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Champions League begins

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With United beginining play in the prelimiary round of CONCACAF Champions League tomorrow, we put together a ton of information on the second edition of the CONCACAF tournament, as well as tomorrow night's opponent, Luis Angel Firpo.

Be sure to get your tickets...

... and read up:

CONCACAF hosted its first Champions League in 2008-2009, modeling the competition after the highly successful UEFA tournament. The Champions League replaced the Champions Cup, which decided the region’s winner since 1962. Mexican side Atlante FC won the inaugural competition, defeating Cruz Azul in the final on a 2-0 aggregate.

The Champions League features 24 clubs from CONCACAF’s three sub-regions: North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Inviting sides based on success in domestic league competitions, the tournament automatically advances eight clubs to the group stage. The other 16 teams participate in a head-to-head knockout round (home-and-home aggregate series), with the eight winners also moving on to the six-match group stage. The top two sides from each of the four groups then advance to the quarterfinals, at which point a bracket of home-and-home series determines the tournament winner.

CONCACAF grants the United States with four berths to the Champions League. The MLS Cup and Supporters Shield winners automatically advance to the group stage while the U.S. Open Cup winner and MLS Cup runner-up must first win a two-match preliminary round. If one team qualifies by winning more than one competition, the extra berth(s) will be granted based on MLS Regular Season standings.

D.C. United qualified for the 2009-2010 CONCACAF Champions League by winning the 2008 U.S. Open Cup. The Columbus Crew (MLS Cup, Supporters Shield) and New York Red Bulls (MLS Cup runner-up) will also participate in the Champions League. Since the Columbus Crew won two berths in the competition, the Houston Dynamo (Supporters Shield runner-up) will go as the fourth U.S. representative.

In addition to the Crew, Red Bulls, Dynamo and United, MLS club Toronto FC and the Puerto Rico Islanders of the USL will also participate in the Champions League. Toronto advanced as Canada’s representative in the tournament while Puerto Rico won one of three berths awarded to the Caribbean Football Union.

The Champions League winner will go on to play in the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup, which will be hosted in December 2010 by the United Arab Emirates. The CONCACAF representative will be joined by the respective champions of the Asian, African, European, South American and Oceania regions, as well as a side from the host nation.

Having qualified as 2007 Supporters Shield winners, D.C. United was eliminated in the group stage of the 2008-2009 Champions League after compiling a 0-5-1 record. In the midst of a heated battle for an MLS Cup play-off berth, the Black-and-Red field mostly reserves in its six Champions League matches against Cruz Azul, Deportivo Saprissa and CD Marathon.

MLS sides did not fare particularly well in the inaugural Champions League competition. Both the New England Revolution and Chivas USA were eliminated in the preliminary round, falling on aggregates of 6-1 to Joe Public and 3-1 to Tauro, respectively. D.C. United met its demise in the group stage after finishing with a 0-5-1 mark, while the Houston Dynamo was eliminated in the quarterfinals with a 4-1 aggregate loss to Atlante. The USL’s Puerto Rico Islanders actually fared best among sides from American leagues, advancing to the semi-finals before falling to Cruz Azul on penalties.

Historically, success in international competition has always been a top priority for D.C. United. The Black-and-Red advanced to the semi-finals of the CONCACAF Champions Cup six times (1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2005 and 2007), winning the title in 1998 by virtue of a 1-0 win over C.D. Toluca. United went on to also claim the 1998 Interamerican Cup, winning a 2-1 aggregate against the South American champions, CR Vasco da Gama.

Following Tuesday’s first match against Luis Angel Firpo of El Salvador at RFK Stadium, United will travel to San Salvador on 8/4 for the return leg. Should the aggregate be tied following two games, the side that scored more away goals will advance. If the score remains deadlocked, the teams will depend on two 15-minute extra time periods and, if necessary, penalty kicks to decide the outcome.

If United advances, it will be placed in Group B along with CD Toluca, CD Marathon and the winner of the San Juan Jabloteh/San Francisco FC preliminary. The group stage will be held from 8/18-10/22. The knockout rounds will coincide with the start of the 2010 MLS campaign, taking place from 3/9-4/29.

This is Luis Angel Firpo’s second appearance in the Champions League. The El Salvadorian club was eliminated in the group stage of the inaugural competition after posting a 2-2-2 mark. United’s originally scheduled opponent, Chalatenango, dropped out after failing to sign a participation agreement with CONCACAF, and Firpo was invited to compete instead.

Firpo is the oldest club in El Salvador, founded in 1923. Originally named Tecún Umán, the club was soon renamed for Argentine boxer Luis Angel Firpo. The team has won nine championships in El Salvador’s Primera Division (1988-89, 1990-91, 1991-92, 1992-93, 1997-98, 1999 Clausura, 2000 Clausura, 2007 Apertura and 2008 Clausura). The team's mascot is a bull, in reference Firpo’s nickname of “El Toro de las Pampas” (The Wild Bull of the Pampas).

Luis Angel Firpo has been home to a host of notable players, including former MLS greats Mauricio Cienfuegos and United’s third all-time leading scorer, Raul Diaz Arce (44 goals in MLS play).