CONCACAF Champions League explained: A look at next seasons Whitecaps campaign

Photo by: Dimples915

Supporters at a CONCACAF Champions League match between Toronto FC and Los Angeles Galaxy Photo by: Dimples915

For the first time in club history, Vancouver Whitecaps FC have clinched Canada’s entry into the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL), for the 2015/’16 season.

After numerous years of heartbreak at the Amway Canadian Championship tournament, a competition which normally sees the winner secure Canada’s’ qualification spot for the CCL, how have the Whitecaps been able to qualify for the highly-regarded tournament and what does this mean for the club?

Let’s start from the top: What is CONCACAF?

The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), is the official governing body for football in those regions. As a regional section of FIFA, the world governing body for football, CONCACAF manages both club and international competition within the region, with the CONCACAF Champions League and the CONCACAF Gold Cup being their most distinguished competitions.

The CONCACAF jurisdiction includes three sub-regions:

  • North America – represented by three countries (Canada, United States of America and Mexico).
  • Central America – represented by seven countries
  • Caribbean – represented by 31 countries

What is the CONCACAF Champions League? 

The CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) is an annual club-based tournament, consisting of 24 of the region’s best teams who are regularly competing in their respective country’s top-flight of soccer. From the tournaments inception in 1962, then called the Champions Cup, the main goal has been to decide the best team playing within the CONCACAF region. To do so, the CCL is in two separate stages, the Group stage and the Championship stage.

Team berths into the group stage are allotted by country, meaning that there are only a certain number of qualifying spots available per CONCACAF country.

CONCACAF Champions League allotments

North America (nine teams)

  • Canada – 1
  • Mexico – 4
  • United States – 4

Central America (12 teams)

  • Belize – 1
  • Costa Rica – 2
  • El Salvador – 2
  • Guatemala – 2
  • Honduras – 2
  • Nicaragua – 1
  • Panama – 2

Caribbean (three teams)

Team berths into the CCL for Caribbean clubs are to be decided by a separate qualifying tournament.

Within the group stage, clubs are divided into eight groups of three teams. To ensure that there is variety in both stages of the tournament, clubs from the same country cannot be drawn into the same group. Each team will play its group members twice, both home-and-away. The winners of each group (the team with the best record) will then move on to the Championship Stage and will be reseeded 1-8 according to their group stage record.

The Quaterfinal Round of the Championship Stage begins a more North American-style format. Of the reseeded eight teams, Seed 1 will play against Seed 8, Seed 2 vs. Seed 7, Seed 3 vs. Seed 6 and Seed 4 will play Seed 5. The winner of 1 vs. 8 will then meet the winner of 4 vs. 5 in the Semifinal Round, while the winner of 2 vs. 7 will advance to play the winner of 3 vs. 6. The winners of the semifinals will then face off against each other in the final round. 

The winner of the CCL will not only be crowned the CONCACAF Club Champion, but will also represent CONCACAF at the annual FIFA Club World Cup.

*all Championship Stage matches are also played within a two-legged home-and-away format, including the Final Round, and are decided on the aggregate scoring system. If the aggregate score is tied, then the winner is decided on the away-goals rule.

How do American MLS clubs qualify for the CCL?

The four American MLS qualification spots can be determined in a number of ways:

  1. Win the MLS Cup
  2. Win the US Open Cup
  3. Win the Supporters’ Shield
  4. Finishing first in the conference opposite of the Supporters’ Shield winner

*the US Open Cup is a domestic cup competition involving all professional and amateur American teams. 

*the Supporter’s Shield is awarded to the team with highest regular-season MLS point total

*If a Canadian team wins the Supporters’ Shield or the MLS Cup, or if the same team wins both of those honours, then the MLS team with the second-highest regular-season point total will gain entry into the CCL.

How have Vancouver Whitecaps FC qualified for this tournament? 

Canadian qualification for the tournament is usually decided through the Amway Canadian Championship, a tournament consisting of all professional soccer teams in Canada (MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC, Toronto FC and Montreal Impact; NASL: Ottawa Fury FC and FC Edmonton). Normally, the winner of this tournament goes on to represent Canada in the CCL for that season. The Canadian Championship is usually played between the months of May and June, where the winner will enter the CCL for that year. For example, the winners of the 2014 Amway Canadian Championship, Montreal Impact, started their CCL campaign in August. However, due to scheduling conflicts with the FIFA Women’s World Cup, being held across Canada in the summer of 2015, there is not enough time for the Canadian Championship to be played before the start of the CCL campaign.

The Canadian Soccer Association has decided that the Canadian representative for the 2015/’16 CCL will be decided by the highest ranked Canadian team in the overall MLS standings for the 2014 season. Vancouver has clinched this position and have thus qualified for next season’s CCL.

*the Amway Canadian Championship will be played in July and August, 2015 following the FIFA Women’s World Cup. The winner will represent Canada in the 2016/’17 CCL. 

What does this mean for the Whitecaps?

Certainly it means more games during crucial moments throughout the season. The CCL Group Stage will begin right in the thick of the MLS playoff race, from August to October, and the Whitecaps will have to get much deeper if they are to have their mind set on being competitive in both competitions.

The CCL is a tough competition to do well in, especially considering that Mexican teams have dominated the tournament throughout its history and have owned it the last nine years. Since 2000, only one MLS club has won the competition, that being the Los Angeles Galaxy, while two Costa Rican clubs have claimed the title. Mexican clubs have won 11 CCL championships during that span.

Tough competition, climate change, style of play and change of atmosphere will all have an effect on the first-time qualifiers, who have only made the MLS Playoffs once in the past three seasons and have failed to ever win the Canadian Championship. While priorities may need to be set between next season’s MLS playoff race and the CCL, this is a tournament where great players can become legends and it is a chance for the Whitecaps to claim their place on the world stage.

Ryan Lehal

Journalism student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Lover of the beautiful game.

1 Comment

  • Martin Schauhuber
    Reply December 9, 2014

    Martin Schauhuber

    Great explainer, that cleared up a lot of confusion for me. I always thought both the CONCACAF Champions League and the Copa Libertadores to be interesting competitions, but sadly there is almost zero marketing and TV time for them in Europe. The group stage beginning at the time of the MLS playoffs seems like very awkward timing for the teams though – that’s one of the downsides to the MLS season being played from March to October unlike the (confusing) Mexican league system that follows the European model.

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