5/13/2009 – By Dylan Butler/ Concacaf.com
It took only a final 0-0 draw to complete Atlante’s title, delighting its fans and capping a nine-month odyssey that was the inaugural CONCACAF Champions League. Despite a hurricane-blown start, more than half of a million fans came out to see the confederation’s new club championship, and even surpassed official expectations.
“We’re very pleased with how it went,” CONCACAF General Secretary Chuck Blazer said. “I think we had pretty realistic expectations and I believe that we’ve exceeded them. We come out of this first year with quite a bit of enthusiasm toward the future.”
Atlante’s a 2-0 aggregate victory against Mexican rival Cruz Azul on Tuesday at Estadio Quintana Roo earned the Cancun club its first CONCACAF title since 1983, but opened a new soccer era in the region.
With two teams in the final and three among the final four, Mexico flexed its muscles as the dominant domestic league in CONCACAF. And while the final didn’t produce a surprise winner, there was some interesting twists and turns along the way.
“We had a very attractive tournament that was worth watching,” Blazer said.
One of the bigger surprises was the emergence of a pair of clubs from the United Soccer Leagues First Division, a second-tier North American league.
The Puerto Rico Islanders advanced to the semifinals before losing to Cruz Azul on penalty kicks, while a Champions League-record crowd of more than 55,000 watched the Montreal Impact upset Santos Laguna 2-0 in the opening leg of the quarterfinals before Santos rallied for a wild 5-2 aggregate victory at home.
“The games have been worth watching and I think that’s important, that we were able to demonstrate that there was a very interesting level of competition within the area and in some cases parity that wouldn’t be presumed otherwise,” Blazer said.
While Mexico solidified itself as the dominant domestic league in CONCACAF, the Houston Dynamo were the lone Major League Soccer team to advance to the knockout stages, where they were eliminated by Atlante.
Those matches, as well as all 77 played between the 24 qualified teams, were televised, which was a major goal for CONCACAF heading into the tournament.
“One of our objectives was to deliver a television signal (in Central America) that looked comparable to what we would have seen out of U.S. and Mexico,” Blazer said. “Through some good work with our television partners, we were able to elevate the broadcast quality, which will not only help this competition but others going forward.”
Despite some disruptions from Mother Nature, including two hurricanes and a swine flu outbreak, the Champions League stayed on course.
And as he celebrates the successful completion of the first tournament, Blazer is anxiously looking forward to the 2010 Champions League, which begins July 28. Already 11 of the 24 teams have qualified for what Blazer believes will be an improved one, played in better facilities.
“People now understand and know what this tournament is all about. They know it’s bigger than what we used to run before, they know it’s something they look forward to participating in,” Blazer said. “It’s now alive. We gave birth, we nurtured it through that first year and now the event itself is alive with a lot of external focus as well. The baby is walking and talking.”