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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Concacaf Champions Cup preview: Club America win? Miami woe?


Get ready for the 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup! Recently rebranded and formerly known as the Concacaf Champions League, North American soccer’s premier men’s club competition has returned with not only a new name, but also a new format. As opposed to 16 participants from 2023, there are now 27 teams that will be fighting for this year’s title in five knockout rounds.

Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
Futbol Americas on ESPN+: MLS, Liga MX, USMNT, El Tri

While 22 clubs will kick things off in Round 1, which starts this week, the remaining five teams (2023 MLS Cup champions Columbus Crew; 2022 Liga MX Apertura champions Pachuca; 2023 Leagues Cup champions Inter Miami; 2023 Central American Cup champions Alajuelense; and 2023 Caribbean Cup champions Robinhood) will await them in the round of 16, which begins in March.

Every matchup in the knockout stage will be a home-and-away series, aside from the single-leg final that will be hosted at a neutral venue on June 2.

With a trophy up for grabs — and also a spot in the 2024 FIFA Intercontinental Cup and 2025 Club World Cup — here’s what you need to know about the Concacaf Champions Cup.


Title favorites: Club America

Although you could make the argument that Inter Miami, Tigres, Monterrey and the Columbus Crew can also be in the mix, the important caveat to note is that all four are on the same side of the knockout bracket, while Club America have a more clear path on the other.

That’s not to say that the luck of the draw is the only reason why they’re favorites though. The current Liga MX champions displayed both the best attack and defense in the recent 2023 Apertura tournament and have bolstered their depth with the addition of Dutch winger Javairô Dilrosun on loan from Feyenoord.

It’s early days in the 2024 Clausura season, but manager Andre Jardine and his men have shown no signs of a championship hangover and are one of the immediate frontrunners.

Potential letdown: Inter Miami

It’s fair to say that expectations will be high when you have arguably the greatest player of all time in your roster. Anything outside of a trophy will be seen as a failure for the team that not only has global superstar Lionel Messi, but also his former Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Luis Suárez in their roster.

Although the group can get the job done, their path will be a difficult one as their side of the bracket features the likes of Tigres, Monterrey, the Columbus Crew and local rivals Orlando City SC. A handful of disappointing preseason results should be taken with a pinch of salt, but they also shouldn’t be ignored when you consider that Miami had an underwhelming end to 2023.

MVP favorite: Lionel Messi (Inter Miami)

Who else? Quick honorary mentions should be given to FC Cincinnati‘s Luciano Acosta, Monterrey’s Brandon Vázquez, the Columbus Crew’s Cucho Hernández, and Tigres’ André-Pierre Gignac, but the answer here is an exceptionally obvious one.

Messi can create something out of nothing, often wandering around the pitch before taking off with a mesmerizing run or brilliant pass that can change the script of any game. Miami can struggle without him but, if he stays fit, Messi is the most capable of single-handedly carrying his team to the Concacaf Champions Cup title.

Young player to watch: Marcelo Flores (Tigres)

With Tigres’ stacked roster needing to balance out their Liga MX schedule, attack-minded midfielder Flores should have a golden opportunity to play more minutes and perhaps claim a starting role in the Concacaf Champions Cup. Given more opportunities to shine, the 20-year-old Mexico international (who was signed from Arsenal‘s academy in September) could begin to live up to the hype that has surrounded him since his teenage years.

You should also keen an eye on Cavalier’s Jamaica international forward Shaniel Thomas and Columbus Crew midfielder Aidan Morris.

Storylines to follow: MLS revenge, Central American and Caribbean underdogs, Chicharito return to Chivas, and Messi-mania

The momentum of the MLS-Liga MX rivalry seemed to finally shift towards MLS’ favor when the Seattle Sounders won 2022’s Concacaf Champions League, becoming the first non-Mexican team to lift the title since 2005. Then, in 2023, Liga MX stole the championship back once again with León defeating LAFC.

Eager to show that 2022 wasn’t just a flash in the pan, MLS clubs and fans will be eager to see a potential redemption story through one of its 10 teams (the most of any league) in this year’s competition. If accomplished, it would be an additional warning sign that Liga MX’s dominant grasp in the Concacaf region is gradually starting to weaken.

The tournament is also much more than just Liga MX or MLS, of course. In four of the previous five editions, at least one team from outside those two leagues have at least qualified for the quarterfinal stage. This year, on Club America’s side of the bracket, six of the 13 teams are from Central America or the Caribbean (Suriname’s Robinhood are technically from South America.) Keep an eye on Alajuelense, who went undefeated en route to the Central American Cup title in December, and also Costa Rican champions Saprissa.

When it comes to Liga MX teams, plenty of eyes will be following the impact of high-profile striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez after his return to boyhood club Chivas. The 35-year-old was the most prominent Liga MX addition in the winter transfer window, although doubts remain about his fitness as he is still recovering from an injury.

Last, but definitely not least, we also have “Messi-mania” to look forward to. Whether it be in Miami, elsewhere in the U.S., or trips that could possibly take him around North America, it will be fascinating to see the spectacle and frenzy that will follow him. On the field, another title could be within reach. Off it, there will be mayhem wherever goes.

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Team-by-team preview (in alphabetical order)

Alajuelense (Costa Rican Primera Division)

Qualification route: 2023 Central American Cup champions
Tournament entry: Round of 16

As mentioned earlier, Alajuelense could be one to watch after their success at the Central American Cup. With a spot already claimed in the round of 16, they’ll have a decent chance at a deep run in the Concacaf Champions Cup.

Cavalier (Jamaican Premier League)

Qualification route: 2023 Caribbean Cup runners-up
Tournament entry: Round 1

Guided by up-and-coming striker Thomas, Cavalier were able to thrive at the Carribean Cup and qualify for the final. That said, things will be tough for the Concacaf Champions Cup debutants as they will face MLS title-contenders FC Cincinnati in the first round.

Cavalry FC (Canadian Premier League)

Qualification route: 2023 Canadian Premier League (CPL) regular season shield winners
Tournament entry: Round 1

Led in defense by CPL player of the year Daan Klomp, Cavalry conceded just 27 goals in 28 regular season matches in 2023. But Klomp and the rest of the backline will have to be near perfect if they hope to survive their Round 1 series against MLS’ Eastern Conference semifinalists Orlando City SC.

Chivas (Liga MX)

Qualification route: 2023 Clausura runners-up
Tournament entry: Round 1

“Chicharito” is back, but will he be healthy? Plenty of questions continue to linger for the Liga MX giants as they offered little last season and have had a mixed bag of results in 2024. If they defeat Forge FC in Round 1, there’s a good chance they’ll face historic rivals Club America in the round of 16.

Club America (Liga MX)

Qualification route: Second in Liga MX’s 2022-23 aggregate table
Tournament entry: Round 1

The Liga MX champions are arguably the best of the 27 teams in the competition. Placed on the easier side of the bracket, the expectation will be a run towards the final, but let’s see how they do against Real Esteli in Round 1.

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Columbus Crew (MLS)

Qualification route: 2023 MLS Cup champions
Tournament entry: Round of 16

Under the guidance of head coach Wilfried Nancy, the Crew shook off an erratic start to the MLS season and eventually gained serious momentum en route to the 2023 championship. The Crew can make a decent case for themselves as title contenders in the Concacaf Champions Cup, although Tigres, Monterrey and Inter Miami could stand in their way.

Comunicaciones (Guatemalan Liga Nacional)

Qualification route: Play-in winners through the 2023 Central American Cup
Tournament entry: Round 1

After losing to Herediano in the quarterfinals of the Central American Cup, Comunicaciones narrowly gained entry into the Concacaf Champions Cup after defeating Cartagines on penalties in a play-in series. In Round 1, they’ll have a daunting challenge against Monterrey.

FC Cincinnati (MLS)

Qualification route: 2023 MLS Supporters’ Shield winners
Tournament entry: Round 1

Don’t overlook Cincy. Even without Brandon Vazquez up top — who has since gone to Monterrey — the Supporters’ Shield winners are fully capable of making a run in the Concacaf Champions Cup. Speaking of Monterrey and Vazquez, there’s a chance that Cincy could face them in the round of 16.

Forge FC (Canadian Premier League)

Qualification route: 2023 Canadian Premier League champions
Tournament entry: Round 1

In what is quickly becoming a dynasty, Forge FC recently earned their fourth title in the last five seasons of the Canadian Premier League. In Round 1, they’ll have an opportunity to make an early statement against a high-profile team like Chivas.

Herediano (Costa Rican Primera Division)

Qualification route: 2023 Central American Cup semifinalists
Tournament entry: Round 1

Despite exiting in the semifinals of the Central American Cup on penalties, Herediano quickly bounced back as the current (at time of writing) league-leaders in the Costa Rican Primera Division. In Round 1, they’ll face off against Renato Paiva’s Toluca.

Houston Dynamo FC (MLS)

Qualification route: 2023 U.S. Open Cup champions
Tournament entry: Round 1

Is there more knockout-round success ahead for the Dynamo? That likely depends on how quickly captain Héctor Herrera returns from injury. Without him it’s tough to imagine Houston making a deep run and, unfortunately for them, they’ve been paired up with fellow MLS side St. Louis City SC in Round 1.

Independiente (Liga Panameña de Futbol)

Qualification route: 2023 Central American Cup semifinalists
Tournament entry: Round 1

Two months after claiming the 2023 Clausura championship, Independiente are now seeking to make their mark on the international stage. Victor Avila, the leading goal scorer and MVP of the 2023 Clausura, could end up being a headache for the New England Revolution in Round 1.

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Inter Miami (MLS)

Qualification route: 2023 Leagues Cup champions
Tournament entry: Round of 16

Time will tell if preseason results and a poor end to 2023 foreshadow more problems in 2024. Despite already sealing a spot in the round of 16, they’ll likely have some tough obstacles against potential teams like Monterrey, the Columbus Crew or Tigres on the path to the final.

Moca (Liga Dominicana de Futbol)

Qualification route: 2023 Caribbean Cup third-place finishers
Tournament entry: Round 1

A third place in the Caribbean Cup was enough to give Moca a first-ever invitation into the Concacaf Champions Cup. If they defeat Nashville SC in Round 1, the Dominican side will then have a dream matchup against Messi and Miami in the round of 16.

Monterrey (Liga MX)

Qualification route: First in Liga MX’s 2022-23 aggregate table
Tournament entry: Round 1

Can Monterrey win it all? Los Rayados have one of the best rosters, if not the best, in the Concacaf region and are undefeated in the start to Liga MX’s Clausura season. With Vazquez as a possible MVP candidate at striker, Monterrey should be aiming for the title.

Nashville SC (MLS)

Qualification route: 2023 Leagues Cup runners-up
Tournament entry: Round 1

Their run to the Leagues Cup final was impressive last summer, but since then? Nashville ended up an undistinguished seventh in the Eastern Conference before exiting in the first round of the playoffs. Moca are beatable in Round 1, but the same can’t be said against Miami in the round of 16.

New England Revolution (MLS)

Qualification route: Sixth in the 2023 Supporters’ Shield standings
Tournament entry: Round 1

With the Columbus Crew winning last season’s league title, that opened up one final MLS Concacaf Champions Cup invitation for the New England Revolution, who were sixth in the overall standings. Looking at the bracket, the Revs have the noteworthy benefit of not running into a Liga MX or fellow MLS team until the quarterfinals, if they get that far.

Orlando City SC (MLS)

Qualification route: Second in the 2023 Supporters’ Shield standings
Tournament entry: Round 1

Sure, they were knocked out in the Conference Semifinals last season, but Orlando City were also one of the most difficult teams to face in MLS. At the very least, the goal should be to make it past Cavalry FC in Round 1.

Pachuca (Liga MX)

Qualification route: 2022 Liga MX Apertura champions
Tournament entry: Round of 1
6

As the Liga MX champions with the best record in the 2022-23 season, Pachuca were given automatic entry into the round of 16. Things have been fairly quiet since their 2022 title, but in 2024 they’ve looked renewed after the addition of Venezuela striker Salomon Rondon.

Philadelphia Union (MLS)

Qualification route: 2023 Leagues Cup third-place finishers
Tournament entry: Round 1

Philly have proved to be one of the more arduous Eastern Conference opponents in recent years and did well to finish in third at 2023’s Leagues Cup. Saprissa won’t be easy in Round 1, but the Union should still be able to get the job done and face Pachuca in the round of 16.

Real Esteli (Liga Primera de Nicaragua)

Qualification route: 2023 Central American Cup runners-up
Tournament entry: Round 1

The finalists for both the 2023 Central American Cup and Nicaragua’s 2023 Apertura will be hungry for more in the new year, especially after being knocked out in the first round of their last appearance in the Concacaf Champions League in 2021. Yetm the same early fate could befall them when you consider that they play Club America in Round 1.

Robinhood (Suriname’s SVB Eerste Divisie)

Qualification route: 2023 Caribbean Cup champions
Tournament entry: Round of 16

Will Robinhood be able to steal from Concacaf’s rich? Their Caribbean Cup title has provided an invaluable spot in the round of 16 but once there, things could get complicated if they end up facing Liga MX’s Toluca (who will play Herediano in Round 1.)

Saprissa (Costa Rican Primera Division)

Qualification route: Play-in winners through the 2023 Central American Cup
Tournament entry: Round 1

Don’t look past the current Costa Rican champions. Goal scorers Javon East and Ariel Rodriguez were impressive in 2023, and though Saprissa lost in the quarterfinal stage of the Central American Cup, they were dominant with a 6-2 aggregate result in their play-in series.

St. Louis City SC (MLS)

Qualification route: 2023 MLS Western Conference leaders
Tournament entry: Round 1

St. Louis were outstanding as the Western Conference leaders in their inaugural season, but outside of that? They were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, they only went into the round of 32 in the U.S. Open Cup and were knocked out in the first round of the Leagues Cup. We’ll see what happens in Round 1 vs. the Houston Dynamo.

Tigres (Liga MX)

Qualification route: 2023 Clausura champions
Tournament entry: Round 1

Had they claimed a few more wins in their 2022-23 campaign, Tigres would be the ones with a spot in the round of 16 instead of Pachuca. Nonetheless, the squad has a lot of talent and will be tough for not only the Vancouver Whitecaps in Round 1 but also any other opponent they face in the competition.

Toluca (Liga MX)

Qualification route: 2022 Apertura runners-up
Tournament entry: Round 1

Though Toluca have lost some steam since 2022, their bracket outlook is a kind one, with no possible MLS or Liga MX matchups until the quarterfinal stage. A place in the final eight should be the minimum goal for a team that last won the tournament back in 2003.

Vancouver Whitecaps (MLS)

Qualification route: 2023 Canadian Championship winners
Tournament entry: Round 1

Credit to Vancouver for winning the Canadian Championship, but 2023 was another average season for the club in MLS as they finished sixth in the Western Conference and exited in the first round of the playoffs. In Round 1 of the Concacaf Champions Cup, they have the unenviable task of facing Tigres.



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