There are sixteen teams in this year’s CONCACAF Champions League, but all are not of equal concern to the New York Red Bulls. Part 1 of our guide to CCL for RBNY fans looks at the half of the draw that doesn’t involve the Red Bulls. Only one team from this group of eight sides could conceivably play RBNY in this year’s CCL - and that would have to be in the final.
So these are the games RBNY fans can watch without thinking too hard about whether results have any implications for their team.
CONCACAF has been running an annual regional club tournament since 1962, and has been calling its showpiece club competition Champions League since 2008. The format of the tournament we currently call CCL is often tweaked, and CONCACAF did some tweaking last year. What had been a competition that straddled two calendar years - a group stage in the summer followed by late-winter/early-spring knockout rounds - is now condensed into a two-month tournament.
This means what had constituted the “league” part of CONCACAF Champions League - the group stages - is now gone. The competition is now pretty much a Cup - resembling the end-of-season playoffs that many leagues around the region use to determine their champions. There are 16 teams in CCL now (previously, there had been 24), and they enter a round-of-16 knockout-phase that sees eight pairings contest home-and-away series to decide which teams advance to the next round.
For each team, basic path to the final has already been determined, in the sense that the draw established which pairs of winners from a preceding round will play each other in the next round - all the way to the final. At the semifinal stage, “home advantage” - assumed to be the privilege of hosting the second leg - will be decided by an evaluation of which team has performed better in the preceding round (and CONCACAF has provided a handy table for those seeking to track the progress of that assessment as the tournament unfolds). The team that hosts the final will be decided by the same method.
Of course, CCL hasn’t changed that much: it has long been decided by a knockout-phase structured more or less this way. All that has changed is there is no longer a group stage, and some of the details regarding who qualifies for the 16 teams entering the competition and how they are seeded once the tournament begins.
The basic challenge remains much the same: beat the team (or win on away goals or penalties) in front of you over two legs, and progress to the next round; rinse and repeat all the way to the final, and you will be CONCACAF’s champion club.
Teams play 90 minutes in each leg without extra time. The winner on aggregate score over two legs progresses. If the scores are tied, the team with the most away goals scored progresses. If that is also tied, teams will have a penalty shoot-out. Extra-time is not currently part of the tournament’s regulations.
Who’s in it
The 16 teams qualified for CCL 2018 are drawn from the various member federations of CONCACAF.
The heavyweight federations - Mexico and the USA - each contribute four teams, accounting for 50% of the field between them.
The four Mexican qualifiers are Tigres UANL, Chivas Guadalajara, Club America, and Club Tijuana.
There is one qualifier from Canada: Toronto FC. One from Panama: Tauro FC. One from El Salvador: Santa Tecla. And one representing the various Caribbean leagues: Cibao (from the Dominican Republic), winner of the 2017 Caribbean Club Championship.
Costa Rica has one automatic qualifier - Saprissa - and one that has taken what should be the place of a Guatemalan club in the competition. Herediano was awarded a place in CCL as CONCACAF shuffled its qualifying arrangements to account for the fact the Guatemalan Federation has fallen foul of FIFA’s regulations against political interference.
Honduras also has two teams in CCL this year. Motagua is the automatic qualifier, and Olimpia won the 2017 CONCACAF League - the qualifying tournament that has replaced the CCL group stage.
The Round of 16
All 16 teams were seeded and drawn into eight initial match-ups on December 18. That draw produced the pairings that will contest the round of 16. The first legs will be played from February 20 to 22; the second legs are set for February 27 to March 1. Winners advance to the quarterfinals.
This preview looks at the eight teams in the top half of the draw, unlikely to trouble RBNY in this tournament. If the Red Bulls make the final of CCL, they’ll play one of these eight teams - but that’s the only way any of these sides run into RBNY this year.
Herediano vs Tigres UANL
1st leg - @ Herediano - 8:00 pm, Eastern; Tuesday, February 20, 2018
2nd leg - @ Tigres - 8:00 pm, Eastern; Tuesday, February 27, 2018
Herediano is technically in this tournament as the second-best Costa Rican team, because CONCACAF determined the second-best Costa Rican team would fill the slot vacated by Guatemala’s FIFA suspension.
But the club has a claim to being the best team in Costa Rica right now. It won the 2017 Verano title in Costa Rica’s top-flight last May - beating fellow CCL qualifier, Saprissa, in the final. It was undefeated in the 2017 Apertura regular season, and runner-up in the playoff final (losing 1-0 on aggregate to Perez Zeledon). And 12 games into the second half of the Costa Rican 2017-18 season, Herediano is top of the regular-season table again.
Unbeaten in its last nine league games, with a defense that has conceded just seven goals in the 12 matches of the ongoing Clausura campaign, Herediano has every right to be confident heading into CCL.
Unfortunately for Herediano, its opening-round opponent is arguably the best in Mexico - and the region - at the moment. Tigres qualified for 2018 CCL by winning the Liga MX 2016 Apertura title. The club was also the runner-up in the 2017 Clausura, and is the reigning Liga MX champion - having won the 2017 Apertura tournament. And UANL was the runner-up in the last two editions of CCL. (And runner-up in the 2015 Copa Libertadores.)
Tigres currently lie 10th after eight games in the 2018 Clausura in Liga MX - outside the playoff places. But the team’s focus is winning championships, and that means winning knockout tournaments: it has proven itself quite good at winning knockout tournaments in recent years, as demonstrated by its repeated qualification for CCL thanks to a string of titles in Liga MX.
UANL lacks the CONCACAF title to crown its current golden era, but until it stops winning championships in Mexico, it’ll keep getting chances to put that right.
Tigres should be regarded as favorites to win this match-up, because they walk into most games they play as favorites to win. Also, UANL and Herediano were in the same group of the 2016-17 edition of CCL, and Tigres won those games by a combined score of 6-1.
The winner of this match-up will advance to play the winner of the Colorado-Toronto series in the quarterfinals.
Players to watch
Herediano - Leonel Moreira
Leonel Moreira is the usual starting ‘keeper for Herediano, and he has his work cut out for him against Tigres’ all-star squad.
Tigres - Enner Valencia
Head coach Ricardo Ferretti has not brought star-striker Andre-Pierre Gignac on Tigres’ trip to Costa Rica for the first leg against Herediano. But there is still plenty of firepower in the squad. Ecuador’s Enner Valencia had an underwhelming stint in England after winning attention with a free-scoring season with Pachuca. He’s back in Liga MX now, and perhaps due a goal since he hasn’t scored since the beginning of January.
Colorado Rapids vs Toronto FC
1st leg - @ Colorado: 10:00 pm, Eastern; Tuesday, February 20, 2018
2nd leg - @ Toronto: 8:00 pm, Eastern; Tuesday, February 27, 2018
Changing the format of CCL made qualification for this edition a little more complicated than usual. Some teams, like Colorado, are in this tournament because they were quite good quite a long time ago: the Rapids were the second-best team in the 2016 MLS regular-season, and because Dallas won the Supporters’ Shield (regular season title) and US Open Cup that year - taking two of MLS four qualifying spots for CCL 2018 - Colorado qualified as the next-best team in MLS 2016.
But the Rapids were terrible in 2017, missed the playoffs by some distance, and are presently rebuilding their squad under new head coach Anthony Hudson. The team that limped out of 2017 wouldn’t be favored to beat many sides in CCL, and the Rapids have the misfortune of having drawn a first-round opponent that is almost their opposite.
Toronto is in CCL as Canada’s representative, so its qualification route was via the Canadian Championship - which it won in 2016 and 2017, dispensing with any need for a playoff to determine which Canadian champion would play in CCL. Last year, as it happens, TFC was also comfortably the best team in MLS, running away with the Shield and outlasting its opponents in the playoffs.
As the reigning MLS champion, with most of the squad that won that title intact, TFC should be regarded as the favorite against any other team from its league - and it is certainly thought to be a better bet to advance to the next round than Colorado.
Of course, no MLS team has played a competitive game yet this year. Preseason form is a great leveler, as is the fact that it is quite cold in both Colorado and Toronto at this time of year. Both squads should be acclimatized to the weather, but the challenge of finding form and fitness on day one of a new season isn’t always met by even the best teams in MLS - last year, TFC won just one of its first six league games.
And the Rapids’ rebuilding project makes them something of a wild card. They haven’t really acquired much in the off-season to suggest they’ll be among the best in MLS in 2018, but all they need to be right now is better than TFC this week.
The winner of this series meets the winner of the Herediano-Tigres series in the quarterfinals. CONCACAF will surely be rooting for a Tigres-Toronto pairing in the next round, and that is what the form book suggests also.
Players to watch
Colorado - Tim Howard
Metrostars legend Howard came home to America after more than a decade as a starting ‘keeper in England’s Premier League. He doesn’t have a lot left to prove at this stage in his career, but if he’s up for the challenge, the Rapids would surely like him to backstop them to a turnaround in form in 2018.
Toronto - Jozy Altidore
The knock on Altidore is that he doesn’t deliver at the highest level or in the biggest games. He would likely point to his goals for the winning teams in the finals of the 2013 KNVB Cup and 2017 MLS Cup and suggest the accusation be retracted. And if he helps Toronto to success in CCL, he’ll have an even stronger argument against his critics. He’s also, of course, a former RBNY player.
Tauro vs Dallas
1st leg - @ Tauro: 8:00 pm, Eastern; Wednesday, February 21, 2018
2nd leg - @ Dallas: 8:00 pm, Eastern; Wednesday, February 28, 2018
Panama’s lone representative in CCL 2018, Tauro, is here because it had the best overall record in the Panamanian top-flight in the 2016-17 season. It also won the 2017 Clausura tournament that season, and was top of the table in the 2017 Apertura, though its playoff campaign was cut short by eventual champion Chorrillo.
Off to a modest start so far in the 2018 Clausura, Tauro has still only lost once in the league so far this year, and the team warmed up for its opening CCL match with a 2-1 home win over defending champion Chorrillo.
None of that is expected to sufficient to see Tauro past FC Dallas, but Panamanian clubs are well capable of defying expectations in CCL. In last year’s tournament, Arabe Unido dumped Monterrey out of the group stage, for example.
That precedent is perhaps Tauro’s greatest reason for optimism in this round. That and the fact that FCD - much admired in MLS since Oscar Pareja took over as head coach in 2014 - suffered a dramatic collapse in form in the second half of MLS 2017. Having lost just three of its first 19 games of the regular season last year, Dallas won just two out of 15 in the latter half of the campaign, and missed the playoffs.
So FCD enters CCL with something of a point to prove. It is in this competition because in 2016 it won the Supporters’ Shield and US Open Cup and was regarded as perhaps not just the best in MLS that year, but likely to be among the best for years to come. A year later, the team is dusting itself off and seeking to regain its reputation for being one of the teams to beat in MLS, having spent the back end of 2017 being a team that was too often beaten.
The winner of this series will play the winner of the America-Saprissa series in the quarterfinals - with, most likely, Tigres or Toronto waiting for the winner of that match-up in the semifinals. It’s a tough road ahead for either of these teams to make an impact on this tournament, but one of them will be a quarterfinalist and each might reasonably view the other as a vulnerable opponent.
FCD was a semifinalist in last year’s CCL, losing to Pachuca - the 2017 CCL winner - by the odd goal in seven on aggregate. Tauro meanwhile remembers the last time it played FCD in CCL, in the 2011-12 edition - when the Panamanian club walloped Dallas, 5-3, at home. The team best able to recapture past glories will prevail.
Players to watch
Tauro - Jose Tamburelli
The Argentine forward is a recent addition to Tauro’s squad. He scored on his debut for the team at the end of January, and hasn’t slowed down yet: three goals in five games is a very healthy return.
FC Dallas - Mauro Diaz
When he’s fit, Diaz is one of MLS’ elite playmakers. And it feels as though FCD’s form is often closely tied to that of its creative dynamo.
Saprissa vs America
1st leg - @ Saprissa: 8:00 pm, Eastern; Wednesday, February 21, 2018
2nd leg - @ America: 10:00 pm, Eastern; Wednesday, February 28, 2018
Perhaps the highest-profile match-up in this round. While Herediano and Tigres have very good claims to being the top teams at CCL from their respective nations, Saprissa and America carry the bigger reputations out of Costa Rica and Mexico.
Each team holds the record for the greatest number of top-flight titles in their country’s history. America shares that record in Mexico with Chivas Guadalajara, but it is the stand-alone winningest team in CCL history, with seven CONCACAF titles to its name.
Saprissa hasn’t won a title in Costa Rica since the 2016 Invierno, though it is in CCL as the team with the best overall record in Costa Rica’s top flight in the 2016-17 season. America hasn’t won a Liga MX championship since the 2014 Apertura, but it won the 2014-15 and 2015-16 CCL titles, and is back in the competition to see if it can win a third regional championship in four seasons.
In terms of current form, Saprissa is presently third in the Primera Division table in Costa Rica, and very much in the hunt for top spot. America is top of Liga MX after eight games of 2018 Clausura, and is yet to lose in 2018.
America is the favorite in this series, but Saprissa is the sort of club that will fancy itself to knock over a favorite.
The winner of this series will play the winner of the Tauro-FCD series in the quarterfinals.
Players to watch
Saprissa - David Ramirez
Saprissa’s roster is often mix of emerging stars on their way to bigger teams abroad, and returning stars whose adventures overseas are at an end. Ramirez is 24 and has already been on loan stints in France and Portugal. He’s back with Saprissa for now, and has been in eye-catching form in front of goal. In 2018, he’s already bagged six goals in 11 games.
America - Diego Lainez
Miguel Herrera has promised to rotate his squad for CCL, while also saying he’ll put out his strongest team. Red-hot Henry Martin (five goals in eight appearances for America) would be fun to see, but perhaps this series will provide a glimpse of teenager Diego Lainez.