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The CONCACAF Champions League is the wild west

Written by Will Parchman


The hulking Ataturk Olympic Stadium sits on the western outskirts of Istanbul, and its enormous capacity makes it a harrowing place for visitors. It’s perhaps best known as the site of Liverpool’s miracle Champions League final victory over Milan. On Tuesday, Arsenal arrived for the first leg of a Champions League play-in game against Besiktas, and the venue lived up to its five-star reputation.

Thunderous boos and whistles rained down at every Arsenal touch. During several moments of particular emotional venom, the stadium’s camera emplacement shook. Late in the second half, fed by the crowd’s manic energy, Besiktas coach Slaven Bilic was sent off the touchline. The game ended scoreless, but it was a fitting showpiece for the game’s most expansive club competition.

Hours later, on the other side of the world, the Portland Timbers walked into Providence Stadium in the Caribbean hamlet of Georgetown, Guyana and were greeted by an enormous patch of dirt. The Timbers were 2,500 miles from home to face Alpha United in the opening group game of the CONCACAF Champions League, and the optics weren’t great. The newly built stadium seats 15,000 and is primarily used as a cricket ground, which means the scene looked like this.

At the same time, Sporting KC was in Esteli, Nicaragua, a city better known for cigars and its access to the mountains than its soccer.  They’d held up in Estadio Independencia, a 5,000-seater with views like these.

The show continues today. Jamaican side Waterhouse is in D.C. to kick off its CCL odyssey (RFK would feel at home in Central America), and the club is selling its own shirts. In the conference room of its hotel. CC: Mr. Chin.

There is a level of oddity involved in the beginning of every new CCL season. On one hand, the dichotomy with more established Champions League formats is hard to miss, but it’s also unfair. While the UCL is played in packed stadiums and involves world class media coverage, the CCL struggles to put games on television. Literally.

International leagues like these have to build from the ground up, so you understand the growing pains. The competition is new and played largely in countries with fragile infrastructures. But on some level it becomes hard to justify the material and emotional expense of playing these games in cricket stadiums to a smattering of fans while the well-supported league calendar waits off stage with a titanium mallet. It’s hard to imagine that the Timbers, in the thick of the playoff hunt, don’t view this competition with a heavy dose of skepticism.

But there’s also something else at work, something warmer. It isn’t necessarily about what the CCL is, but what it represents. Whether it’s Jamaican clubs selling their own shirts out of their hotel or these games in far-flung corners where the stadiums are glorified scrambles of concrete and rebar, the game is reduced to its essence in these moments. No steep banks of seats filled with thousands of fans, no international media presence. Just the game.

It’s prosaic, but it seems to hold some kind power in this event. Nobody would claim to prefer this setup to a more monied one with increased scrutiny, better TV visibility and a larger general regional footprint, let alone a world one. As is, the competition is a mere shadow of what it wants to be, and we’re looking at years (decades?) before it reaches any kind of plateau that allows it the kind of cachet most envisage.

But there is some kind of strange charm to it, like passing through a dusty country town where the law of the city doesn’t quite reach all the way around. It feels natural to flee back to civilization, but there’s some part of human nature that connects with its unkempt wilderness. It still feels like there’s a bizarre kaleidoscope of outcomes that aren’t possible in glossier leagues. The CCL should be better – it has to be better – but at least for now, it’s an interesting time to live on the frontier.

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1 Comment
  • jonk

    Great piece. Not to nitpick, but Portland were about 4600 miles from home. The 2500 you cite was Boston to Guyana — which, by MLS standards, isn’t that great since its also the distance from Portland to Boston.

    Maybe this is a bit pessimistic (especially considering the leaps MLS has made in the last decade), but it’s hard to ever see CCL rising to that great of prominence given the countries/leagues involved. Maybe if a decent TV deal was done that could spread a little more money around to the entrants and improve those lower tier CONCACAF leagues.

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