The CONCACAF Champions League has yet to become the mainstay that other continents' club championships are, but this year's edition should show its continued growth.
The CONCACAF Champions League is not a perfect competition. Midweek North American, Central American or Caribbean nights don't yet conjure up the image of magic atmospheres they do in Europe or South America.
There are a couple obvious factors keeping the competition from being great. For one, Mexico has dominated the competition. In the six-year history of the current format, Liga MX's stronghold on the championship match has been broken only once, when Real Salt Lake lost the 2010-11 final to Monterrey. The world doesn't need another tournament pitting Mexican clubs against each other.
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There is indeed, as Landon Donovan alluded to after the LA Galaxy's quarterfinal loss to Tijuana in the 2013-14 competition, a salary and depth disparity between Mexico and all other leagues. That gap is closing, though, and it's not just MLS - though a North American club is certainly the safest bet to tip Mexico from its perch.
The CCL needs upsets and spoilers to give it a boost. That's less likely to happen with some clubs playing 'home' matches miles and miles from their actual home stadiums in front of capital crowds that are apathetic if they're present at all. The group matches, while seemingly insignificant, go toward determining seeding - a fact which the MLS entrants seemed to completely ignore last season. For this reason, all three of the clubs which advanced to the quarterfinals played the second leg of their ties in Mexico, which has been kryptonite to the aspiring heroes.
So while it might seem rudimentary, the group stage of the competition which begins today actually does matter. While many managers in the past haven't seen it that way, the slow growth of the competition is making more and more managers assemble a strong squad as club directors and fans increasingly demand regional success.
Will there be a complete shock like the Puerto Rico Islanders making the semifinals in the inaugural tournament? Will MLS finally make a breakthrough and see one of its clubs lift the trophy in 2015? Most of the qualified clubs have tried to build depth with the CCL in mind, and the draw was mostly favorable to MLS teams.
But Mexican teams remain the favorites, and Costa Rica's continued emergence as a strong soccer nation at both the international and club level should mean plenty of exciting matches. Alajuelense will no doubt look to better its semifinal run while Saprissa facing off with Sporting Kansas City might be the tastiest fixture served up this stage.
It's not the UEFA version or the Libertadores yet but if there's a spark from an upstart, this CONCACAF Champions League has the potential to ignite into a true showcase.
- Ahead of the Copa Centroamericana, several Central American sides have called up domestic-based sides to begin preperations. New Panama manager Hernan “Bolillo” Gomez will see his team in a competitive match for the first time when it faces Peru on Wednesday in Lima.
- The FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup kicks off Tuesday with the USA facing Germany and host Canada taking on Ghana. Costa Rica and Mexico begin their campaigns Wednesday.
- Keylor Navas' transfer to Real Madrid is an excellent move for the Costa Rican keeper, even if it does mean missing out on Copa Centroamericana. The Ticos are in good hands with backup Patrick Pemberton - or perhaps a managerial change can coax AZ mainstay and former national team holdout Esteban Alvarado into the fold. Obviously the benefits of having the No. 1 at a top club will far outweigh missing him for a midseason tournament.