Now that we’ve covered how club teams in the United States and Canada qualify for CONCACAF Champions League play, let’s take a look at how Mexican clubs qualify for CCL. Mexico is awarded four berths in Champions League, and they’re all awarded to teams competing in Liga MX, the Mexican first division. To understand how a team in Liga MX qualifies for CCL, you first have to understand the format of the league itself, which is a bit different than MLS.
The Liga MX season is actually divided into two distinct phases, with two championships. The Torneo Apertura (opening tournament) runs from July through December. Each of the 18 Liga MX clubs plays 17 matches. After the 17-game season, the top eight teams advance to "La Liguilla," a bracketed playoff system similar in nature to the MLS playoffs, where a champion is crowned.
After a winter break, Clausura (closing) play begins in January. The Clausura runs through early May, after which the same "Liguilla" style playoff system is used to determine another champion.
In a way, the format of Liga MX is drawn from several other areas of the world, a veritable "posole" of competition styles. It shares its multi-season format with many Central and South American leagues, who also run two distinct tournaments within their seasons. Much like a European league, the Liga MX starts play in the summertime – and the "Liguilla," first incorporated in 1970, could certainly have been drawn from the playoff system used in most major American sports.
As in many other leagues around the world, Liga MX also makes use of a promotion and relegation system. Each year, one team in the Mexican second division (the Ascenso MX) can climb the ladder to Liga MX play, while a particularly poor-performing Liga MX club is relegated to the Ascenso. Promotion from the Ascenso comes by way of a playoff held between the winners of that divisions Apertura and Clausura (if the same team wins both seasons, it’s promoted automatically) while relegation is determined by calculating a team’s points-per-game average – the team with the lowest PPG is relegated. There’s also quite a bit of fine print, but those are the basics.
So, how do teams emerge from Liga MX play with a CONCACAF Champions League berth? Quite simply, the champion and runner-up from both the Apertura and Clausura qualify for CCL play. The Apertura and Clausura champions are drawn into "Pot A" of Champions League play, while the runners-up of the two segments are drawn into "Pot B." Don’t worry, we’ll discuss "pots" and other technicalities of Champions League formatting in the near future.
Should there be any overlap – let’s say the same team wins both the Apertura and Clausura in a given year – the team with the next best record in league play fills that vacated spot.
You don’t have to look further than this year’s edition of Champions League for an example of such overlap. Tigres UANL qualified for CCL play as champions of the 2011 Apertura, while Santos Laguna qualified by winning the Clausura that followed. Monterrey found their way into CCL as the Clausura runner-up.
That left the fourth and final Liga MX CCL berth, awarded to the Apertura runner-up. This year, that happened to be Santos Laguna, who’d already qualified as Clausura champions. And that’s how Guadalajara found its way into Champions League, as the third place finisher in 2011 Apertura play.
So now that we’ve covered the United States, Canada, Mexico and Central America, let’s lastly take a look at how club teams in the Caribbean qualify for CONCACAF Champions League play.
CONCACAF’s 30 member associations that are located beyond North and Central America also belong to the Caribbean Football Union, soccer’s governing body in the Caribbean. Aside from the Union’s 26 members that are located in the Caribbean proper, the CFU also has 3 South American members (French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname) and one North American member (Bermuda.)
CONCACAF awards 3 Champions League berths to its Caribbean members, and they’re distributed to the top three finishers in the CFU Club Championship, the region’s premier club competition. Since the tournament’s inception in 1997, only teams from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Puerto Rico have claimed the title; T&T’s W Connection leads the way with 3 titles, followed by fellow TT Pro League competitors Joe Public. The North American Soccer League’s own Puerto Rico Islanders have also won the tournament on two occasions, bringing home the cup in 2010 and 2011.
Though clubs from all 30 CFU member associations are eligible to compete in the region’s club championship, many smaller nations have had trouble sending a team to the competition. Aside from the tournament’s entry fee, clubs from the association’s smaller members are often unable to deal with the travel and roster demands of the tournament and choose not to participate. Anguilla, French Guiana, Saint Maarten, the Bahamas and Dominican Republic have never entered CFU Club Championship play – another six member associations have only sent a team on one occasion.
In the tourney’s most recent edition, only nine out of 30 eligible member associations sent a team to the competition. The all-Trinidadian final saw Caledonia AIA take the title over W Connection, while the Puerto Rico Islanders secured the final berth in Champions League play by disposing of USL-Pro side Antigua Barracuda to take third place. All three clubs were eliminated in the Group Stage of Champions League.
Caribbean member associations have historically had very little success in CCL play, in particular since the tournament’s re-design in 2008. Only one CFU member has made it as far as the semifinals in the competition since then - the Islanders made a memorable run in 2008-2009, vanquishing opponents like Santos Laguna and Honduran side Marathón before narrowly losing to Liga MX powerhouse Cruz Azul in the semis. More recently, the Puerto Rican side has been a nuisance to MLS clubs in Champions League play, embarrassing the Los Angeles Galaxy with a 4-1 drubbing at The Home Depot Center and eliminating them from the 2010-11 Champions League preliminary play.