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Teaching Timbers: An American League Playing an International Sport

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Real Salt Lake played Mexico's Cruz Azul earlier this year in a CONCACAF Champions League game. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
Real Salt Lake played Mexico's Cruz Azul earlier this year in a CONCACAF Champions League game. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
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One of my favorite things about soccer isn't necessarily the game itself, but rather how interconnected the entire world is with the game. With the MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL there's little beyond the actual league that goes on with the sport (I'm aware of FIBA and some minor occurrences outside the leagues). With soccer, almost every nation in the world has a league that fosters a national team to partake in international competitions.

MLS, like leagues all over the world, is no different. While we predominantly play against each other (Portland vs. Seattle, for example) there are a series of other tournaments we partake in that can, potentially, have us facing off against the best teams the world can muster.

In this edition of "Teaching Timbers" I'm going to walk you through each of the competitions that we as a team could potentially participate in on an international level. We'll also discuss the U.S. Open Cup even though it's not necessarily "international."

CONCACAF

As you get more and more into MLS and soccer in general, being an American resident, you'll no doubt begin to hear this word get tossed around quite often, especially as the summer approaches. CONCACAF is a loose acronym for the Confederations of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football. Quite a mouthful, I know, which is why we just call it Concacaf, pronounced phonetically.

Each continent or landmass has their own confederation. South American has CONMEBOL, Europe has UEFA (arguably the most competitive), Africa has CAF, Asia has AFC, and the Pacific Islands including New Zealand have the OFC. Each confederation is a branch of FIFA that directly controls and licenses official soccer leagues, competitions and events within their continental boundaries.

Seeing as how the Timbers will be taking part in CONCACAF tournaments, when applicable, we'll primary stick to explaining these events.

CONCACAF Champions League (CCL)

When the NBA, or NFL crown a winner for the league what happens thereafter? Not much. The season is over, teams go into off-season, and then the season begins anew next Autumn-ish. Same can be said for baseball and hockey. Not so with soccer or MLS. While the league will end, a team will be crowned a winner, and the off-season will begin as with other American leagues, one of the primary incentives to winning the league (either the Supporters' Shield or MLS Cup) is to partake in the following year's CCL.

The CCL is, as I'm sure you can probably guess, a continent-wide tournament that features teams from all over our CONCACAF. The tournament begins in August each year and boasts 24 teams total. Four of them coming from the United States and a single coming from Canada with the rest coming from various other leagues around the continent.

The way the Timbers would be able to get into the following year's CCL is by doing at least one of these things:

  1. Winning the MLS Cup
  2. Runner-up to the MLS Cup
  3. Winning the Supporter's Shield
  4. Winning the US Open Cup (we'll get to this later)

No easy feat, mind you. The CCL is designed to test the best against the best of the continent. To this day only two MLS teams have won the CCL: DC United in 1998 and the LA Galaxy in 2000. We've been win-less for over a decade now.

The winner of the CCL moves on to play in the FIFA Club World Cup, an international club championship hosted by FIFA.

FIFA Club World Cup

The FIFA Club World Cup is a fairly recent tournament having only been officially founded in 2000 and later re-established in 2005. To date there has only been seven competitions in total. It's also one of the tournaments that most soccer fans don't really care about given it's infancy and lack of pizazz. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't care about it.

Currently, aside from a friendly, the Club World Cup is the only way the Timbers will ever face a top international team in competitive play. Now, personally, you can throw all kinds of friendlies at me, but until something is on the line I won't really care about it. With the FIFA Club World Cup, something is on the line: the world championship title.

The tournament occurs once per year with seven teams (the winner of each continent's Champions League). This means that the only way the Timbers will make it in is if we win the CCL. Still if we do make it in and we do win the tournament, the club can win a healthy $5,000,000 prize, a trophy, and the ability to where a special badge on the kits until the next FIFA Club World Cup champions has been decided.

While it may not seem like much right now, as the tournament matures and grows into something more grandiose we will hopefully see teams, including our own, set their ambitions on winning it.

Superliga

On an international scale, the North American Superliga is the last remaining tournament to discuss. Honestly, it's not my favorite tournament and I see little reason in why we hold it at all.

Each year, since 2007, MLS and the Primera Division of Mexico (Mexico's major league) contest in an eight team match up tournament. Four from MLS and four from the Primera Division.

In the four years it's been running only in 2008 did an MLS team win the championship, the New England Revolution.

The way the MS teams are chosen is the four best teams in the league not already competing in the CCL will play in the Superliga. So, basically, teams number 5-8 on the table will participate (some exceptions apply). That should give you some idea that the tournament isn't really regarded that highly.

The 2011 Superliga has not yet been announced leaving some to wonder if it will even occur at all.

The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup

Finally, we have the U.S. Open Cup, otherwise known as that thing Seattle has won a couple years in a row now. Seriously, though, it's a legitimate cup that we should definitely try to attain.

The U.S. Open Cup is our nation's longest running consistent soccer tournament having been in existence since 1914. Yes, it's older than the NHL, NFL, and the NBA. That said, however, until MLS the tournament was largely played by amateur or semi-pro teams in local markets. It really didn't become a big deal (and even that is arguable today) until the founding of MLS in 1996. Since then MLS teams have consistently won the tournament.

At this point, if you're unfamiliar with the tournament, you might be wondering what I mean by MLS teams have consistently won the tournament. Well, despite MLS being the top flight American league, that doesn't mean the tournament is exclusive to MLS teams. Currently eight teams from each division in the US partake in the nationwide tournament: MLS (Division 1), NASL (D2), USL Pro (D3), PDL (D4), and USASA (D5). Typically, only MLS teams and an occasional NASL team will make it to the upper echelons of the tournament though.

As mentioned above the winner of the US Cup, since 2008, earns a berth into the CCL, making the tournament not only worthwhile, but far more exciting now than it was prior.

Also worth noting is that no Canadian team participates in the U.S. Open Cup. No matter if they play in MLS or not. This is our national championship. Canada has their own national tournament called the Nutrilite Canadian Championship.

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Well that about does it for international tournaments that we can ever be involved with. As you become more and more familiar with the game, you'll see many fans put a lot of emphasis on the UEFA Champions League. This is Europe's own tournament that traditionally has the best teams in the world play against each other. Unfortunately, unless something changes, the Timbers will never be apart of this league. The best we can hope for is to play against the champion of this tournament in the Club World Cup.

Next time on "Teaching Timbers" I'll focus on the national team, and national tournaments like the Confederation Cup and World Cup. While it may not be directly related to the Timbers, it's still a very important facet of the game at large and one which our league directly ties into.

Also keep in mind that the next entry in "Teaching Timbers" will be the last entry that focuses on the game at large. After that I'll begin narrowing in on the Timbers and what makes us so special.