Atlanta United officially begins its 2021 season next week by opening play in the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League (SCCL) in Costa Rica against LD Alajuelense. Atlanta is one of only two clubs in this year’s field to play in the premier international competition for the third consecutive season. But for those new to the Five Stripes or Major League Soccer, what exactly is SCCL and how does it differ from the team’s regular season? Everything you need to know about the international tournament below.
The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football, better known as Concacaf, is one of FIFA’s six continental confederations, servicing 41 Member Associations, from Canada in the north to Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana in the south. The primary function of the federation is to organize international competitions between its national teams (ranging from World Cup qualifying tournaments to Gold Cup) and its club teams, most notably, the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League.
The SCCL is the federation’s premier professional tournament, featuring the most elite clubs in the region. This year’s will be the 13th edition of the competition under its current name, and the 56th overall edition of the competition organized by Concacaf. The 2021 tournament will feature 16 teams competing in a knockout format with the opening matchups determined by a draw that was held in February. The first three rounds of the knockout stage will feature two legs, meaning each team will play one home match and one away match with the aggregate winner advancing to the next round. The SCCL Final will be a single leg match. The opening round of the competition will begin next week, April 6.
The winner of the tournament automatically qualifies for a spot in the 2021 FIFA Club World Cup, which will be held in Japan in December of 2021.
The Concacaf Champions League has been dominated by Mexican clubs since its inception in 1962. Mexican clubs have won 36 of the 57 championships, with Costa Rica as the only other country with clubs claiming more than a combined three titles. Mexican teams have asserted their dominance even more since the tournament adopted its current form in 2008, winning all 12 championships, with eight of those involving an all-Mexican final.
MLS teams have come close in recent years, as Montreal Impact, Toronto FC and LAFC have each reached the final over the last six years. Only two American teams have been crowned champions in the history of competition, with both coming when it was known as the Champions’ Cup – LA Galaxy (2000) and D.C. United (1998).
Atlanta United will be playing its third consecutive Champions League, joining Saprissa (Costa Rica) as the only teams in the current field to have played in each of the last three installments. In eight all-time matches in SCCL play, Atlanta United is 4-3-1, including 4-0-0 in the second legs. In its first matchup, the club defeated CS Herediano (5-3) on aggregate in the Round of 16 in 2019, which included an emphatic 4-0 win in the return leg. However, in the quarterfinals, Atlanta battled CF Monterrey in the opening leg, but allowed two late goals that ultimately cost the team. Atlanta was able to win the return leg 1-0, but it fell 3-1 on aggregate. In the 2020 SCCL, Atlanta opened the tournament with a valuable 1-1 draw against Motagua, before picking up a 3-0 win in the return leg to advance on aggregate 4-1. In the quarterfinals, Atlanta lost 3-0 to Club America in Mexico City during the first leg. The match turned out to be the club’s final game before COVID-19 temporarily suspended the season. Atlanta won the return leg – played nine months later at a neutral site in Orlando – 1-0, but fell on aggregate.
The 2021 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League is comprised of 16 teams, with four from Mexico, four from the United States, two from Costa Rica, two from Honduras, and one each from Nicaragua, Haiti, Canada and Dominican Republic.
Although qualification was different this past year due to complications involving COVID-19, the four United States berths are typically comprised of the previous year’s: 1) MLS Cup champion, 2) U.S. Open cup champion, 3) MLS Supporters Shield champion and 4) Regular Season conference winner who isn’t the Supporters Shield winner.
However, the global pandemic altered qualification for 2021 by most notably canceling the 2020 U.S. Open Cup. Thus, Atlanta United qualified for this year’s SCCL because it is the reigning U.S. Open Cup champion, having claimed that title in 2019. The other three United States representatives in this year’s SCCL qualified by winning the following: 2020 MLS Cup (Columbus Crew SC), 2020 MLS Supporters’ Shield (Philadelphia Union) and MLS is Back Tournament Champion (Portland Timbers).
Road to Glory
Atlanta United opens the 2021 SCCL in the Round of 16 on April 6 at LD Alajuelense (Alajuela, Costa Rica). The return leg is scheduled for the following week, Tuesday, April 13, with Atlanta hosting the match at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw. Should it advance to the quarterfinals, Atlanta would play the winner of Philadelphia Union-Saprissa, with that winner slated to host the second leg of the tie. The full draw is below.
· A1: Cruz Azul (MEX) vs. B1: Arcahaie FC (HAI)
· A2: Toronto FC (CAN) vs. B2: Club Leon (MEX)
· A3: CF Monterrey (MEX) vs. B3: Club Atletico Pantoja (DOM)
· A4: Columbus Crew SC (USA) vs. B4: Real Esteli FC (NCA)
· A5: Philadelphia Union (USA) vs. B5: Deportivo Saprissa (CRC)
· A6: Atlanta United (USA) vs. B6: LD Alajuelense (CRC)
· A7: Club América (MEX) vs. B7: CD Olimpia (HON)
· A8: Portland Timbers (USA) vs. B8: CD Marathon (HON)
How to Tune In
Fans will be able to enjoy all the action through the Confederation's partner networks, including FOX Sports and TUDN (United States), Fox Sports Latin America (Mexico & Central America), ESPN (Central America), TSN and RDS (Canada), Flow Sports (Caribbean) and other local partners. For other territories, the event will be available on Concacaf GO (subject to territory restrictions). As always, stay tuned to Atlanta United’s social media channels (@ATLUTD) as well as ATLUTD.com for all the latest updates throughout the tournament.