People who follow international club soccer have gotten used to a pecking order in North and Central America, as well as the Caribbean. It's a hierarchy, one most teams in the Concacaf region are trying to overthrow. The best from Mexico's league, Liga MX, continue to dominate the region's marquee tournament, the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League (SCCL), having won all 12 editions of the competition since its rebranding in 2008. Major League Soccer, meanwhile, continues to pine for a breakthrough.
That's still a dominant theme at the dawn of another Champions League, with the draw for the tournament's 2021 edition scheduled for Wednesday at 4 PM Pacific. One the last three editions of SCCL, MLS has had two near-misses. Last December, Los Angeles FC fell 2-1 to Tigres UNAL in the tournament's one-leg final, while two years earlier, Toronto FC took Chivas de Guadalajara to a penalty-kick shootout before ultimately finishing as runners up.
There's no doubt that until dethroned, Mexico holds every claim to Concacaf primacy, but in terms of a regional hierarchy, another gap has opened. While Liga MX has claimed every recent regional crown, no team from outside Mexico or Major League Soccer has even made a Champions League final. Liga MX is at one level, Major League Soccer another, and the rest of the region is trying to find ways to keep up.
|2008-09||Atlante (MEX)||Cruz Azul (MEX)|
|2009-10||Pachuca (MEX)||Cruz Azul (MEX)|
|2010-11||Monterrey (MEX)||Real Salt Lake (USA)|
|2011-12||Monterrey (MEX)||Santos Laguna (MEX)|
|2012-13||Monterrey (MEX)||Santos Laguna (MEX)|
|2013-14||Cruz Azul (MEX)||Toluca (MEX)|
|2014-15||Club América (MEX)||CF Montreal (CAN)|
|2015-16||Club América (MEX)||Tigres UANL (MEX)|
|2016-17||Pachuca (MEX)||Tigres UANL (MEX)|
|2018||Chivas de Guadalajara (MEX)||Toronto FC (CAN)|
|2019||Monterrey (MEX)||Tigres UANL (MEX)|
|2020||Tigres UANL (MEX)||Los Angeles FC (USA)|
That's the context for the Portland Timbers' Wednesday fortunes. The team claimed a place in 2021's Champions League with their victory at last summer's MLS is Back tournament, and when it comes to draw mechanics, they'll be one of the eight teams in Pot 1 - the group with the highest ratings according to Concacaf's ranking formula. Come 4 p.m., each of those teams will be drawn against an opponent from Pot 2, with the ensuing matchups going into a bracket that will guide the tournament toward its final.
|Pot 1||Pot 2|
|Cruz Azul (MEX)||Club León (MEX)|
|Monterrey (MEX)||Deportivo Saprissa (CRC)|
|Club América (MEX)||Marathón (HON)|
|Portland Timbers (USA)||Alajuelense (CRC)|
|Canadian Representative*||Olimpia (HON)|
|Philadelphia Union (MLS)||Atlético Pantoja (DOM)|
|Columbus Crew SC (MLS)||Real Estelí (NCA)|
|Atlanta United (USA)||Arcahaie (HAI)|
* - MLS's Toronto FC or the Canadian Premier League's Forge FC will represent Canada.
If you're a Timbers fan that endured the team's prior Champions League seasons, alarms may be going off in your head. The entire framing of the last four paragraphs — the implied assumption that there's some magical gap between Liga MX and Major League Soccer, and then Major League Soccer and the rest of Concacaf — may be true in broad strokes, but there are some pretty important caveats that need to be mentioned. MLS teams have beaten Mexican sides in the run up to Champions League finals, before. Liga MX teams are not invulnerable. Likewise, the Timbers know the dangers of teams from beyond Mexico, having been tripped up by Honduran (Olimpia, in 2014) and Costa Rican (Deportivo Saprissa, in 2016) teams in the past.
Both Olimpia and Saprissa are possible Timbers opponents in this year's Round of 16, as are two other teams from Honduras and Costa Rica: Marathón and Alajuelense. Pot 2's only team from Mexico, Club León, projects as Portland's strongest potential opponent, but more than half the group consists of teams that should raise fans' eyebrows. Marathón defeated Olimpia early in the Honduran league playoffs in December(before losing to them in the rematch two weeks later, while Alajuelense are Costa Rica's defending champions, having won the league's 2020 Apertura.
There's also the Nicaraguan champions, Real Estelí, who are making their seventh appearance in the Champions League. The Dominican Republic's Atlético Pantoja has qualified for SSCL before, too, having lost to the New York Red Bulls in 2019's Round of 16, though Haitian club Archaie FC will be Champions League debutants. No teams from Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic or Haiti have ever advanced in an SCCL knockout round.
For fans hoping the Timbers draw Portland's best chance to advance, it's probably through one of those three teams, though mid-week trips to Northern Nicaragua, the Dominican capital or Haiti's coast come with obstacles. The Puerto Rico Islanders, a former club at the second division of U.S. soccer, once made a Champions League semifinal. That may have been 12 years ago, but it's a reminder: Champions League teams are in this competition for a reason.
But for those looking at Wednesday's draw as a different type of opportunity, an event like SCCL might always be about the spectacle, offering fans from a place like Portland the infrequent chance to host clubs León. As with all things Champions League, Wednesday's outcome is destined to be unique, intriguing, and in its lack of familiarity, mysterious.
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