GANGUE-RUZIC: Why 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup is a key measuring stick for the 3 Canadian participants
Snow may still be falling in parts of the country, but signs of spring are slowly beginning to emerge from coast to coast.
That’s especially true for Canadian soccer fans, as one tell-tale sign that spring is truly close is the beginning of the Major League Soccer and Canadian Premier League seasons, seemingly all of a sudden now right around the corner. Yes, with MLS slated to kick off by the end of February, and the CPL set to begin in early-April, the (strangely mild) winter frost will soon make way for renewed competition across Canada. Yet, before the ball rolls on those respective seasons, there’s some important business that a trio of Canadian teams has to attend to starting this week.
That, of course, is the Concacaf Champions Cup, which gets underway on Tuesday, February 6th, when Guatemala’s Comunicaciones hosts Mexico’s Monterrey in the first match of the competition’s first round.
With a record three Canadian teams participating in this edition of the Champions Cup – the expansion of the competition saw two CPL teams guaranteed a spot along with the winner of the Canadian Championship, alongside an increased chance of Canadian MLS teams qualifying through different avenues – this newly-renamed tournament promises to be an important one from a Canadian perspective.
From the participation of the CPL's regular season winner Cavalry FC and playoff winner Forge FC, joined by the Canadian Championship-winning Vancouver Whitecaps, each team has lots to prove this year, too.
The 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup draw is complete!— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) December 14, 2023
The 3 🇨🇦 teams were drawn as follows in the 1st round:#VWFC vs Tigres
Cavalry vs Orlando City
Forge vs Chivas
Tough matchup for Caps. Tough for Forge, too, but they’re Concacaf hardened. Decent debut for Cavalry
For Cavalry, they’ve got a chance to prove themselves outside of Canada, as despite having a record of strong domestic success ever since the launch of the Canadian Premier League, they’ve never had the chance to play in any sort of Concacaf competition, which is why this tournament feels like an important new frontier for them to cross.
Especially for a Cavalry team that has a lot of unfinished business in the CPL this year - namely finally getting their hands on a playoff crown, among others - a strong showing in this competition could prove to be a seed for such success to sprout.
Meanwhile, Forge is looking to build on a strong foundation of past Concacaf success, as they return to this competition having already played in it before, as they became the first CPL team to reach the Champions Cup in 2022 (or as it was called at the time, the Concacaf Champions League), thanks to their Concacaf League success in 2021.
They got a good taste of the level in 2022, too, playing Mexican giants Cruz Azul in what ended up being a pretty competitive tie, so with the concept of the Concacaf League now a distant memory, they’ll look to use that as fuel to start emulating some of those runs they used to make in that competition in this one.
Then, the Vancouver Whitecaps are just looking to affirm their status as a top MLS and Concacaf side, something they flirted with at times last year, but ultimately couldn’t deliver on, falling short in the MLS Cup playoffs, Leagues Cup and Champions Cup despite looking like darkhorse contenders in each.
Currently crowned the Kings of Canada, a title affirmed by back-to-back Canadian Championships, the first such time they’ve achieved such a feat, they feel the next step in their journey as a team is to start shaking things up in competitions such as this one.
Yet, ironically, while each team may enter this tournament with different goals, given where each team is at in their respective lifecycle, their first-round matches all give them similar challenges to combat.
The Whitecaps may have eyes on a deep run, especially after falling flat on their face last year against finalists LAFC, a team they later proved they could compete with in MLS action, but they face arguably one of the stiffest tests of all if they’re to prove that - Mexican giants Tigres, who have made the final of this tournament four times in the last eight editions, winning one of them.
For what it’s worth, the Whitecaps feel that they can compete with this Tigres side - they proved that last summer, when Tigres only narrowly edged the Whitecaps on penalties after a 1-1 draw in their Leagues Cup Round of 32 matchup, so they can be more confident than most heading into this sort of matchup.
At the same time, there are a lot of factors that go against the Whitecaps right now, such as the fact that this is their first competitive game since early November, they’re missing two key starters in Sam Adekugbe and Ali Ahmed through injuries, and that they won’t even be able to play their home leg at home due to a scheduling conflict.
Given that Tigres is tied for first in Liga MX’s Clausura after five games, and is coming off an Apertura campaign where they made it to the final before losing to Club America in December, this Tigres matchup arguably couldn’t have come at a worse time for Vancouver.
But that’s continental competition for you. Half of the time, it’s a battle of squad depth as much as it is anything else, as the teams that will have the most success in these competitions have to manage the strain that a tournament like this can put on a team that is also competing in their respective domestic leagues.
And if the Whitecaps were to win this competition, they were always going to have to play a team like Tigres along the way, even if this is likelier earlier than they would’ve liked, so this is a challenge they would’ve had to eventually face.
Because of that, this matchup can be framed as a test of their Champions Cup pedigree, even if it’s much stiffer than they would’ve wanted it to be, making them underdogs in this scenario.
As for Forge, their matchup is more favourable than the Whitecaps - they may be faced off against a Chivas side that has won the Champions Cup more times than Tigres, this is a team that has only reached the final twice since the turn of the century, the last coming in 2018. Then, within Mexico, they’ve also lost some of the allure they used to have domestically, winning just one trophy since 2007, that being the 2017 Clausura.
They’ve been competitive since then, both domestically and continentally, but they’re not a force on the level of sides like Tigres, Monterrey, and Club America, it appears.
So while Forge heads into this tie as deserved underdogs, they’ll dream of being able to give Chivas a scare, especially given that they’ve already had a chance to compete against Mexican opposition before in this competition.
Meanwhile, for Cavalry, despite this being their first-ever participation in this competition, they’ll feel optimistic about their chances of winning, as they take on MLS side Orlando City.
Again, much like their Canadian counterparts, they’re underdogs in this matchup, but they’ve got a lot of factors to like in their favour.
First, there’s the fact that Orlando is also quite new to this competition, having only participated in it for the first time last spring, where they fell to Tigres in the Round of 16.
Then, there’s the fact that they’re out of season, unlike the Mexican sides, which gives them an additional edge in the Whitecaps and Forge matchups.
You add in that Cavalry is getting added time to prepare for this tie - their game with Orlando is not for another two weeks, due to Concacaf scheduling quirks, and that is also another factor they’ll be pleased to have in their favour.
Because of that, while they may be a newbie to this competition, they’ll feel confident in their ability to be able to surprise, even if they’ll be in tough against an Orlando side that felt they were a bit hard done by in last year’s Champions Cup, as well as in MLS play.
Yet, as seen across the board in these matchups, that’s the theme for the three Canadian sides - there’s an opportunity to surprise, even if there are factors that make these teams underdogs.
And, more importantly, there’s a chance for each team to prove themselves, which in turn has a knock-on effect on what they represent, especially in the case of the CPL sides, as they look to help push the reputation of a growing league forward.
Therefore, that’ll be the theme for each team in this opening round - an opportunity, both to keep their Champions Cup dreams alive, all while carrying the hopes and dreams of their clubs, and in some cases, their leagues.
Through that, they’ll all look to write another chapter in what is a surprisingly rich history book for Canadian teams in this competition, even if it’s just missing a key final act, something that these three sides will now look to change this year.
And even if they come up short, if they can do so while opening doors for those to come, be it themselves or others, that’ll be a win, too, showing that success can be measured on different fronts when it comes to these teams' journey through this competition.