CONCACAF Champions League, explained

Photo: Paul Rudderow

On November 8 of last year, the Philadelphia Union earned the first trophy in team history, the 2020 Supporters’ Shield. It brought with it validation, recognition, and began to heal the wounds three US Open Cup Final losses inflicted on the team and on the fanbase.

It also earned the Union their first-ever bid to compete in the CONCACAF Champions League. Commonly abbreviated CCL because the full name is just too long, this tournament mirrors the similarly-named UEFA Champions League in that it is an international competition for club teams, rather than the national team competitions Americans are much more familiar with. So before the Union kick off their CCL campaign this Wednesday, let’s make sure we’re entirely clear on what’s happening and what’s on the line.

What is CONCACAF Champions Leauge?

This question is often presented as the most challenging obstacle for getting Americans to understand soccer. As if somehow a regional tournament is a challenging concept for a country that acts like the the Bowl Championship Series is a valid way to determine the best college football team. If anything, CCL makes more sense than the already quite reasonable NCAA Basketball Tournament, and works on the same general idea.

But still, it’s worth getting the details straight. So starting from the beginning, let’s talk about CONCACAF. An unwieldy acronym for an even more unwieldy full name (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football), CONCACAF is the governing body for soccer in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Just like UEFA in Europe, CONCACAF organizes regional national-team tournaments like the Gold Cup, as well as club-team ones like CCL. Members of CONCACAF include all of the FIFA-affiliated federations in our region; for example, US Soccer, FMF in Mexico, and Asociación de Fútbol de Cuba down in Havana.

The second “C” is for “Champions”, meaning the teams participating are, one way or another, champions. In the Union’s case, winning the Supporter’s Shield earned them their berth in this year’s tournament. The other US teams participating this year include the Columbus Crew (for winning MLS Cup), and two pandemic-season inclusions for the Portland Timbers (for winning the MLS is Back bubble tournament) and Atlanta United (for winning the 2019 US Open Cup). And rounding out the MLS Contingent is Voyageurs Cup-winning Toronto FC. All of these teams are obviously champions of a kind, even before you consider the 2020 asterisk that got Portland and Atlanta their tickets to the tournament.

If that is too broad of definition of “Champion” for your taste, remember March Madness. Georgia Tech won the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament to earn their spot in the big dance, but six other ACC teams still got to go. At-large bids don’t need to be scary.

Which brings us, at last, to “league”. This is without a doubt the most you’ll have to stretch a term to understand this tournament. The best you can say is that all of the teams are engaged in a (potentially) season-long competition resulting in an eventual winner. However the teams will not be playing against every other (or even most other) opponents on their way to the eventual championship, which isn’t particularly league-y. Much like the NCAA  Tournament teams were seeded into a bracket, and each team will face a single opponent before being knocked out or advancing to the next round.

Unlike March Madness however, this is not a single elimination meeting. This year marks a return to the pre-pandemic format where each team will face each opponent in a home-and-away competition. Which is to say each pairing will play twice (once in each stadium), with winner determined by the aggregate score of adding the points of both games together. If this results in a tie, whichever team scored the most away goals advances.

What’s at stake?

Arguably the Union have already received a particularly valuable incentive: recognition. While it is only their first appearance in the tournament, a CCL berth is an indicator that the team is a contender, an organization that knows how to field a competitive team. For any team this makes the courting of potential signings easier, acting as an indicator that a player would not be squandering their talents by playing for the Union. But even more valuable to the Union is the way it will put their home grown talent on display. For a team as committed as the Union are to becoming a “selling” team,  the opportunity to showcase their young players and build the team’s reputation as a reliable source can have long-term benefits, benefits which will only grow should the team make their CCL appearances a regular occurrence.

Of course there are more tangible prizes on the line as well. Most notably, the winner of this tournament will qualify for the 2021 Club World Cup hosted by Japan and taking place in December of this year. The winner will also receive $500,000 in prize money, in addition to the minimum $2.5 million they’ll earn from CONCACAF for participating in the Club World Cup.

Luckily, winning it all isn’t the only way for teams to bring home some cash. The runner up receives $300,000 for losing in the final, while both semi-final losers receive $200,000. And even beyond that there is evergreen TV and merchandise money this type of tournament always generates, in addition to the hope of ticket and concession sales.

The Competition

Whatever you think of the MLS entrants into this year’s CCL, they are not the only thing standing between the Union and potential regional supremacy. As always the biggest challenge for the Americans is going to come from Mexico, and our neighbors to the south have sent Monterrey, Cruz Azul, Club América, and León. But Costa Rica’s Alajuelense and Saprissa should not be underestimated, and Olimpia and Marathón from Honduras will not be pushovers. Even Nicaragua’s Real Estelí and CCL debutants Arcahaie (Haiti) will have CONCACAF chaos on their side making every game competitive.

In seeding the bracket, CONCACAF split the teams into two pots to ensure that the large US and Mexico delegations didn’t wind up facing one another too early in the tournament. So the good news for the Union is that they were given the best chance possible to have a relatively easy first round. Unfortunately “chance” isn’t the same thing as “guarantee”, so the Union drew perennial Costa Rican power Saprissa by virtue of los Morados finding themselves in the lower pot as a result of coming in second the the 2020 CONCACAF League play-in tournament. The only worse matchup in the first round fell to Toronto FC when they drew León (one of Mexico’s asterisked entrants, runners-up in the truncated 2020 Clausura). So it goes.

Can the Union do it?

No MLS team has won CCL in its current format, ever. DC United and the LA Galaxy both won in the previous version of the tournament, known as the Champion’s Cup, at a time when the tournament’s schedule resulted in timing that was favorable for MLS. Contrast that with how the tournament has been run since 2009, with the tournament starting just as MLS teams are finishing pre-season and the Liga MX teams are in their best end-of-season form.

It would seem the Union have their work cut out for them, especially when you consider that should they advance they will face the winners of Atlanta vs. Alajuelense. And, most likely, Mexican superclub América after that. But regardless of how things play out, the Union will benefit.

Say the worst happens, and the Union lose in one of the first two rounds earning no additional prize money. That is a thing that could happen to any team in a knockout tournament, but it wouldn’t be particularly embarrassing result for the Union. Saprissa is a good team. Granted they’re not considered a contender for the overall title this tournament, but there isn’t a team in the confederation that could see them as an easy win. And the same can be said for the teams they could face in the quarter-finals. So if the Union get knocked out before getting to a prize-money game, they can do so without shame and focus on MLS and defending their Supporters Shield title.

But if they do win (and win again), they are easily out ahead. They will have proved that they’re a team to be reckoned with in the region, even after the sale of two players largely responsible for the season that earned them their CCL berth. They will have added another achievement to their resume, and started the legend of the players who stepped up to replace Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie. All while bringing home a nice check, even if it’s only ever a consolation prize.

And a win beyond that? A spot in the CONCACAF Champions League Final and a shot at the Club World Cup? Our biggest concern in that case should be whether or not this Union team is creating too-high expectations for the teams to follow.

In other words, the Union are playing with house money. They have everything to gain, and nothing to fear. Except for injuries.

The Philadelphia Union travel to Costa Rica to face Deportivo Saprissa in their first-ever CONCACAF Champions League match on Wednesday, April 7 at 6:00 p.m. Watch on Fox Sports or TUDN.  The second leg between the Union and Saprissa will be at Subaru Park on Wednesday, April 14, at 8:00 p.m.


  1. Tim Jones says:

    Union website’s schedule now say FS1 specifically.

  2. Thanks Jim – good read!

  3. OneManWolfpack says:

    Good stuff! But man… did you have to: “They have everything to gain, and nothing to fear. Except for injuries.”

  4. Thanks for the explanation!

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