concacaf champions league
concacaf champions league

In 2022, the Seattle Sounders made history by defeating Pumas UNAM of Liga MX to become the first MLS team to win a CONCACAF Champions League title. Sadly, this significant achievement was scarcely acknowledged by soccer fans outside of the geeky minority who pride themselves on collecting obscure facts.

Founded in 1962, the tournament’s arrival lagged behind its European big brother by only seven years. Originally called the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup, it was expanded and subsequently re-branded in 2008 to mimic a UEFA Champions League style event. While undoubtedly driven by hopes of bringing more awareness and importance with changes in its name and format, we have seen it fall woefully short in comparison to its UEFA counterpart.

A quick internet search for “champions league” will turn up scores of results pertaining to UEFA Champions League, but hardly anything in relation to CONCACAF. Embarrassingly enough, iterations for the European Handball Federation and FIBA Basketball even come up before CONCACAF Champions League.

A big reason why fans don’t give it much attention lies at fault with the confederation itself. One of FIFA’s six continental governing bodies, CONCACAF represents countries in North America, Central America and the Caribbean (and for geo-political reasons, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana from South America). Due to its own failings, CONCACAF has not been able to garner meaningful prestige and monetary support behind its annual continental competition.

Whereas European clubs understandably treat a UEFA Champions League title as a greater achievement above their domestic trophy, CONCACAF clubs treat the pursuit of being the best team in their region as more of an afterthought.

As winners of the 2022 CONCACAF Champions League, the Seattle Sounders took home a cash prize of $500,000. The runner-up earned a $300,000 consolation prize and the two semifinalists earned $200,000 each. Funnily enough, the Sounders earned a bigger payout ($1 million) for losing in the second round of the FIFA Club World Cup, a tournament they earned a berth into by winning the CONCACAF Champions League.

In comparison, UEFA Champions League has an astronomically higher payout. Participating clubs earn €5 million just for making it to the playoff round along with increasing amounts as they advance further. Last year’s winner, Real Madrid, earned nearly €120 million in prize money. Adding television distribution money brought the total sum to €136.65 million. Also, by winning the Champions League final, Real Madrid automatically earned an additional €3.5 million by participating in the UEFA Super Cup and pocketed an extra €1 million by subsequently beating Eintracht Frankfurt in the final.

If you think it’s unfair to compare the North American competition to its European counterpart, in Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the Champions League, winners earn $18 million in prize money alone, with the runner-up taking home $7 million.

Whereas European clubs understandably treat a UEFA Champions League title as a greater achievement above their domestic trophy, CONCACAF clubs treat the pursuit of being the best team in their region as more of an afterthought.

Unsurprisingly, Liga MX teams have dominated the competition, winning the first 14 tournaments and having won 37 times overall. Costa Rica comes in second as six-time champions, while the U.S. have won three times including the victories by D.C. United in 1998 and LA Galaxy in 2000 prior to the change to the current format.

Compounding the issue is the fact that only clubs from Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. have appeared in the last 14 finals. Besides the Sounders’ championship last year, the winners have all been Liga MX clubs during this same period. In other words, even though the prize money that’s been offered has been relatively modest, it has all essentially been consumed by Mexican clubs. Following this logic, this leaves few incentives for smaller CONCACAF nations who make up the majority of votes to allocate larger prize amounts for a tournament where their own federations have little chance of receiving.

It’s not surprising then that Liga MX and MLS have chosen to implement a separate annual competition in the form of the Leagues Cup. Debuting in 2019 as a single-elimination tournament with four teams from each league, it has now expanded to include all clubs from both leagues and functions as a North American regional cup for CONCACAF. Although cash prize information has not been released, an MLS spokesperson said that the reward “will be substantial and valuable for participating clubs.” Additional incentives include allowing the top three teams to qualify for Champions League with the winner also receiving a bye to the round of 16.

It goes without saying that progressive spending by MLS teams over the years has corresponded with an increase in talent level. Salaries and team payrolls are now approaching Liga MX club levels. Considering the overall disparity in years past, it’s understandable that MLS clubs historically did not have realistic goals of being successful when competing in the CONCACAF Champions League. However, this stance has begun to shift along with the growing popularity of the league. The more successful clubs have added aspirations of a CCL title in addition to an MLS Cup.

It’s not random happenstance that put the Seattle Sounders in position for success last year. A two-time MLS Cup winner and four-time U.S. Open Cup champion, the glaring missing hardware in Seattle’s cabinet was a CCL trophy. Days before the final, then-Sounders GM and president Garth Lagerwey told ESPN, “It’s our chance at immortality, doing something that no one’s ever done before that will be remembered forever.”

In 2010, Lagerwey had a chance to win the CCL title with Real Salt Lake while in a similar role. Having squandered the opportunity once before, he was determined to not let this second chance slip away.

“It’s a little sense of deja vu,” he stated. “Obviously we want a happy ending to this movie.”

The Seattle Sounders and Lagerwey ultimately achieved the gratifying conclusion they were striving for. As far as immortality is concerned — while they’re forever etched in the record books, the lofty level of reverence is unfortunately still far from the minds of most soccer fans. At least for now.

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