The purpose of the CONCACAF Champions League is simple. Determine the top club soccer team in the region. It’s how we get there that’s the issue. From the beginning, that hasn’t been straightforward. CONCACAF, the confederation that covers North and Central America and the Caribbean soccer has 41 member countries. Not all of them have professional leagues. Those that do aren’t necessarily operating at the same level.
CONCACAF’s club soccer tournament has to be about more than simply confirming what most people already believe, that the champion of Mexico’s soccer league is also the best team in CONCACAF. That’s where the story starts, with CONCACAF struggling to create a meaningful tournament.
Cruz Azul, Club America, and Mexico’s Win Streak
Counting both the Champions League – where Mexican clubs are five for five, and the old CONCACAF Champions’ Cup, Mexico has 29 titles and finished second 14 times. The USA has two titles and two 2nd-place finishes, eighth in the table of countries. Part of that is easy to explain. With a few exceptions, Mexican clubs regularly entered the competition while the USA’s topflight North American Soccer League ignored it. There are no Cosmos – Chivas meetings at CONCACAF Champions’ Cup level. The original Sounders or the Sting never played a Champions’ Cup game.
Cruz Azul and Club America have the most Cups with five each. Pachuca takes 3rd with four titles. Saprissa breaks up the Mexico monopoly as one of three teams with three Champions’ Cup wins. Yes, the other two are Mexican, UNAM Pumas and Monterrey.
The CONCACAF Champions League
After 43 CONCACAF Champions’ Cup tournaments, in 2008-09 CONCACAF decided they had a better idea for how to crown a club soccer champion. Instead of modified knockouts, expansion and contraction of the tournament field, and the occasional missed years, they’d follow Europe’s example. Instead of a Cup, they’d have a league. Just like in European soccer, that would include a group stage leading to a knockout round.
What was either overlooked or unexpected was parity. CONCACAF has a distinct lack of parity when it allows Mexican clubs to have multiple games to advance to the knockout stage. Short of drawing the Mexican clubs against each other as soon as possible, they’ll likely dominate a Champions League.
Sure enough, the first CONCACAF Champions League saw three Mexican teams make the semifinal round with Altante beating Cruz Azul in the final. In 2009-10, it was four for four for Mexican clubs in the semifinal stage with Pachuca beating Cruz Azul. CONCACAF finally got the message and stacked the deck against Mexican clubs in 2010-11, putting them on one side of the bracket in the knockout stage. That meant Real Salt Lake made the final, but lost to Monterrey. That was the first of three titles for Monterrey, beating Santos Laguna in 2011-12 and 2012-13.
There’s the potential for three of the four semifinalists coming from Mexico in 2013-14. Three of the four quarterfinals are MLS vs Liga MX matchups.
The CONCACAF Champions’ Cup
CONCACAF’s original answer for how to determine a confederation champion came only months after the confederation’s formation. FIFA officially recognized CONCACAF on Sep 18, 1961 and the first CONCACAF Champions’ Cup kicked off on Mar 25, 1962.
From the beginning, there were competitive issues. CONCACAF originally settled on 7 countries with strong enough clubs to compete for the Champions’ Cup: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, and Netherlands Antilles. Since it’s hard to field a tournament with 7 teams, two teams from Costa Rica participated.
CONCACAF couldn’t help itself but to mess with an obvious tournament setup. Instead of playing a quarterfinal, semifinal, and then final round, they did some tweaking. The two-leg quarterfinal round produced a semifinalist and a finalist. CONCACAF stuck in a second round between the quarterfinal and semifinal stage to determine the other semifinalist. Mexico’s Chivas, representing the North American zone, advanced from the quarterfinals directly to the final. They beat Guatemala’s Comunicaciones 6-0 on aggregate in the final. Comunicaciones was the club that advanced from that oddly arranged second round.
1963 saw the first USA participant, with New York Hungaria entering as the defending US Open Cup champion. This time, it was New York Hungaria playing in the second round after advancing past Mexico’s Deportivo Oro. They drew Chivas in the second round, losing 2-0 on aggregate. Chivas and Racing Club Haiti advanced to the final, with Racing Club winning by default due to an inability to schedule the two final round games.
So, from the beginning we have the same problems that continue to show up over the tournament’s history. Mexico dominating, basic competition issues, and scheduling. The ’63 fiasco put the Champions’ Cup on hold until 1967. Mexico didn’t enter in ’67, good news for everybody else with Philadelphia Ukranians losing to El Salvador’s Alianza in the North and Central American zone final as the only North American entry. Alianza won the title, beating Netherland Antilles club Jong Colombia.
Mexico was back in ’68 with Toluca winning the title. Cruz Azul won the next three, the first club to repeat as champions. Toluca became the first Mexican club not to advance to the title game in 1972. No Mexican team entered in ’73 or ’74, with Mexico’s Atletico Espanol (aka Necaxa – rebranded from 1971-82). Leon lost in the semifinal stage in 1976. With the North American Soccer League ignoring the tournament entirely and not entering their teams in the US Open Cup, New York Inter-Giuliana represented the USA and lost to Toronto Italia in the first round.
The NASL’s absence might have been a wakeup call for CONCACAF that they needed a better tournament. Instead, they pressed on with the original format. Club America won in 1977. In ’78, the issues caught up with the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup.
Officially, three teams can claim the 1978 CONCACAF Champions’ Cup title. You can have your choice of Tecos, Comunicaciones, or Defense Force. That’s what happens when a tournament can’t complete the semifinal stage. With Tecos advancing to the final, we’ll never know whether Comunicaciones or Defense Force would’ve advanced to play them.
Mexican clubs won five titles in the 1980s, with outliers like Suriname’s Transvaal lifting the Cup in 1981 and Violette A.C. from Haiti winning in 1984. With the USA still entering US Open Cup winners, the end of the NASL changed nothing from a Champions’ Cup perspective. Defense Force, one of the ’78 three, won the title outright in 1985. Mexico wasn’t involved in ’86, with Costa Rica’s Alajuelense winning. Club America won their second title in 1987.
1988 saw two US entries. Unfortunately, they both had to beat Mexican clubs to advance. Seattle Mitre Eagles lost 9-0 on aggregate to Cruz Azul and the APSL’s Washington Diplomats exited 4-2 to Morelia. Cruz Azul lost to Olimpia and Morelia didn’t play their fourth round series with Alajuelense. Olimpia went onto win the title. Mexico took the Cup the next four years, with Costa Rican clubs winning three in a row from 1993-95. Mexico followed that with back-to-back titles for Cruz Azul.
CONCACAF tweaked the format in 1993, adding a group stage final held in Guatemala City. That lasted one year, moving to semifinals, a final, and a third-place game in 1994. The group stage final returned in 1995. In 1996, the APSL’s Seattle Sounders made it to the final group stage, finishing last out of four clubs.
1997 was year one for Major League Soccer’s involvement in the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup. The group stage final went away that year, replaced by a traditional single-leg quarterfinal, semifinal, and final. The LA Galaxy knocked out Santos Laguna in the regional playoff. They eventually met fellow MLS team DC United in the semifinals, beating them 1-0. LA lost 5-3 to Cruz Azul in the final with DC United drawing 2-2 with Chivas in the third-place game. Since CONCACAF apparently didn’t see the likelihood of a draw coming, DC and Chivas both officially finished third. DC’s RFK Stadium hosted both the final and the third-place game as a doubleheader.
DC United won the Champions’ Cup in 1998, beating Toluca in the final. Necaxa took the title in ’99 with the final stages played in Las Vegas. DC and Chicago played for third-place and once again a draw meant they shared third. The L.A. Galaxy won in 2000, knocking out DC United on penalties in the semifinal. That should’ve had the MLS club advancing to the Club World Cup, but FIFA cancelled the tournament.
CONCACAF cancelled the Champions’ Cup in 2001, revamping the tournament as a modified league involving four MLS teams and four Mexican clubs in a Round of 16. Kansas City made the semifinals, losing 6-1 to Morelia. In an all-Mexico final, Pachuca beat Morelia 1-0. Toluca won in 2003. In 2004, CONCACAF reverted to a smaller 8-team tournament played out over two-legs. Both MLS and Mexico exited in the semifinal stage with Costa Rica putting both of their teams in the final. Alajuelense beat Saprissa 5-1.
That format held for the 2005 tournament, with Saprissa beating UNAM Pumas in the final and advancing to the Club World Cup. Club America needed extra time to beat Toluca in an all-Mexico final. In 2007, Pachuca beat Chivas on penalties for the title, with both clubs advancing past MLS teams in the semifinals. 2008 was the final year of the CONCACAF Champions Cup, with Pachuca beating Saprissa in the final.