The New York Red Bulls are competing for four trophies this season: MLS Supporters' Shield, MLS Cup, US Open Cup, and CONCACAF Champions League.
Today, we have been told to expect the CCL group stage draw to take place on May 28, at which point RBNY will learn the identity of the two teams standing between it and a shot at regional glory next spring.
The Champions League (CCL to its friends, and we are nothing if not friendly toward a trophy RBNY might win), presents an interesting challenge: it's essentially a three-year competition (at least for MLS clubs, though similar circumstances apply to most of the competing teams).
First, a team has to get into CCL by winning one of the qualifying competitions: in RBNY's case, that was the 2013 Supporters' Shield. So the 2013 Red Bulls got us into this.
A few of those guys are missing - Markus Holgersson, Brandon Barklage, Fabian Espindola, Heath Pearce, David Carney - and a few new guys are in place. The 2014 Red Bulls are still finding their way, and it is to be hoped it's a way to being a consistently good team (right now, it looks more like the way to an up-and-down season). But it is the 2014 rollercoaster Red Bulls that must address the next CCL hurdle: the group stage.
A Beginner's Guide to CCL
CONCACAF loves nothing more than to tinker with its competitions, so these rules are subject to change, but here's the gist of what to expect from CCL in 2014-15:
Twenty-four qualifying teams will be divided into eight groups of three. Each team in the group plays each other home and away: for a total of four games each.
The winner of each group qualifies for the knockout stages: quarterfinal, semifinal, final; home and away each time; away goals count as the first tiebreaker. The teams entering the knockout stages are seeded according to their group stage record: team with the best record is ranked first; the team with the worst record is ranked eighth.
Seedings determine home advantage (who gets to play their home match as the second of the two knockout legs in each round), and home advantage is historically important in CCL (take my word for it, but there will more to say on this point as the competition gets started).
The 2014 Red Bulls will be responsible for getting RBNY out of the group stage, which will likely occur as a string of midweek matches scheduled between August and October. If the team hits the knockout rounds, progress in that part of the competition will be handed off to the 2015 squad, since CCL tends to have its final rounds clustered in March and April.
The Group Stage Draw - what to expect
The group stage draw on May 28 will start with the 24 qualifying teams divided into three "pots". This being CONCACAF, the pots are partially about separating the best teams in the region...ish.
Pot A, can be read as the eight best teams in the draw, though it doesn't necessarily work out that way, and hasn't really worked out that way this year. Here are the eight teams in Pot A:
Leon: winners of both Liga MX tournaments this year, and therefore doubly qualified from Mexico (which advances both its 2013 Apertura and 2014 Clausura champions, and the runners-up in those tournaments).
Pachuca: runner-up in the Liga MX 2014 Clausura, which is a Pot B designation most years...but Leon won both titles, so Pachuca is taking the slot reserved for the Clausura champion on the grounds that it was the next best team in that tournament.
Sporting Kansas City: winner of 2013 MLS Cup.
New York Red Bulls: winner of 2013 MLS Supporters' Shield.
Alajuelense: winner of Costa Rica's 2013 Invierno title (i.e. the first Costa Rican team to qualify for this year's CCL).
Olimpia: winner of the Honduran 2014 Clausura title (i.e. the most recent of the Honduran teams to qualify for this year's CCL)
Comunicaciones: winner of both Guatemalan league titles this year: the 2013 Apertura and the 2014 Clausura.
Tauro: winner of Panama's 2013 Apertura (i.e. the first of the Panamanian teams to qualify for this year's CCL).
From RBNY's perspective, forget about every team in Pot A: the team cannot be drawn against any of them, and could only play a maximum of three of them in a run through the knockout rounds. None of these teams is a concern to the 2014 Red Bulls.
This is where things get complicated. One day, when CCL grows up, we'll have a more straightforward tournament, with teams from around the region competing with less gerrymandering from the organizers.
But we live in the real world, and the reality is CCL is a competition trying to boost its profile. To do that, it needs to grab the attention of the two biggest markets for soccer-watching in the region: Mexico and USA.
So the teams from those two countries are kept separated in the group stage - maximizing the possibility of tasty LigaMX vs MLS matchups in the knockout rounds.
From a RBNY perspective, all it means is there are four teams in Pot B with zero relevance to the Red Bulls' group stage: the two from Liga MX and the two American clubs from MLS.
RBNY cannot be drawn into a group with any of these four teams in Pot B:
America: 2013 Liga MX Apertura runner-up.
Cruz Azul: qualified as the team with the best regular season record in the 2014 Liga MX Clausura (since Leon won and had already qualified via the Apertura). Cruz Azul also happens to be the reigning CCL champion - this is just a happy coincidence.
Portland Timbers: 2013 MLS Western Conference winner.
D.C. United: 2013 US Open Cup winner.
The four teams in Pot B that could end up in RBNY's group are:
Real Espana: 2013 Honduran Apertura champion (i.e. the first Honduran side to qualify for CCL).
Saprissa: 2014 Costa Rican Verano champion (i.e. the most recent Costa Rican side to qualify for CCL).
Isidro Metapan: El Salvador's 2013 Apertura champion (i.e. the first Salvadoran team to qualify for CCL) AND a finalist in the 2014 Clausura, which is yet to be played (scheduled for 5/25).
Toronto FC or Montreal Impact: aka, the winner of this year's Canadian Championship. CONCACAF has jumped the gun a little by announcing its group stage draw for May 28, a week before its Canadian representative is identified (the Canadian Championship concludes on 6/4). Still, from a RBNY perspective, this boils down to a simple observation: there is a 1-in-4 chance the Red Bulls end up in the same group as another MLS club.
In principle, RBNY can be drawn against any of the team in Pot C. In practice, the third member of the group will be limited by the identity of the Red Bulls' opponent from Pot B.
Municipal: the best (aggregate league record across both competitions) of the rest from Guatemala, since Comunicaciones won both league titles this year.
Chorillo: 2014 Panamanian Clausura champion (i.e. the most recent Panamanian team to qualify for CCL).
Note: Chorillo cannot be drawn against fellow Panamanian club, Tauro, in the group stage. Since Tauro is in Pot A, all the other clubs in that grouping - including RBNY - have a slightly elevated chance (1-in-7 instead of 1-in-8) of being drawn against Chorillo.
Real Esteli: Just won its eighth consecutive Nicaraguan league title, which includes both Apertura and Clausura titles for this season. Very simply: the best team in Nicaragua.
Puerto Rico Bayamon FC: Won the 2013 Puerto Rican regular season, and runner-up in the Championship playoff. One of three qualifiers from the Caribbean Football Union Club Championship, which never played a final stage, and simply advanced its three group stage winners to CCL.
Alpha United: Winner of Guyana's 2012-13 league title, and one of three Caribbean representatives in CCL 2014-15.
Waterhouse: Runner-up in Jamaica's 2012-13 Premier League race, but won its group at the CFU Club Championship, and advanced accordingly.
Dragon or FAS: If Dragon beats Isidro Metapan in El Salvador's 2014 Clausura title match (5/25), then it will advance to CCL. If not, the place will go to the team with the best aggregate record across both of this year's Salvadoran regular seasons - which is FAS, who would be league champions of El Salvador if the country ran a single-table, single-season championship.
Note: If RBNY has a Salvadoran opponent in the groups, it will either be Isidro Metapan from Pot B, or whichever of these two teams emerges as El Salvador's second representative, but not both.
Belmopan Bandits: the champions of Belize, but keep an eye on this team. Historically, CONCACAF hasn't allowed a team from Belize to compete in CCL due to inadequate facilities. It isn't clear whether there is finally a CCL-worthy stadium in Belize, or CONCACAF has decided to let the team play in a neighboring country's stadium, or whether it is simply waiting to implement the usual solution: a last-minute expulsion of the team from Belize in favor of the third-best team from whichever Central American nation performed best in last year's CCL.
That would be Costa Rica in this instance, with Herediano most likely to take the spare slot as the best-performing team in Costa Rica's leagues that didn't win a league title.
CONCACAF rules (currently) make an exception for "wild card" teams dropped into the competition at the last minute. If Herediano makes it under these conditions, it can be drawn against another Costa Rican side in the group stage.
Best case scenario for RBNY
Pot B: Isidro Metapan
You're thinking Real Espana would be an easier ride? Maybe. But remember how Honduras has turned San Pedro Sula into a fortress, and turned that home-ground advantage into a place at this year's World Cup? Well, Real Espana is based in San Pedro Sula (it plays in a different stadium to the national team, but still...).
Pot C: Puerto Rico Bayamon FC
At the CFU Club Championship, Guyanese champs Alpha United beat the Jamaican and Trinidadian champions for their place in CCL. Waterhouse won all three of its games by a combined score of 10-1. The Puerto Ricans had home advantage in their group, and beat Cayman Island champs, Bodden Town, 5-0, and then drew 0-0 with the champions of Curacao and 1-1 with the fourth-best team in Guadeloupe (the higher placed sides from that country declined to enter).
Worst case scenario for RBNY
Pot B: Saprissa
Forget Toronto FC or Montreal Impact. Either could pose problems (TFC more than L'Impact, if current form holds), but Saprissa will offer a more hostile environment to visit. And Costa Rican teams are just as good as MLS sides as getting into the knockout rounds of CCL - but they have to do it without being protected from playing LigaMX teams in the groups.
Pot C: Herediano
The true nightmare scenario: Belmopan Bandits get shunted out of the draw, and Costa Rica's Herediano slots in as the replacement. RBNY is drawn against TWO Costa Rican teams, and is thus part of the only group in the tournament without a clear favorite.
All will be revealed on May 28. What's your take on the CCL group stage? Who would you like to see RBNY play? Let us know in the comments.