Tigres has made it a final from CONCACAF, losing to European Champions Bayern Munich this year. If the Crew is able to win the U.S.’s third CONCACAF Cup, Columbus will go on to face some of the world’s best teams to compete for America’s first FIFA World Cup.

Winning the MLS Cup was a phenomenal achievement for the Black & Gold. This earns entry to several additional competitions. But heavy is the head that wears the crown as deep runs in these competitions will try the Crew’s depth as the club works to defend its MLS Cup title. Ultimately, these are good problems to have as supporters will get to watch more Columbus soccer and this club will have more chances to collect silverware in 2021.