In terms of supremacy among soccer clubs, the UEFA Champions League is the big fire that sucks all the oxygen from the room.
Everyone else is left to emulate the powerful patriarch of continental championships.
In our part of the world, an alphabet soup of regional tournaments has come and gone over last decade or so, all failing miserably to even approach the level of attention and acclaim lavished annually on the one and only true Champions League.
None of the previous North American versions could establish any degree of brand equity or greater awareness, although the two-year-old SuperLiga -- not a true regional championship, but one featuring the two dominant nations (Mexico and the U.S.) --- seemed to be building a toehold. And maybe that, the fear that someone else would fill the presumed void in terms of a North and Central American competition, prompted CONCACAF's latest, greatest stab at the enterprise.
The newly formed CONCACAF Champions League -- if you can't beat 'em, just name yourself after 'em -- is the next incarnation. Featuring 24 clubs from 12 nations, it's the most significant effort yet to crown an annual regional victor among soccer clubs in the United States, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.
It falls under the umbrella of CONCACAF, the capital-letter-happy and sometimes controversial regional confederation guided by the even more controversial Jack Warner.
Warner et al certainly noticed that SuperLiga was generating media cachet, and plain ol' cash. Seen another way, the SuperLiga organizer, MLS marketing attachment Soccer United Marketing, was siphoning off funds that might otherwise go to CONCACAF if it could finally create such a tournament on a grander scale.
So four MLS sides -- the same four that just played in SuperLiga -- and four Mexican sides will highlight the Champions League field, while clubs from El Salvador, Jamaica and elsewhere in the regional augment and spice up the competition. New England and Chivas USA begin home-and-away sets Tuesday, hoping to join Houston and D.C. United in the group stage, which begins next month.
The tournament, a bit disjointed, a bit difficult to follow and possibly too long to truly sustain momentum, debuts next week with eight matches in the preliminary round. The eight survivors will join eight "seeded" teams in a group-play format that runs from mid-September to the end of October.
Home-and-away elimination clashes begin in February for the eight group-play survivors. The two-leg final is in April, with a nice carrot at the end of the stick: The winner gets a shot at other regional champions, including this season's victor in the venerable UEFA Champions League, at the next FIFA Club World Cup, set for December 2009 in United Arab Emirates.
Like the United States, Mexico received four invitations. Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Panama -- Panama? -- received two berths each, with the rest of the spots scattered among Canada, Jamaica and others.
Effectively, this tournament replaces the CONCACAF Champions Cup, which is confusing since Houston and D.C. United only recently competed in that event. None of this, by the way, should be confused with the old Interamerican Cup, the CONCACAF Giants Cup, the Copa Merconorte, the Copa Sudamericana (in which D.C. United participated in 2005) or, of course, SuperLiga. All of those tournaments, some of which were previous incarnations of the Champions League, more or less featured the same groups of teams. And because they were competitions for clubs, not nations, none should be confused with the similarly named CONCACAF Gold Cup.
So, can CONCACAF actually build some identity and brand awareness through the new Champions League enterprise? For now, officials have their hands full just organizing the 24-team tourney.
Of the two MLS clubs that enter in the preliminary stage, New England has the tougher chore against Trinidad and Tobago's Joe Public, a club established in 1996 essentially to guide and support the Soca Warriors' national team.
While it's a big deal for Joe Public, the tournament is a mixed bag for MLS clubs. Revs manager Steve Nicol understands the prestige attached to claiming a spot in the FIFA Club World Cup, which will presumably feature a South American giant and quite possibly a Chelsea, Real Madrid or AC Milan. But that's a long way off -- 16 months to be precise.
For now, the worry is about fixture congestion. A New England Revolution win in the two-leg meeting with Joe Public -- which, like New England, plays on artificial turf -- means jamming still more matches into an MLS schedule that's daunting enough as it is.
Here's a look at the two preliminary-round clashes that begin next week, and a quick look at the rest of the first CONCACAF Champions League competition:
Chivas USA vs. Tauro (Panama)
First leg: Aug. 26, Panama City, Panama
Second leg: Sept. 2, Home Depot Center
Quick 411: What a dreadful time for Chivas USA to put the California version of its proud father club on the regional-display shelf. Manager Preki has shepherded his club through abysmal injury misfortunes, while the season has been further dragged down by Brad Guzan's departure. The Goats are winless in their last five in MLS, and the Champions League prospects don't look much better. They may have enough to upend Tauro, the winningest club in Panama's top association, which started in 1988 but has never quite settled on a consistent format. Tauro plays in a tiny ground in Panama City but will meet Chivas at the larger Estadio Rod Carew, a cozy baseball facility that doubles occasionally as a high-profile futbol venue.
Winner goes into: a group that includes Mexico's Santos Laguna, Guatemala's Municipal and a preliminary-round victor between Costa Rica's Alajuelense and the Puerto Rico Islanders from USL.
New England vs. Joe Public (Trinidad & Tobago)
First leg: Aug. 26, Trinidad
Second leg: Sept. 2, Gillette Stadium
Quick 411: New England prevailed in SuperLiga but lost its shot at a four-title sweep by falling to D.C. United in the U.S. Open Cup. A Champions League crown may be a bridge too far, as well, considering tough home and away legs against Mexican competition that could be ahead. And if any of the Revs' big three -- Shalrie Joseph, Matt Reis and Michael Parkhurst -- move in the winter transfer window, CONCACAF title talk will grow even quieter. Dale Saunders, who captains Joe Public's Eastern Lions, has 48 caps for T & T but none since 2003. Talent-wise, it's advantage Revs. But any team owned by CONCACAF president Jack Warner should hardly be discounted.
Winner goes into: a group that includes Honduras' dominant club, Olimpia, Mexico's Atlante and the winner between Montreal Impact and Nicaragua's Real Esteli.
Other preliminary-round matches:
(First leg, Aug. 26-28; second leg Sept. 2-4)
Deportivo Jalapa (Guatemala) vs. San Francisco (Panama)
LD Alajuelense (Costa Rica) vs. Puerto Rico Islanders
Cruz Azul (Mexico) vs. Hankook Verdes (Belize)
Harbour View (Jamaica) vs. UNAM Pumas (Mexico)
Montreal Impact (Canada) vs. Real Esteli (Nicaragua)
Metapán (El Salvador) vs. Marathón (Honduras)
Teams already qualified for group stage:
(Group stage matches begin Sept. 16-18)
Houston Dynamo (MLS)
Deportivo Saprissa (Costa Rica)
CSD Municipal (Guatemala)
Santos Laguna (Mexico)
D.C. United (MLS)
L.A. Firpo (El Salvador)
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.