Seattle Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer has been calling this tournament championship a “big freaking deal.” The fans seem to agree, with Wednesday night’s Concacaf Champions League final against Mexican club Pumas UNAM at Lumen Field nearing a 69,000-plus sellout. For those who aren’t soccer diehards, it’s a bit confusing. Is this tournament part of MLS? Something else entirely? Let’s break it down.
IS THIS THE MLS CUP?
No, MLS Cup is the postseason tournament that crowns the champion of Major League Soccer. Think of a traditional playoff format, like the NFL playoffs. The tournament ends with MLS Cup, the equivalent of the Super Bowl.
OK, SO WHAT IS CONCACAF?
CONCACAF stands for the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football. It’s essentially the governing body of one of FIFA’s geographic regions.
ISN’T THAT AN INTERNATIONAL THING?
CONCACAF also oversees World Cup qualifying events for the region’s national teams, like the United States, Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica and others. However, this particular tournament only includes club teams — no national teams.
OK, SO HOW DOES QUALIFYING WORK?
It’s needlessly complicated, but the short answer is that the best teams from MLS, Liga MX (Mexico’s domestic soccer league) and other leagues in North and Central America receive bids to the tournament. The current format is a 16-team knockout round format, made up of nine teams from North America (four from the United States, four from Mexico and one from Canada), one team from the Caribbean and the final six from the CONCACAF league, which is the region’s second division.
YOU LOST ME. PLEASE EXPLAIN?
Essentially, the tournament seeks to crown the best club team in North and Central America. It mirrors the most popular and famous champion league in the world, the UEFA Champions League, which pits European powers against each other. Teams like England’s Liverpool, Germany’s Bayern Munich, Spain’s Real Madrid, France’s Paris Saint-Germain and Italy’s Juventus all face off against each other. It’s a fun way for fans to see how their country’s club teams fare against the best of other countries (and there’s plenty of money to be made, too). Major League Soccer and Liga MX (Mexico) are the two major players in the CONCACAF region, so it’s a chance for MLS fans to see how their teams square up against the biggest Mexican clubs, and vice versa.
OK, SO WHY IS THIS A BIG DEAL FOR THE SOUNDERS?
No MLS team has ever won this tournament. Liga MX has dominated the tournament, winning every title since 2008. The Sounders are just the fifth MLS team to ever reach the final. Seattle could make history Wednesday.
WAIT, I HEARD THERE WAS ALREADY A GAME A WEEK AGO IN MEXICO CITY?
Yes, this championship is a two-leg series, decided by aggregate (total combined score of the two legs). The Sounders played Pumas to a 2-2 draw last week in Mexico, meaning the match in Seattle is essentially a clean slate. Neither team comes in with a goal advantage in the aggregate scoring. The winner of Wednesday’s game will win the championship.
MLS CUP AND CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE? ANYTHING ELSE?
Yes, actually. There’s the Supporter’s Shield, which is awarded to the MLS team on top of the standings at the end of the season. There’s also the U.S. Open Cup, a tournament open to various levels of soccer teams in the United States. Seattle has won two MLS Cups, multiple U.S. Open Cups and one Supporter’s Shield. The CONCACAF Champions League trophy is the only one missing in the trophy case.
PREVIEW OF THE GAME
Seattle is dialed in. The general consensus seems to be that MLS Cup is the most desirable trophy for MLS clubs at this point. That’s not to downplay the significance of Wednesday’s game, though.
“They’re all important,” forward and homegrown talent Jordan Morris said after training at the Starfire Sports complex in Tukwila on Monday morning. “We value all of them. This one is definitely towards the top because no MLS team has won this one before. We want to be the team that makes history. Obviously, we’ve been fortunate enough with winning a couple MLS Cups, the team has a Supporter’s Shield, some Open Cups. This is the one that we don’t have, so we really want this one.”
Schmetzer, true to coaching form, said the CONCACAF competition is the most important one, because it’s the next one.
“This one is the most important because it’s Wednesday,” he said. “Then once Wednesday is over, we’ll focus on Dallas, which is Supporter’s Shield. Then we’ll focus on the Open Cup the following Wednesday. In the grand scale of things, it’s the United States, MLS Cup is No. 1. Now, do I absolutely agree with that? I don’t know. This is a pretty big freaking deal. They’re all interesting tournaments in their own right, with different histories and all that. We like to just try to win them all.”
A win would represent a shift in the power balance of club soccer in North America. Since its inception, MLS has been playing catch-up to Liga MX, a more established league with more history, rivalries, etc. While one win in the series wouldn’t necessarily put the U.S. above Mexico, it would signal the gap between the country’s domestic leagues has narrowed considerably.
“It’s growing, the league is getting much better,” Morris said. “The quality is continuously improving. … There’s an excitement around the sport and in this country and the talent level is going up massively, as well. To be that first team to win and represent MLS in that way would be incredibly special. I think it just shows the gap has been closed between the U.S. and Mexico.”
Morris and some of the players on this year’s roster are used to playing in big games at Lumen Field, winning the 2019 MLS Cup against Toronto in front of a sellout crowd. Wednesday’s game will have similar stakes and a similar packed house.
“Similar emotions knowing the massive crowd that we have awaiting, the chance to play for a trophy in our home stadium is an opportunity that obviously doesn’t come around that often,” Morris said. “So it’s incredibly special and we’re just really excited. Going through it before, we know the emotion that’s going to come with the game and how to handle that. Just incredibly excited.”