We’ve been talking all week about the ins and outs of CONCACAF Champions League qualifying, and we also gave you a quick rundown on CONCACAF itself. Let’s take a step back now and look back at the roots of Champions League.
In its current form, CCL draws its roots from its predecessor, the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup. Champions’ Cup play began in 1962, only a year after CONCACAF’s inception, and ended in 2008 with the formation of Champions League.
Champions’ Cup went through several format changes in its lifetime. Initially the tournament was split into two phases, a preliminary round and final round.
Preliminary games were played by region. Teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean would battle each other for regional supremacy before advancing to the finals. The finals themselves also changed in format over the years – in some editions of the tournament a group-style setup was used where the team with the highest point total was declared the champion. In others a bracket or knockout-style final round was used to determine a winner.
Prior to the birth of Major League Soccer in 1996, the paths to Champions’ Cup play for a team in the United States were varied. Teams who won the U.S. Open Cup (at the time known as the National Challenge Cup) typically went on to compete in the tournament, as did the champions of various professional leagues that came and went throughout the 70’s and 80’s. The NASL and ASL sent several teams over the years – teams in professional indoor soccer leagues in the United States even got in on the act in the 80’s and 90’s.
A few Canadian teams also qualified for Champions’ Cup play through their own professional league, the NSL, while Mexican clubs qualified via Liga MX play.
Teams from the United States had very little success in Champions’ Cup play prior to MLS’ inception. It’s important to remember that most of these teams were amateur sides lacking the financial and organizational clout to compete in such a tournament.
On more than one occasion, qualifying teams withdrew from the tournament before it even started, unable to raise the funds necessary to compete.
Even still, there were moments of glory. In 1984, the New York Pancyprian Freedoms - an amateur side that qualified via the National Challenge Cup – made an improbable run to the regional finals of the tournament, eliminating Mexican giants Puebla along the way.
Following the formation of Major League Soccer in 1996, the tournament became an eight team knockout competition. From 1996-2000, the eight qualifying teams battled through a quarterfinals, semifinals and final until a champion was declared. The MLS Cup champion and runner-up qualified for the tournament, eliminating the berth normally reserved for the winner of the U.S. Open Cup.
Major League Soccer sides actually did quite well in this format, winning the tournament twice; D.C. United was the first to hoist the cup in 1998, followed by Sigi Schmid’s LA Galaxy in 2000. CONCACAF once again tweaked the tournament’s format in 2002, sticking with an eight team knockout competition but making each round a home and away series instead of a single game. No U.S. team would win Champions’ Cup under that modified format, though the Chicago Fire, Kansas City Wizards, Houston Dynamo and D.C. United would all advance as far as the semifinals.
To say that Mexican teams were dominant in Champions’ Cup is an understatement.
Mexican club teams won the tournament a whopping 28 times. Cruz Azul and América each hoisted the cup five times, while fellow Liga MX competitors Pachuca claimed the title on four occasions. Costa Rica gets the honor of being Mexico’s very distant runner-up, with six titles split between three of its club teams: Saprissa, Alajuelense and Caraginés.
From 2005-2008, the winner of Champions’ Cup also qualified for the FIFA Club World Cup, giving participating clubs an added incentive to field a competitive side in Champion’s Cup play, while the runner-up of the tournament was given a berth in the Copa Sudamericana, a South American regional club tournament. No CONCACAF team that qualified for the Sudamericana via Champions’ Cup play ever made it past the quarterfinals of that tournament. Saprissa holds the honor of being the CONCACAF team in the Champions’ Cup era to advance the furthest in the Club World Cup, finishing third in 2005.