Six years into the Timbers MLS existence, it’s fair to say our already-knowledgeable soccer market is even more savvy about the intricacies surrounding the North American soccer landscape. That said we still get questions about the two non-league tournaments MLS teams participate in, the U.S. Open Cup (USOC) and CONCACAF Champions League (CCL). From the newer folks it’s basically “what are they and what do they mean?” and from the soccer-educated it’s “how does the club prioritize them?” While we have done a fair amount of education on the USOC and CCL over the years, I thought it might be nice to clearly answer both questions and keep this article on our site for an easy reference.
The “what?” aspect is relatively simple. The USOC is an annual single-elimination tournament that all American soccer clubs, professional and amateur, can participate in…and every non-Canadian MLS team plays in. It is similar to the FA Cup in England and similar domestic soccer competitions in many other countries. For more detail on USOC history and rules click here.
Unlike the USOC, the CCL is inclusive of all of North America and Central America and is played among a select group of the best professional clubs in their respective national leagues who qualify each year. It includes a group stage and later knock-out rounds and is similar to the UEFA Champions League. The intent is to annually crown the best pro club in the CONCACAF region which then qualifies for the FIFA Club World Cup. LigaMX has been dominant in the CCL and MLS has been hamstrung by considerable scheduling inequities (eg playing knockout games in our preseason vs teams in late season form) and rosters that are less deep in their player talent pool. Circumstances on both fronts are likely changing sooner rather than later. Click here for more detail on CCL.
Now that the “What” is covered, let’s talk priority. First of all let me definitively state that the Timbers want to win any game they play in. Preseason, scrimmages, tournaments and, of course, league. Winning is part of our DNA. We do not always win but we always want to win and always try to win.
The reality of schedule congestion causes any top pro soccer club to rotate their roster a bit to allow players proper recovery, maximum performance and injury prevention. It’s hard enough with an already packed league calendar which includes three-game weeks, and USOC and CCL exacerbate congestion considerably. MLS has a 28 person roster and 10 of those players won’t be able to suit up with the game-day 18. Obviously the deeper the talent on a team’s roster, the easier it is to rotate players and still win games. Additionally, tournaments allow meaningful games to develop quality players who need game minutes. But there is no question that most teams have a “first choice” of around 14-15 players to occupy a team’s starting 11 positions and maximize chances of a positive result in a perfect world.
So how do the Timbers prioritize their many league and tournament games in season? It would be politically correct to say we prioritize everything the same but MLS schedule reality does not allow for that to be the case. The simple answer is all league games and tournaments matter to us, but we place a bit of a higher priority on MLS league games and CCL than we do on the USOC. That doesn’t mean the USOC is not valued. It is both a potential trophy and probably the easiest (win five straight games, typically only four of which are vs MLS opponents… usually with the champion hosting a majority of the matches) way to qualify for CCL. But USOC timing forces trade-off decisions and quite frankly has some frustrating aspects associated with it including lack of promotion and quirky rules to determine hosting games or not. A USOC title is a big deal, but it’s not as big as an MLS Supporter’s Shield, a CCL title or an MLS Cup … in our minds, anyway. That’s why most MLS teams rotate heavily for USOC…especially in years when teams play both the USOC and CCL like we are this season. In the later rounds that tends to change some as a title gets more likely. Hopefully we do win a USOC tournament soon.
With CCL, the odds are stacked against us. No MLS team has won the CCL in its current format, partially due to the reasons outlined earlier. But in our mind it is very important that changes sooner rather than later. It will be a big deal when a MLS team wins CCL and I expect our league to win it more often than not in the not-too-distant future.
The Timbers will be chartering flights to all our away CCL games this year. That’s a considerable financial commitment and a clear demonstration of putting our money where our mouth is when we talk of what CCL means to us. In group stages there will be games that should allow for some roster rotation and still get results, but most will also require our top guys. Line-up is a choice our coach will always make but I assure you we intend to win our group and advance to the knock-out. As we saw in 2014 CCL, that may not happen when facing a strong opponent in a hostile environment. In particular this year, Saprissa presents a major challenge; they have won CCL three times and only one American team has ever won a single game playing in “The Monster’s Cave,” their home venue. But we will do our best to both make the MLS Playoffs and advance in CCL, juggling scheduling congestion in the process. Fingers crossed!
Hope this helps.