One step down, another leg to go. Philadelphia Union are competing in their inaugural campaign in the CONCACAF Champions League, the biggest soccer tournament in North America. No MLS club has won the competition in its current format, and the Union are locked in a gigantic showdown in the opening round as they lock horns with Costa Rican club Deportivo Saprissa. Why is this tournament so important? Let’s break it down because taking this crown would be uncharted territory for a MLS club.
What is the CCL
The CCL is a 16-team single elimination competition featuring the very best teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean. Every year, nine teams from North America, including four from Mexico, four from the US, and one from Canada qualify for the tournament. Additionally, one team from the Caribbean and six teams from the CONCACAF league, which is predominantly Central American teams with a handful of Caribbean teams and one Canadian club, qualify for the tournament. The American teams that make it are the winners of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the MLS Cup, the Supporters’ Shield, and the other regular season conference champion. The Union punched their ticket to the 2021 CCL by finishing with the best record in MLS last year and capturing the Supporters’ Shield.
Historically MLS clubs have not fared well in CONCACAF competitions. Only D.C. United (1998) and LA Galaxy (2000) have won North American tournaments, and that was the old Champions Cup, a far different competition. Since the 2008 transition to the CCL, Mexican clubs have won every iteration of the competition. MLS clubs have finished as runners-up four times since 2011, including three in the last six seasons.
Why the CCL matters so much
Champions of the entire continent – that should tell you everything you need to know about why this tournament matters so much to players and coaches. In the same way European clubs consider the UEFA Champions League the pinnacle of club soccer, a CCL title is as big as it gets for a North American team.
The opportunity to compete in the CCL has significant implications beyond the prestige of showcasing the Union’s talent against the top clubs from North and Central America and the Caribbean. Last season’s winner, Tigres UANL, received a prize pool of $500,000, while runners up LAFC pocketed $300,000.
Continental champions? Check. Payday? Check. But there’s even more on the line. The winner of the CCL automatically advances to the quarterfinals of the FIFA Club World Cup, a short tournament pitting champion against champion. This would be where the Union could face off against European giants like Real Madrid and Juventus. Tigres fought their way to last season’s Club World Cup final only to be knocked off by Bayern Munich.
Oh and by the way: There’s more money at stake. Simply attending nets a CONCACAF club $2.5 million. Finishing fourth would net $3 million and an additional $1 million for every position above that, capping out at a cool $6 million for the champ.
Who is Saprissa
Heading into the tournament the Union face no small task having drawn Costa Rican powerhouse Deportivo Saprissa. No club outside of Mexico has had more success in these competitions than Saprissa, which captured titles in 1993, 1995, and 2005. That puts them fifth on the all-time list of winners, one title behind Liga MX side Monterrey. The Union will look to halt Saprissa’s effort to climb that ladder on Wednesday in the first leg match up as they look to advance to the second round of the tournament. The winner of the Union’s two-leg bout against Saprissa will face the winner of Atlanta United and Costa Rican side Alajuelense.
The second leg of the Union’s matchup with Saprissa takes place at Subaru Park in Philadelphia on April 14th and 8:00 p.m.
Sync your calendar to the Union schedule to make sure you don’t miss it!