Massive CCL Challenge Awaits Timbers in AugustJune draw will determine group, opponents for Portland
by Ray Marcham | Friday, December 27, 2013
As the Club World Cup was taking place in Morocco this month, there were probably a few fans of the Portland Timbers who probably paid a little more attention than usual.
After all, they could now have the impossible dream of seeing their club play there someday.
Thanks to a well-publicized allocation change approved on Dec. 13, the Timbers now have the 4th and final spot allocated to the United States and Major League Soccer in the CONCACAF Champions League. The Timbers joined the Red Bulls, Sporting Kansas City (the MLS Cup champs) and DC United (US Open Cup winners) in the CCL for the 2014-15 season.
They have that spot as the regular season winner of the conference that doesn’t include the Supporters’ Shield winner, the New York Red Bulls. The spot was taken away from the losing club in the MLS Cup Final, which this season was Real Salt Lake.
While the US Soccer Federation and MLS both said that the change was proposed earlier in 2013 and that clubs knew all season that the change was proposed, it still was a surprise when it came up in November. The first rumors had the USOC winner losing the spot, which upset a number of DC United fans (and many who are fans of the USOC). But when that was clarified to the format that was approved, the main reaction from Timbers fans was a bit of surprise. That changed to joy when the change was approved and Portland was officially in the continental competition.
The timeframe has the draw for the CCL in June, with the first group matches happening in August. So far, 11 clubs have qualified for the 2014-15 Champions League. They include the Apertura (1st half) champions from Mexico (León), Guatemala (Comunicacions), Honduras (Real España), El Salvador (Isidro Metapán), Costa Rica (Alajuelense) and Panama (Tauro), along with the loser of the Apertura final in Mexico (Club América) and the 4 clubs from MLS.
That means there are still 13 spots yet to be decided. Those include the top 3 clubs in the Caribbean Club Championship; the Canadian champion (that doesn’t affect the MLS/US allocation); 2nd half champions in Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and El Salvador; the overall season champions in Nicaragua and Belize; and the Clausura runner-up in Mexico. All 24 spots will be claimed by time the CCL draw takes place in June.
How will the league work? There are 8 groups of 3 clubs, all of which start play in August. The top club in each group moves on to the knockout stages, beginning in March of 2015. Portland can’t be drawn into a group with any other American club in the group stage.
There are also 3 pots with 8 clubs in each: A, B and C. Since the Timbers are in Pot B (the second tier of CCL-qualified clubs), they can’t be drawn with the Canadian champions, who are also in Pot B. That means there could be 1-2 trips to Central America and/or a possible trip to Mexico if the Timbers get drawn against either of the Mexican champs (León or the Clausura winner). Since all 3 Caribbean clubs go into Pot C, there could also be a chance that the Timbers could head there for a group stage match.
The lack of success of MLS clubs in the Champions League is well-documented. Since the current format started in 2008-09, only once has an American club even reached the final (RSL in 2011). Mexican clubs have won all 5 CCL titles, including the last 3 by Monterrey. Including the CCL’s predecessor, the Champions Cup, Mexican clubs have won the last 8 CONCACAF club titles. The only 2 times MLS clubs won the Champions Cup was 1998 (DC United) and 2000 (LA Galaxy).
In the 2013-14 Champions League, 3 MLS clubs made it to the knockout stage, but all face Mexican sides in the quarterfinals. The Galaxy will play Club Tijuana in a SoCal/Baja derby, San Jose faces Toluca and Sporting Kansas City takes on Cruz Azul. So the likelihood of another MLS club making the CCL final is not good. However, both LA and Seattle made the semis in 2013, so anything can happen.
The other CCL quarterfinal matchup is Alajuelease of Costa Rica against Panama’s Árabe Unido. The winner of the Champions League moves on to the FIFA Club World Cup next December in Morocco. Bayern Munich just won the 2013 CWC, beating Raja Casablanca in the final.
That means the odds of success for the Timbers in the CCL is very much against them. Add on the fact that the CCL matches will be taking place in the 2nd half of the MLS season, in the midst of another run toward the playoffs, and the worry of fixture congestion comes into play. That includes 2 long international road trips and 2 home CCL matches. If there’s another deep run in the US Open Cup, there are more matches to worry about. It will be a major test of the depth and stamina of the Timbers, if nothing else.
The task facing Portland in the CONCACAF Champions League is very tough. The schedule will be brutal. But they will experience new atmospheres, new surroundings and will face different styles. And if they can win a group, that sets the stage for possibly bigger rewards in the spring of 2015.
But at least the Timbers are in the pot. They, and the Timbers Army, can dream the impossible dream. Which may not be all that impossible.
NEXT UP: February 1 – Portland Timbers vs. Sporting Kansas City, North Stadium, Kino Sports Complex, Tucson, Ariz. 9 p.m. EST, No TV.