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What is the CONCACAF Champions Cup? The state of the competition as Messi debuts

Lionel Messi has won the Champions League three times, but he has not quite seen a competition like the one he will play this week.

On Thursday, Inter Miami takes on Nashville SC in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions Cup. The tournament, which went by CONCACAF Champions League until a rebrand last year, has changed more than its name. Returning to its roots and going by a name it held from 1962 until 2008, the Champions Cup is a 27-team competition — expanded from 16 teams — with participants from clubs across North America, Central America, and the Caribbean.

The tournament’s prize money saw a drastic increase this year, rising from $500,000 to $5 million for the winning team. With the added incentive of securing a place at next year’s club World Cup up for grabs, Miami’s head coach Tata Martino described it as “possibly the most important tournament” he will coach this year.

This year, the tournament started with 22 teams, each hosting a match in a series of two-leg affairs. Miami is one of eight MLS teams in action for the round of 16 stage, which began on Tuesday with the Philadelphia Union and Orlando City drawing 0-0 at home to Tigres and Pachuca of Liga MX, and continued on Wednesday with New England’s 4-0 win over Costa Rican side Alajuelense and Columbus Crew’s 1-0 win over Houston Dynamo.

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Teams qualify for the CONCACAF Champions Cup through their domestic leagues or cups, or regional cup competitions. For example, Miami and Columbus qualified for the tournament as Leagues Cup and MLS Cup winners, respectively, and earned byes into the round of 16.

The Houston Dynamo qualified through its U.S. Open Cup triumph and will be joined in the round of 16 by Nashville, Philadelphia, FC Cincinnati, Orlando, and the New England Revolution, who qualified for the tournament through their Leagues Cup or MLS regular season positioning. Vancouver Whitecaps (Canadian Championship champions) and St. Louis City also qualified but were eliminated in the first round.

Though he’s yet to play in the Champions Cup, Messi won the UEFA version of the tournament with FC Barcelona in 2009, 2011 and 2015 along with current Miami teammates Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Luis Suarez.

However, the South Florida all-stars are far from a lock for the CONCACAF tournament final, and that’s owing to MLS’s largely-dismal (but improving) performance in the competition – When the Seattle Sounders won the Champions League in 2022, it was viewed as a potential watershed moment for the United States because they were the first in MLS to take home the trophy under the Champions League format (1998’s D.C. United and 2000’s LA Galaxy won the previous version of the Champions Cup).

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By and large, Liga MX has dominated the field, winning 38 of the 58 editions of the tournament so far, and collecting 15 out of the last 16 trophies. Costa Rican sides are next with six titles to their name. Then it’s MLS with three.

A common justification for the disparity is that better-prepared Mexican squads have the depth to cope with the league and continental demands, while MLS roster rules and salary caps limit the potential of American clubs to succeed in the competition. Last year, a formidable LAFC squad swept aside Costa Rican and MLS opposition until they reached the final, where they were comfortably beaten 3-1 on aggregate by Club Leon, bringing the trophy back to Mexico.

The tournament has also not reached the same allure that surrounds the UEFA Champions League. The second leg of last year’s Champions Cup final at LAFC’s BMO Stadium was viewed by 242,000 people, according to USTVDB, a community-driven database to track television show ratings. By contrast, the UEFA Champions League final in Istanbul, Turkey, was viewed by 2.1 million in the United States. If that’s too rich a comparison, even Wolves’ 1-0 Premier League win over prime relegation candidates Sheffield United had a larger audience (301,000).

The CONCACAF Champions Cup fight for relevance has been altered in the past year by the Leagues Cup, a new competition that includes all 47 teams from MLS and Liga MX, the winner of which gets a bye to the Champions Cup’s round of 16.

Messi’s arrival in American soccer last year began in the Leagues Cup, with casuals and diehards seeing the Argentine score 10 goals on the way to carrying Inter Miami to its first trophy in front of a rotating cast of A-List celebrities.

Unlike the Champions Cup, MLS teams dominated the Leagues Cup, played entirely on U.S. soil. It was shared heavily and globally on social media in response to Messi’s exploits. It has also been praised by MLS Commissioner Don Garber, Apple TV and CONCACAF President Victor Montagliani, who describes its relationship with the Champions Cup as “symbiotic” and “enhancing”.

The Leagues Cup is not quite a North American Super League, but a concept that Garber referred to as “rocket fuel” to inspire the continued growth of MLS and further expand Liga MX’s footprint.

Importantly, the Leagues Cup, unlike the Champions Cup, came midseason for MLS teams, and it showed. Instead of preseason rustiness and lack of rhythm, Leagues Cup saw teams with four months of building relationships and patterns on the pitch. Instead of half-built squads with youth and rotational players, it saw teams bolstered by newly signed European talent.

Despite all this, 2024 could be the Champions Cup’s defining year due to Miami’s No. 10.

Messi and Miami’s cast of Barcelona legend’s success in Leagues Cup has ensured they will compete in the Champions Cup this season, and there is a real chance to boost its pedigree. Outside of competing nations, the competition is free to air on CONCACAF’s YouTube channel, opening the product to millions of devoted Messi supporters.

And as he proved in Leagues Cup last year, all it takes is a sprinkle of Messi magic to draw the world’s eyes to North American soccer.

(Photo: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)


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