It is CONCACAF Champions League final time. With the last MLS contenders departed in the semifinals, the 2016-17 tournament has narrowed to two contenders, both from Mexico's top flight, Liga MX: Pachuca and Tigres UANL.
Pachuca has the more impressive pedigree in CONCACAF's showpiece club competition: it is a four-time winner of the tournament. CONCACAF has been running some sort of regional competition for clubs under its oversight since 1962, so it counts for something that all four of Los Tuzos' titles were won in this century. But it has been seven years since Los Tuzos were last Concachampions. That 2009-10 title was Pachuca's first and only under the current Champions League format; the 2002, 2007, and 2008 trophies were CONCACAF Champions Cups.
Not that format matters all that much. Pachuca has never lost a CONCACAF club championship final, regardless of what the tournament was named at the time: it has qualified for four and won each time. Conversely, Tigres UANL has only been to one regional final, and that was lost. But it was also last year's tournament. UANL was the 2015-16 CCL runner-up, and is back in the final this year, (still) looking to win its first CONCACAF club championship.
So Pachuca has the better overall record in the competition, Tigres has enjoyed more recent success. Either way, since Mexican super-club America won the last two editions of CCL, CONCACAF will have a new club champion at the end of this series.
The eight teams entered into the knockout rounds were seeded, and the two finalists are ranked based on those seedings:
Tigres UANL (5) vs Pachuca (3)
The teams play each other home and away with the winner decided by aggregate score.
The higher-seeded team has home field advantage for the series, hosting the second leg. Away goals are the tie-breaker if aggregate scores are level at the end of 90 minutes of the second leg. If the teams are tied on aggregate goals and away goals after two legs, there will be extra time. Away goals no longer apply as a tiebreaker in extra time. If scores are still tied after extra time, there will be a penalty shoot-out.
2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League final: Tigres UANL (5) vs Pachuca (3)
1st Leg: April 18 - kick-off: 10:00 pm, Eastern
2nd Leg: April 26 - kick-off: 10:00 pm, Eastern
How they got here:
To go back to the very beginning, Tigres qualified for the 2016-17 CCL by winning the 2015 Liga MX Apertura, back in December, 2015. UANL beat UNAM Pumas in the Apertura playoff final, as the lower seed. Tigres dropped points in the CCL group stage, losing to Herediano in Costa Rica. Three wins from four games, however, was ample to get the team into the knockout rounds.
As the fifth seed, Tigres was matched up against the team it beat in the 2015 Apertura final: UNAM Pumas. Once again, Pumas had the higher seeding; once again, Tigres prevailed. In the semifinals, UANL faced Vancouver Whitecaps - technically the top seed in the tournament, but very much second-favorite against Tigres. A 2-0 win at home in the first leg sent UANL to Vancouver in a strong position, but the Caps scored early in the second leg to keep the game interesting until midway through the second half - when Andre-Pierre Gignac scored his first goal of the tournament and all but ended the contest. A second Tigres goal followed and the Liga MX heavyweight was through to the final.
Pachuca is in this competition because it won the 2016 Liga MX Clausura almost a year ago, in May 2016. Los Tuzos beat Monterrey in the playoff final. In the CCL group stage, Los Tuzos looked to be cruising to the top seed for the knockout rounds, but tripped up on the final match-day in Honduras against Olimpia. A 4-4 draw saw Pachuca through, but as third seed rather than first.
The slip made little difference, in the sense that Pachuca has been the higher seed for every stage of the knockout rounds. In the quarterfinals, against sixth-seeded Saprissa, Los Tuzos carried a 0-0 draw out of Costa Rica and won the home leg, 4-0. In the semifinals, seventh-seeded FC Dallas was the opponent, and Pachuca was once again the higher-ranked team. FCD won the first leg, 2-1. In Pachuca, home advantage proved telling. Though Los Tuzos established a two-goal lead by the 80th minute, FCD found a goal in the 86th, leveling the series at 3-3 with both teams having scored on the road - extra-time beckoned. But Hirving Lozano scored in injury time to settle the series, sending Pachuca to the final as the 4-3 aggregate winner of the semifinal.
Where they are now:
Tigres secured a place in the next edition of CCL by winning the 2016 Liga MX Apertura, beating America - the team that had denied it the 2015-16 CCL title earlier in the year - in the final. More recently, UANL got off to a slow start in the Liga MX Clausura, widely interpreted as a sign CCL was the higher priority. Whatever the reason for the slump, it has gradually dissipated since Tigres started their CCL knockout rounds campaign in earnest.
Still (it was the same story before the CCL semis) one point outside the top eight in the Liga MX table - the group that will make the Clausura playoffs - UANL is unbeaten in its last four games in all competitions, including the second leg of the CCL semifinal against Vancouver. More pertinently, since it will host the first leg of the CCL final, the team has won its last two home games by a combined score of 7-0. Star striker Andre-Pierre Gignac has scored four goals in his last four games(starting with that last match against the Caps). Highly-rated winger Jurgen Damm is fit again, as demonstrated by a two-goal cameo against Pumas in Tigres' last league outing. If UANL's plan was to hit peak form in time for the CCL final and the Clausura run-in, it seems to be working out very well.
While Tigres is on the rise, Pachuca is stumbling. The win over FC Dallas in the second leg of the semifinals of this competition is the only game Los Tuzos have won in their last seven. And they haven't scored in their last five Liga MX outings. Their last three home games - which includes the last two matches they've played - were 0-0 draws.
Still clinging to eighth place in the Liga MX table, Pachuca looks to be flirting with a miserable spring that could see the team miss out on the CCL title and the Clausura playoffs. Or maybe it has simply been focusing its energy on the forthcoming series with Tigres.
Players to watch:
The Tigres squad is deep and star-studded - it is no accident this team has won two of the last three Liga MX titles and is appearing in its second consecutive CCL final. Pachuca's squad is not too shabby either.
If you're looking for American talent to root for, take your pick: former LA Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez is a Pachuca man now; Jose Francisco Torres (a Pachuca product) plays for UANL - both were on the USMNT roster that won the 2013 Gold Cup.
Gignac is Tigres' star man and primary goal threat. Argentine journeyman Franco Jara has settled in well at Pachuca and scored 30 goals (and counting) in the last two seasons in Liga MX.
But this CCL final sets up nicely as the potential CONCACAF swansong of two Mexican players who might be destined for the bigger stage of European club competition.
Tigres' 24-year-old winger Jurgen Damm was expected to be playing at a top club in Europe by now, and the next transfer window will surely bring another wave of the now customary links to teams across the Atlantic - though UANL is not impoverished and could surely resist the vast majority of offers if desired.
Damm made his name in Liga MX with Pachuca, but has won titles with Tigres. Hirving "Chucky" Lozano may feel he has to follow a similar path, and has recently stated he is ready for a move to Europe. If Pachuca is going to start scoring again in time to make an impact on this CCL final series, Lozano will likely have something to with it. He is the tournament's top-scorer, and was the last Pachuca player to find the net - he scored the team's last two goals against FC Dalllas in the CCL semifinals.
Both players could be in Europe by the end of the summer. Only one can head into next season as a CCL winner.