“CONCACAF-itis” is the underlying condition that results in CCL Fever. It has hit me every year since the Spring of 2005 when I first contracted it.
I was living in México D.F. at the time, and I was fully invested in the USMNT vs. México rivalry. That’s when I found out that MLS clubs could face off against Mexican clubs, and DC United had just tied Pumas UNAM (1-1) in the home leg.
So I started dishing out some of the trash talk that I had been putting up with for the previous 3 years. I was like “See?! Mexican teams ain’t all that! We can go toe-to-toe with y’all!” ¡Ya veras! ¡Van a Perder!
So one of my clients who had graduated from UNAM (the university partnered with the pro club) said, “let’s bet on it!”
He bought us tickets for the match. It was my first non-international match, but I had no idea how unappreciated it was by the local fans. They had so little respect for the MLS squad that only a third of the stadium was full. I figured that if it’s called the “CONCACAF Champions Cup” it had to be really important, right?
USA’s champions did not back up my trash talking…they got spanked 5-0 while the beer-saturated Mexicans near me chanted a bunch of Pumas-flavored Spanish in my face for 90 minutes.
I was hooked.
The Fever Returns
Fast forward to 2007, Houston Dynamo had just launched (or stole a club from SJ, depending on your point of view), and won MLS in their first year of existence. This qualified them for their first continental showdown with Costa Rican side Puntarenas, who was also in their first (and only) CONCACAF tournament.
The University of Houston had zero appreciation for the international rarity that they were given the privilege of hosting, so the Dynamo were forced to play the match on the campus of Texas A&M in front of about 4,000 fans (this is part of their long, sad slide into the depths of Crynamo culture).
I was there that night because it was a much shorter drive to the kind of international soccer I was hooked on. The kind where national bragging rights were on the line. I saw my Texas squad proceed to the next round over the crest-fallen Costa Ricans, with barely any other witnesses.
I had no idea how rare this kind of triumph would prove to be.
The Heart Wants What the Head Knows It Should Quit
Over the years, the Dynamo would get my hopes up on 7 separate occasions, and each time they would usually get wrecked by a Mexican side (freaking Pachuca!!!).
And during the last 19 years, I became all-to-familiar with all of the reasons/excuses why CONCACAF Champions League/Cup is the Mount Everest of North American Futbol:
- MLS clubs are in preseason form when the tournament starts
- MLS is hamstrung by the salary cap (not enough quality on the bench)
- MLS doesn’t have enough roster spots
- MLS won’t adjust the regular season schedule to help with travel
- Winning MLS is a much more lucrative prize
- México has a lot of altitude
- CONCACAF referees are far from neutral
I’m sure I’m forgetting some. But, the truth is that they’re all real to varying degrees; and despite all those reasons to give up, I always end up caring about what goes down in the CCL each Spring.
I find myself checking the scores and dreaming stupid dreams, and hoping illogical hopes for MLS as they inevitably get brutalized in the grittiest, grinding games across Mexico and Central America.
Year after year, I’d be rooting for random MLS “contenders” like RSL, LAFC or Montreal Impact (R.I.P.), only to witness another near-miss while another Mexican powerhouse would hoist the CCL trophy!
My heart is constantly drawn to the CCL because it’s one of the only ways that my belief in American soccer can be validated on an annual basis. It’s one of the only competitive outlets for tasting sweet revenge for all the heckling I experienced while I lived in México for 4 years.
My brain just can’t talk my heart out of it!
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And then… BOOM!
The OG MLS Super Club cracked the code, and won the 2022 edition of the freakin’ CONCACAF Champions League. Seattle Sounders did it, and they did it in style in front of 68,000 fans! It gave MLS fans a glimpse of what could be possible if our continental competition was as valued as UEFA or Copa Libertadores. It was glorious!
But I couldn’t quite savor it. Seattle, after all, stole a Texas national treasure—Clint Dempsey—when he finally came back home to America, so it was tough to revel in their victory, even if they did finally right the wrongs of that night in 2005 by disgracing Pumas.
The CONCACAF Conundrum
MLS clubs have always known that they could truly be crowned with glory via this tournament, because they would have to go through storied teams that have existed decades longer than them—the likes of Club America (1916), CD Guadalajara (1906), CF Pachuca (1901), or Deportivo Saprissa (1935).
But for all those big-name Latin American clubs, there was no glory to be won by punching down on (seemingly) inferior MLS teams—winning was expected! So their fans didn’t come out en masse for midweek CONCACAF clashes over the years, and they saved their stars for the league games on the weekend.
It was disrespectful and demoralizing year after year.
But that’s not the whole picture across CONCACAF.
There’s one really special x-factor of difficulty that is underappreciated by Canadians and Americans. It’s very similar to what we now call “x-dog” or “they’ve got that dawg in ‘em,” but it’s deeper than that.
Most of the Central American and Caribbean players are not imported mercenaries, they’re homegrown. As kids, they grew up watching the teams they’re playing for; and there’s a social contract—for every match, they are on that pitch to provide relief for the fans from an otherwise brutal grind for survival.
In México, I would hear this in a chant: “¡Queremos Goles No Frijoles!” Translation: “We want Goals, not beans.” Which seems absurd, since hunger is a real issue for so many, but it speaks to the reality that hopelessness is worse than poverty. They were essentially chanting, “give us a moment to dream.”
In fact, the players know that the fans take an active role— way beyond chanting— in the drama that will unfold on the pitch; as Coach Wolff reminded us when I asked him about “CONCACAF craziness:”
This “true grit,” and the opportunity for the “minnows” of CONCACAF to triumph over the millionaires from México, USA and CANADA, makes CCL a golden stage for some Cinderella stories for the ages.
And so…from my MLS-centric point of view…it’s a new world thanks to the Seattle Sounders.
From 2023 forward, anything is possible! México no longer owns CCL!
And so this Tuesday night, my heart will be dreaming of a May 4th Semifinal showdown, where the mighty Verde books their ticket to the Final round, by devastating the stupid Tuzos of Pachuca.
That will be the only cure for all those years of pain, the only medicine for my CCL fever.
Photos courtesy of MLSsoccer.com and Concacaf.com
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