February means MLS! But first, Concacaf Champions League
(Photo: Sam Szapucki/Wikimedia Commons)
by Chris Ashley
If you are new to the Major League Soccer scene, you may be anxiously counting down the days until the season kicks off in Nashville on February 29. But what you may not know is that there are plenty of meaningful and competitive matches happening sooner than that, matches which involve the top teams in Major League Soccer.
CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) is a yearly competition that includes the top teams in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. While some version of this continental competition has been going on since 1962, the Champions League format has only been around since 2008.
Now you may be asking, “So is this like our version of the super popular UEFA Champions League?”
Short answer, yes! But also, no.
While CCL used to operate very much like its European counterpart – with a group stage followed by a knockout tournament – our tournament was changed in 2018 to a 16-team, two-leg knockout competition. While you may think having a home-and-away for each fixture in the tournament seems a tad excessive, I can promise you that the first time Charlotte has to travel to rural Costa Rica to play a match, you will appreciate it. It's really cool.
"Why is this tournament important?"
The simplest answer is that the winner gets a trophy, and trophies are always the goal. However, the winner also gets to participate in the Club World Cup and have the chance to play against some of the elite clubs around the globe. Anytime your club can have the opportunity to participate in a bigger tournament like this, it helps grow the brand and the fan base in places you otherwise might not.
Another reason to tune in: a Major League Soccer team has never won this tournament. DC United and LA Galaxy won the old format “Champions’ Cup,” but that competition was almost unrecognizable to what it is today. The only American MLS team to make it to the finals of this tournament was Real Salt Lake back in the 2010-2011 season. Toronto and Montreal have both lost in the finals.
"So who’s in it this year, and how did they get there?"
Four spots in the tournament are allocated to teams from the U.S. Three of those spots are MLS-specific: the MLS Cup winner, the Supporters’ Shield winner, and the regular season champion from the other conference. That means that the Seattle Sounders, Los Angeles FC, and New York City FC hold those spots this year.
There is a fourth U.S. spot in the tournament that goes to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Champion (that’s another article for another day, but it'll be a good one). That spot is occupied by Atl*nta Un*ted for the 2020 CCL.
"Alright hotshot. You said these were U.S. spots. So what if a Canadian team wins MLS Cup? Or the Supporters’ Shield? Or is the regular season champion of the other conference? HUH?"
Listen. First, calm down. Second, let me explain. Because Canada is awarded its own spot for the winner of the Canadian Championship, they are not eligible to take one of the four U.S. spots. If a Canadian team occupies one of those qualifying spots, or if one U.S. team occupies more than one spot, the additional spot is granted to the team or teams with the best regular season record that failed to otherwise qualify. But the good news is that you typically get a fifth MLS team in from Canada. This year, that team is the Montreal Impact.
"Okay. You’ve hooked me. I’m in! How do I watch? When does it start?"
Well, this is where the story gets truly magical. Let me take you on a journey all the way back to 2018 when the English language broadcast rights for this tournament were owned by Verizon. Yes, you read that right. Back in those darker times, you had to download a sketchy app called Go90 and watch an even sketchier stream. It was bad.
Last year, fans thought they were getting an upgrade when it was announced that the matches would be streaming on Yahoo Sports. Spoiler alert: it was not much of an upgrade and was near impossible to find on Yahoo’s page even if you were looking.
So what two-bit streaming service will you have to watch the CCL on this year and going forward? Well, it was just announced that a little known startup called FOX Sports has picked up the exclusive English broadcast rights for the foreseeable future. This is HUGE! It likely means that some of the matches will be broadcast on FOX’s sports channels, but all of them will be available via their app.
Leg one of the round of 16 will take place February 18-20 with the second leg taking place the following week from February 25-27. That means you will have competitive soccer featuring MLS teams on your TV in two weeks time!
Get ready, y'all. CCL fever is sweeping the nation!