The New York Red Bulls will get started on CONCACAF Champions League on August 3. Here is a quick primer on the competition, and what RBNY needs to do to progress.
The CONCACAF Champions League is the showpiece club tournament of our region (that's North and Central America, and the Caribbean - if you were wondering). The winner represents CONCACAF at the Club World Cup, where it traditionally underwhelms.
CONCACAF has been running a regional club competition since 1962. It has historically been dominated by Mexican clubs, but since the format was changed to a "Champions League", the competition has been exclusively won by teams from Liga MX.
Currently, Mexican clubs are enjoying an 11-tournament winning streak, which includes every edition of the "Champions League" (instituted for the 2008-09 season).
Almost as traditional as a Mexican club winning the competition is a chorus of complaints about the tournament's perceived bias against American teams. The alleged expression of this bias ranges from the paranoid and delusional ("CONCACAF'd" say those who apparently never before saw a game of soccer in which a referee made a decision that went against their team) to the not-without-merit (the latter rounds of the tournament start when MLS teams are in pre-season: a valid complaint, though it should be tempered by the fact that many teams from other leagues are barely out of their own pre-seasons when the group stages kick off).
As a point of fact, the CCL is tilted in favor of MLS and Liga MX teams. The Mexican and American clubs are considered heavyweights (from a marketing perspective) in the competition, and kept separated during the group stage. This innovation is combined with three-team groups to create a tournament structure that offers a high probability of delivering four MLS and four Liga MX clubs to the quarterfinals. There are eight groups, and each gets one Mexican or American team. Eight group winners advance to the knock-out rounds.
Despite the advantage of being kept apart from each other, both American and Mexican teams have a habit of slipping up in the group stages of the tournament. Lulled into a false sense of security by being drawn into groups against clubs from smaller leagues around the region, MLS and LigaMX teams will often elect to field reserves in the early stages of CCL. And those reserves sometimes don't have what it takes to get by allegedly lesser opponents. (Or, if you take the view only chicanery could eliminate these makeweight sides of cast-offs and wannabes, they are "CONCACAF'd".)
Costa Rica's top teams are generally capable of holding their own against any other team in the region, especially on home ground. Honduran, Guatemalan and Panamanian clubs have also been reliable sources of upsets in recent years. And Canada's representative in the competition is usually a team from MLS with the resources to challenge the top sides in the competition.
The current three-team group model has only been around since the 2012-13 edition of this tournament. In the 2014-15 edition, there appeared to be a big step toward greater regional parity (and therefore a more competitive tournament): only two Liga MX and two MLS teams advanced to the quarterfinals. And one of those MLS teams was the Canadian contender - Montreal Impact. L'Impact lost to Club America in the final.
Last season's tournament saw the pendulum swing away from regional parity. All four American teams and all four Mexican teams advanced to the quarterfinals. And the knock-out rounds saw the mixed blessing of four USA-vs-Mexico match-ups. The Mexican teams swept the board, collectively advanced to the semifinals, and Club America won again.
Still, the competition's organizers got their first taste of what they had presumably been hoping for since they last tweaked the format of the tournament: CONCACAF's dominant national team rivalry - USA vs Mexico - played out at the regional club level.
Those who hope for a deeper, more competitive, more meaningful CCL might well hope we don't see another repeat of last year's MLS-vs-LigaMX quarterfinals, but the basic intention of the current tournament's structure is to maximize the chance of getting the representatives from the region's richest leagues into the knock-out rounds.
Who's in it this year
History suggests the ultimate winner will be one of the four Mexican clubs, and each has its own pedigree in this tournament.
CCL does not let the reigning champion qualify automatically for the next year's tournament, so Club America (winner of the past two editions of this competition) isn't here this year. But last year's runners-up, Tigres, is back.
Pachuca has won four regional titles: the first in 2002, and the most recent being the 2009-10 CCL. UNAM Pumaswon three regional tournaments in the 1980s; more recently, they have been to CCL semifinals twice.
But the favorite until proven otherwise should be Monterrey - making its first appearance since winning three consecutive CCL titles (2010-11, 2011-12, and 2012-13). This isn't the same Monterrey team that won those trophies, but some respect for past achievements is due.
From the American side of MLS, in addition to RBNY, the tournament welcomes FC Dallas, Sporting Kansas City, and Portland Timbers. All four teams have been in CCL before, but only KC has progressed beyond the group stage in the past. The Canadian representative is Vancouver Whitecaps, also hoping to do better than last year's group stage exit.
Those nine teams are the favorites to make the quarterfinals. Only one of Vancouver and Sporting KC will get through, since they are in the same group. Alongside the 'Caps and KC in Group C is Trinidad's Central FC, currently bolstered by future Atlanta United player Kenwyne Jones. The Trinidad and Tobago international is a veteran of England's Premier League, a more reliable scorer in England's Championship, and could make Central a dangerous opponent for the MLS clubs - if the team's preseason preparations have been adequate for the CCL task ahead.
What the Red Bulls need to do
First and foremost, RBNY's task is to win its group. Acting as though CCL group stage games are an unreasonable imposition on the schedule is a popular posture for MLS teams, but the Red Bulls are in this competition and ought to be targeting a knock-out round berth at the very least.
To get there, RBNY will need to win its three-team group over the course of four games. The club has the relative good fortune of having ducked the most troubling opponents the draw might have given it: no pesky Canadian MLS team; no Costa Rican clubs; not even a Honduran or Panamanian team to worry about.
That is not to say Guatemala's Antigua and El Salvador's Alianza will be pushovers, but they are not - on paper - the most imposing competition RBNY might have faced at this stage of this tournament.
It is a simple enough formula to win a three-team group in which you play each opponent home and away: win your home games and tie on the road. That'll give you eight points from the four matches, and each of your opponents will only have one point from the two games they played against you: either could take six points from their other two games and still not get to eight points.
RBNY should be shooting for something a little more ambitious than merely winning the group. The Red Bulls will hopefully have designs on a high seed for the knock-out rounds. The eight group winners are ranked based on group stage results. The resulting seeding of the quarterfinalists dictates which team plays the second leg of each knock-out round series (teams play each other home and away with the aggregate winner advancing to the next round) at home. This "home advantage" doesn't guarantee an easy run in the knock-out rounds, but it can help. Not least because MLS teams in the knock-out rounds will be just starting their new 2017 season, so playing away from home first - and perhaps being able to get away with playing a little more conservatively - can be advantageous for a squad looking to build up fitness and form.
The Red Bulls can only control the games they play, but maximum points - and maximum goals - should be the simple objective of every game, in order to maximize the chance of a higher seeding for the quarterfinals.
That said, Antigua and Alianza may not be the strongest teams in the tournament, but they should be some distance from being the weakest, so RBNY will do very well just to get eight points out of the group and move on. Running up the score home and away en route to maximum points and the top seed in the quarterfinals would be an unexpected achievement for the Red Bulls in this group. But it should be the objective, nonetheless. Modest ambitions were arguably the cause of RBNY's group stage exit from CCL in the 2014-15 competition.
Seeding calculations won't come into play until much later in the group stage. RBNY's more immediate job is to get maximum points from its first game: against Antigua, at Red Bull Arena, on August 3. A team that can't win its home games in CCL is unlikely to feature in the quarterfinals anyway.