Taking on North America's best


Montreal Impact take on the continent's elite in the inaugural CONCACAF Champions League

Forward Peter Byers, left, will try to supply the goals for the Montreal Impact when the Canadian club takes on the best teams in North American in the CONCACAF Champions League. ((Graham Hughes/Canadian Press))

They weren't supposed to get this far.

What is the CONCACAF Champions League?

It's a round-robin tournament featuring the best teams from CONCACAF, the soccer region covering North and Central America and the Caribbean.

Champions League History

The forerunner to the Champions League was the CONCACAF Champions' Cup, an eight-team competition that crowned the region's club champion.

Chivas de Guadalajara of Mexico won the inaugural tournament. Fellow Mexican side Pachuca defeated Deportivo Saprissa to win the final competition back in April.

Mexican clubs won the last three Champions' Cup tournaments and won 24 competitions in total since the first edition kicked off in 1962

The Champions' Cup has now been replaced by the CONCACAF Champions League, an expanded tournament modelled after the UEFA Champions League competition in Europe.

Tournament Format

The 16-team field is divided into four round-robin groups. Teams play three games at home and on the road with three points for a win and one for a tie. The top two teams in each group at the end of the group stage advance to the quarter-finals.

After the first round, the tournament takes on a single-elimination format. The remaining 16 teams are paired off  and play a home-and-away playoff. If the teams each win a game, the overall score over the course of the two games acts as the tiebreaker, followed by goals scored on the road. If the teams are still tied, a penalty shootout solves the issue.

This two-game playoff format carries over into the semifinals and the finals, scheduled to take play next April.

The CONCACAF Champions League winner goes on to play at the FIFA World Club Championship in Japan in December 2009 against continental champions from Europe, South America, Oceania, Asia and Africa.

The Groups

  • Group A is comprised of Major League Soccer's D.C. United, Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica, Mexico's Cruz Azul and Marathon of Honduras.
  • The Houston Dynamo, the reigning MLS champions, headlines Group B. They will be challenged by Luis Angel Firpo (El Salvador), Pumas (Mexico) and San Francisco (Panama).
  • The Montreal Impact will compete in Group C against Atlante (Mexico), Olimpia (Honduras) and Joe Public (Trinidad and Tobago).
  • Group D is made up of Santos (Mexico), Municipal (Guatemala), Tauro (Panama) and the Puerto Rico Islanders.

Montreal's schedule (away team listed first)

  • Sept. 17: Joe Public vs. Montreal (CBC Bold, CBCSports.ca, 8 p.m. ET).
  • Sept. 24: Atlante vs. Montreal (CBC Bold, CBCSports.ca, 8 p.m. ET)
  • Oct. 1: Montreal vs. Olimpia (CBC Bold, CBCSports.ca, 10 p.m. ET)
  • Oct. 8: Montreal vs. Joe Public (CBC Bold, CBCSports.ca, 8 p.m. ET)
  • Oct. 21: Olimpia vs. Montreal (CBC Bold, CBCSports.ca, 8 p.m. ET)
  • Oct. 28: Montreal vs. Atlante (CBC Bold, CBCSports.ca, 10 p.m. ET)

They were a second-rate team competing in a second-rate league according to the snickering critics.

But it was the Montreal Impact who ended up having the last laugh.

The Canadian club is set to compete in the inaugural CONCACAF Champions League, a round-robin tournament featuring the best soccer clubs from across the continent.

A long journey

That the Impact even qualified for the tournament speaks volumes about the team's character, commitment and self-belief.

The journey started back in May when the Impact began competing against the Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC in the Canadian Champions League. Montreal went on to win the round-robin tournament, earning the right to represent Canada in the qualifying round of the CONCACAF Champions League.

Though not exactly a case of David slaying Goliath, the Impact's tournament victory over Toronto FC was a bit of a surprise considering the stature of both clubs: Toronto plays in Major League Soccer, the top pro league in North America, while Montreal (and Vancouver) competes in the United Soccer League First Division, one level below MLS.

Montreal then defeated Nicaraguan league champions Real Esteli in a two-game playoff in the qualifiers to earn a berth in the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League.

Now the real challenge begins.

Montreal has been drawn in a difficult group with Mexico's Atlante, Olimpia of Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago's Joe Public.

Atlante and Olimpia are historically two of the strongest teams in the region (they both won the CONCACAF Champions' Cup, the forerunner to the Champions League) while Joe Public upset the New England Revolution, one of the top teams from MLS, in a two-game playoff to qualify for the Champions League.

The odds are stacked against the Impact, but that's just the way Montreal coach John Limniatis likes it.

"God has given us life," Limniatis told CBC Sports. "I'm not trying to be a philosopher, but he's given us something, and we need to capitalize on it. Anything is possible.

"Certainly, we have to be realistic, and we are underdogs going into this round because we're playing other good teams, but if you don't have belief, you don't have anything."

Indeed, it was belief that helped Montreal earn a 1-1 draw on the road against Toronto FC on July 1, a result that sealed victory in the Canadian Champions League for the USL-1 club.

It also served as a wake-up call for those critics and MLS fans who looked down their noses at the USL-1 as an inferior league.

"There's a lot of talk about the difference between the MLS and the USL, but let me tell you, the leagues aren't that different," Impact captain Patrick Leduc said after the historic result.

Impact coach sees Atlante as greatest challenge

Even though they've made it this far, Montreal players feel they still have to work hard in order to open a lot of people's eyes and prove they belong in this tournament alongside the elite teams in North America.

"I hope that we will play six good games to reach the next round," Impact midfielder Mauro Biello said. "This will open the eyes of a lot of people in North America and elsewhere in the world that the Impact is a serious club with quality players. It's not only fantastic for the city of Montreal but also for Quebec and Canada."

The top two clubs in the group at the conclusion of the round robin move onto the quarter-finals while the bottom two head home. Looking at the competition, coach Limniatis believes the Mexicans will be the toughest challenge.

"In theory, if Atlante is considered the best team, we will fight with the two other teams for the second place," Limniatis said. "It will be tough because we will face very good teams, but if we play well, we have the possibility of winning a few games."

Montreal defender Adam Braz, who last season played with Toronto FC, thinks it is vital for the Impact to earn as many points as possible at home.

"Every time this year we came to an important game, we showed a lot of character and intensity," said Braz. "Now in the group stage, it's vital to get a good start, especially at home because it will be tough playing away in venues where the environment is going to be hostile."

Coach Limniatis agrees.

"If you want to improve your chances to advance, you need good results at home. First, we need energy and intensity, which will then help us technically and tactically," explained Limniatis.