2016/17 CONCACAF Rotator, Providence Park
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Know your CONCACAF Champions League: The importance of the group stage matches

The Portland Timbers are back in the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League.

The Timbers are one of five MLS teams participating in this year's tournament along with FC Dallas, Sporting Kansas City, Vancouver Whitecaps FC, and the New York Red Bulls. For Portland, it will be the club’s second appearance in the tournament that pits the best club teams of North and Central America along with the Caribbean region against each other for regional supremacy.

The Timbers open their CCL campaign at home against El Salvadoran side CD Dragón on August 3 (7pm PT, TICKETS). Also joining Portland and Dragón in Group B is Costa Rican powerhouse Saprissa. Each team will play each other twice (home and away) with the team with the best cumulative record moving on to the knockout rounds in the spring of 2017.

Leading up to Portland's first match, we'll be taking a look at the structure and history of the tournament.

How much do the group stage games matter?

A lot.

In 2014, the Timbers finished second in their group behind Honduras' Club Olimpia, missing out on the knockout rounds by a hair. While both teams finished group play with nine points, Olimpia advanced on a tiebreaker: head-to-head away goals scored. Olimpia had scored twice in Portland, while the Timbers had one goal in Tegucigalpa.

Like the Timbers, Sporting Kansas City was also eliminated on head-to-head away goals in 2014. That team, despite defeating Deportivo Saprissa 3-1 at home, failed to score a goal at Saprissa's Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Aymá losing 2-0. When both teams finished group play with seven points, and even on goals head-to-head at three apiece, it was the Costa Rican club that advanced to that year's knockout round ahead of Sporting because of that lone road goal.

The importance of these head-to-head away goals cannot be overstated. The Montreal Impact advanced to the CCL semifinals in 2015 after knocking out Liga MX club Pachuca with a late goal from Cameron Porter. A game-winner perhaps? Far from it. Porter's goal at Stade Olympique only evened the match at 1-1 in stoppage time, but because the Impact had drawn 2-2 on the road in Mexico, the team advanced on the first tiebreaker: head-to-head away goals.

This year, home matches against the likes of El Salvador's C.D. Dragón and Costa Rica's Deportivo Saprissa are critical to the Timbers' dreams of advancement. As the 2014-15 results proved, a shutout at home against either or both opponent – even a scoreless draw – would increase the Timbers' odds of advancement. That is, so long as the Portland side can score on the road.