Six of the eventual eight participants for the 2006 CONCACAF Champions Cup are already known following a spate of pre-qualifying competitions throughout North, Central America and the Caribbean. Suddenly, with the re-introduction of the FIFA Club World Championship acting as a spur, the 43 year-old continental showpiece has gained enormous significance.
Last year's champions, Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica, are currently preparing themselves for a once-in a-lifetime opportunity to take on the likes of Liverpool and Sao Paulo in Japan. But they only barely avoided embarrassment ahead of their big date - guaranteeing a return to the Champions Cup on the last day of action. Join FIFA.com for a rundown of who's in and who's out…
Recently crowned MLS champions LA Galaxy and runners-up New England Revolution join the field as first and second place finishers from the United States.
Ex-Liverpool centre-back Steve Nicol's New England were the best team over the course of the 'regular season,' with such standout performers as US national team winger Steve Ralston, Clint Dempsey, Pat Noonan and 2005 MLS top scorer and 'most valuable player' and USA striking candidate for Germany 2006, Taylor Twellman doing damage across the country with his combative style and eye for goal.
However, just when the East Coast side (located outside of Boston in Foxboro, Massachusetts) hit a rare barren patch, they had the decided misfortune of meeting an in-form LA Galaxy in Dallas for the one-off MLS final on 13 November. Led by the rangy heroics of Team USA hero from Korea/Japan 2002, Landon Donovan, the worst team from the 'regular season' to reach the play-offs pulled off a shock 1-0 win in extra-time to lay hands on their second MLS crown - and their second in a final over the still trophy-less Revolution.
All three Central American participants are known as well. As finalists of the Torneo Interclubes de UNCAF - a home/away tournament disputed by the winners and runners-up from the domestic leagues of all seven UNCAF nations - LD Alajuelense of Costa Rica and Honduras outfit CD Olimpia are guaranteed their places at the table. And as third-place finishers in the Central American extravaganza, Japan-bound holders Deportivo Saprissa only just squeezed in to avoid the ignominy of having to give up their title without a fight. Their penalty shootout with fellow Ticos Municipal Pérez Zeledón in San Isidra on the 29 November was a tighter affair than the San Jose giants' throngs of supporters would have expected.
The battle continues in the Caribbean
Playing out of the Caribbean Football Union (CFU), Surinam's SV Robinhood booked passage to the Caribbean final round with a two-legged 7-3 semi-final victory over Northern United from the tiny paradise island and tourist trap of St. Lucia.
Robinhood will now go on to meet the winner of the other semi-final series between SV Centro Social Deportivo Barber of the Netherlands Antilles and Jamaica's Portmore United next month.
The winner of the CFU final series will book their direct passage to the 2006 CONCACAF Champions Cup and face Club América of Mexico City over two legs in the quarterfinals (considered the first round of the 'finals' of the Champions Cup).
Mexico's second participant is still a mystery as the Torneo Clausura is currently in progress. The winner of the competition will move on to become the final participant in the eight-team field. If Club America somehow manage to overcome their dismal start and actually add the Clausura to their Apertura crown, the runner-up will then move on to play in the 2006 CONCACAF Champions Cup.
The Champions Cup will consist of three rounds. The first quarter-final series will be played over two legs (22 February and 8 March) and will be followed by the semi-finals (22 and 29 March). The final series - to decide the 41st CONCACAF Champions Cup winner - will be played on 12 and 19 April.
2006 CONCACAF Champions Cup draw:
CFU champion - Club America (MEX)
LD Alajuelense (CRC) - New England Revolution (USA)
CD Olimpia (HON) - Mexican champion (MEX)
Los Angeles Galaxy (USA) - Deportivo Saprissa (CRC)