The CONCACAF Champions’ Cup started in 1962 as the premier annual international club soccer competition in North, Central America and the Caribbean. The creation of the UEFA European Cup in 1955 kindled the idea of a continental competition for the CONCACAF. The federation hoped that the winner would get a berth in the South American Copa Libertadores, the strongest international club tournament in the continent.
Of course, those hopes proved false for CONCACAF. The competition continued until 2008 under its original name, when it was renamed to Champions League. No team from the United States managed to reach the finals in the first 35 years of the competition. That changed in 1997. The introduction of the MLS attracted international stars to an American league for first time. So, newly founded LA Galaxy reached the finals. But, unsuccessfully. Like it happened in 2011 with Real Salt Lake City and last year with Los Angeles FC.
New York Hungaria: the first
The first edition in 1962 was contested by eight teams from seven different countries, with Mexican Chivas Guadalajara being the inaugural winners after beating Comunicaciones from Guatemala in the finals. There was no participation from the USA, but that happened a year later, in 1963. New York Hungaria was the first club to represent USA in the competition.
In 1962 the team from New York won the National Challenge Cup (known as the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup since 1999). On March 15, 1963, Hungaria coached by Geza Henni, traveled to Guadalajara to face Mexican champions CD Oro. The first historic match for a U.S. team in the Champions’ Cup took place at the El Pedregal Stadium in front of a 35,000 crowd. And it finished in a triumph for NY Hungaria! Andy Mates scored a hat-trick (including a late winner) and the Hungarians beat Oro by 3-2.The following month in the second leg was played at Gaelic Park in Bronx. The Mexicans took the lead twice, but Andy Mates scored 2 goals to give Hungaria a 2-2 draw and the ticket to the second round.
After a goalless draw in the first leg, defending champions Guadalajara overcame Hungaria by 2-0 at the Jalisco stadium, in the second leg. Not a bad run for the now defunct New York club, founded in 1923 by Hungarian immigrants. Hungaria won the NY Cosmopolitan Soccer League 6 times in its history before it was disbanded in 2000.
Clubs that remain active
Most of the teams represented the USA in the Champions’ Cup until 2008 were either American Soccer League (ASL) champions or U.S. Open Cup winners. With the exception of the 1997-2008 period when the teams qualified through the MLS. And it is quite surprising to think that some of the clubs that played in the top CONCACAF competition many years ago, are still active. Most of them were founded as ethnic soccer clubs.
Brooklyn Italians are one of the best examples. The club from Brooklyn was founded by Italian immigrants in 1949, played in the Champions’ Cup three times (1980, 1982, 1991) and currently competing in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). The Italians won the NY Cosmopolitan Soccer League 6 times, and the U.S. Open Cup twice. The club also played in the CONCACAF Cup Winners’ Cup in the early 1990s.
An interesting fact about the Brooklyn Italians is that they even had USA internationals in their past rosters. Midflielders Mirsad Huseinovic and Carlos Jaguande played for the Italians in the early 1990s, while striker Carlos Bustamante was a Brooklyn player in the 1960s.
Greek American AA was founded three years earlier in 1946. The club is based in Astoria and currently playing in the Eastern Premier Soccer League (EPSL), using the Metropolitan Oval (1,000) for its home games. Greek American Atlas Astoria won the Cosmopolitan Soccer League 5 times, the U.S. Open Cup 4 in the 1960s and played in the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup in 1968, 1970 and 1990.
St. Petersburg Kickers from Florida was founded in 1957, winning the U.S. Open in 1989 by beating Greek American AA in the final. That cup victory gave Kickers the ticket to the 1990 CONCACAF Champions’ Cup. Dutch right back Wim Suurbier who played for Ajax with Johan Cruyff, coached the Kickers in 1994.
St. Louis Kutis S.C. from Missouri was founded in 1946 and won the U.S. Open Cup 10 years later and also in 1986. St. Louis Kutis won the Missouri league 3 times and were coach by Scotish Tony Glavin for 9 years in the 1990s (1991-2000)
A.A.C. Eagles were formed as an ethnic club by Polish American immigrants in Chicago, back in 1940! The Eagles who are currently playing in the USASA Metropolitan Soccer League, won the 1990 U.S. Open Cup overcoming the Brooklyn Italians in the final. The next year, in 1991, they participated in the Champions’ Cup.
New York Pancyprian-Freedoms is the youngest club on this list. Founded in 1974 by Greek-Cypriots qualified to the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup 3 times (1982, 1983, 1984). Mimis Papaioannou who was voted as the best Greek footballer of the century by IFFHS, coached the Pancyprian-Freedoms in their CONCACAF appearances. The club from Astoria has won the Cosmopolitan Soccer League a record 9 times.
That year (1974) the Seattle Sounders were also founded and joined the league of stars, the NASL. That original franchise was the inspiration for the current MLS club with the same name and colors. But in between these two franchises there was another one founded in 1994. Those Sounders led by coach Neil Megson reached the 1996 CONCACAF Champions’ Cup, a year after joining the A-League. The club from Seattle had previously pursued a spot in the 1996 MLS.
The runs of the U.S. teams in the competition
Let’s now have a look at how the American teams coped in the top continental club competition from the 1960s until the mid-1990s.
The CONCACAF Champions’ Cup went inactive from 1964 until 1966, but it returned in 1967. Six-time ASL champions and also four-time Open Cup winners, Philadelphia Ukrainians, played against Alianza from San Salvador in the quarterfinals. The Ukrainians played their first match in the competition on 12 November 1967. But, they did not manage to get through the Salvadorians (1-3 aggregate) and Alianza went on to win the 1967 cup.
On 2 June 1968, Greek American AA became the second American team to eliminate an opponent in the competition. They passed through Somerset Trojans from Bermuda after a play-off game, in the first round. Then, they fought hard against Toluca in the second round but the Mexicans won the series on a 7–3 aggregate score. No American team entered the 1969 competition.
Greek American AA won the 1969 Open Cup and qualified for the following year’s Champions’ Cup. Eventual cup winners Cruz Azul passed the AA easily with a 6-0 aggregate score.
In 1971 there were two U.S. teams taking part in the competition! Open Cup winners, Elisabeth SC from New Jersey and Rochester Lancers. Elisabeth drew with Mexican giants Cruz Azul (won the tournament again) and Lancers against Pembroke Hamilton from Bermuda. The team from Rochester qualified to the final-6 tournament, finishing fourth and they even managed to get a point against Cruz Azul!
Maccabee Los Angeles qualified for the 1974 tournament but they never played, while New York Inter-Giuliana represented the USA in the 1976 competition. Toronto Italia beat the New Yorkers in the first round with wins in both legs. Inter-Giuliana were drew against America from Mexico in the following year, but unfortunately they withdrew.
Same old story for Maccabee Los Angeles in 1978. Maccabee withdrew against Mexican Pumas UNAM in the first round and no American team entered in 1979.
The return of the U.S. teams was double in 1980 with Sacramento Gold and Brooklyn Italians playing in the first round. The Italians made it against Hotels International F.C. from Bermuda only to be destroyed by Cruz Azul (12-3 on aggregate) in the second round. Sacramento Gold lost both games against Pumas UNAM.
The Mexicans were drawn against New York Pancyprian-Freedoms in 1982 and Brooklyn Italians (renamed as Dodgers) against Vida from Honduras. However, both American teams withdrew.
Detroit Express led by the ASL top scorer, Brian Tinnion played against Salvadorian Independiente in their unsuccessful first participation in the competition in 1983. New York Pancyprian-Freedoms were the other American entrant and after eliminating Motagua from Hondura, they faced Atlante from Mexico. Atlante had already signed Polish legend Gregorz Lato. The two clubs agreed to play both legs in New York. The first leg at the Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island in front of a crowd of 1,500 finished 1-1. The second was played at Hofstra Stadium in Hempstead, Long Island and the 5,000 crowd witnessed Freedomes record another draw (2-2) leading the game to extra time. The more experienced and eventual winners from Mexico City scored in extra time and qualified to the next round.
Former NASL team, Jacksonville Tea Men with midfielder Ringo Cantillo and defender John Lignos had great chances against Vida in 1984, but they withdrew. Things turned out differently for the New York Pancyprian-Freedoms, as they became the second American team to eliminate a Mexican in the history of the competition. The series against Puebla was dramatic: 0-0 in both legs which were played at Hofstra Stadium. The second goalless leg went to extra time where each team scored 2 goals! The penalty shoot-out would decide the winner. After Lopez Zarza and defender Arturo Alvarez missed Puebla’s last two penalty kicks, midfielder George Touros scored the Pancyprian-Freedoms’ fourth goal to clinch a spot into the next round. The club from Astoria had made it against all odds.
Their run continued. The Freedoms eliminated Vida in the third round, as they once again prevailed on penalty kicks (5-3). And there was Chivas Guadalajara waiting them in the semifinal! Unfortunately both clubs were disqualified after failing to agree on the dates and Haitian club Violette was awarded the 1984 title.
Chicago Croatian were shattered 6-0 by Honduran club Olimpia in 1985, and Greek American AA lost to Pembroke Hamilton twice in 1986.
St. Louis Kutis and San Pedro Yugoslavs entered the competition in 1987. The Yugoslavs withdrew against America from Mexico and Kutis lost both matches to Monterrey. The 1988 tournament saw Washington Diplomats and Seattle Mitre Eagles play against Mexican teams in the first round. The Eagles were thrashed 9-0 by Cruz Azul in Mexico, the biggest defeat ever for an American team in the Champions’ Cup. The Diplomats coached by Chilean Hugo Berly, lost to Morelia in both legs, but at least they managed to pull 2 goals away.
In the 1980s it was crystal clear that the Mexican teams were far stronger than the American ones. That was confirmed again in 1989. San Francisco Greek-American had no chance against Pumas UNAM, but St. Louis Busch hopes against UAG were boosted after their 2-1 win in the first leg! A defeat that probably upset the team from Guadalajara as they demolished St. Louis Busch by 8-0 in the return game.
For the first time, two American teams faced each other in the Champions’ Cup. St.Petersburg Kickers overcame Greek American AA in that first round ”civil war” (2-1 on aggregate). The next round was decided over one leg, with America kicking the…Kickers out of the competition with an 1-0 away victory in Tampa, on 9 October 1990.
Brooklyn Italians returned to the Champions’ Cup (for last time) in 1991. They beat Dandy Town Hornets from Bermuda by 3-0 after losing the first leg 3-1. However, the team from Brooklyn withdrew against Puebla. In their first participation A.A.C. Eagles were knocked out by Bermudian outfit, Pembroke Hamilton in the first round.
1992 was the best season for the American soccer in the Champions’ Cup. San Francisco Bay Blackhawks reached the semifinal where they fought hard but lost to America (4-3 on aggregate), while Dallas Rockets made it to the quarterfinals. America had an experienced squad that included Hugo Sánchez who had recently returned from Real Madrid. The Blackhawks recorded the biggest victory for an American team in the first round against Panamanian Euro Kickers (10-0).
Owned by Bay Area real estate mogul Dan Van Voorhis, and coached by Englishman Laurie Calloway the Blackhawks fielded a strong squad which included even internationals like defenders Dominic Kinnear and John Doyle and midfielder Danny Pena. USA defender Marcelo Balboa played in San Francisco for 2 season before he signed for Colorado Foxes in 1992.
In 1993, Hercules withdrew against…Juventus from Beliz, while Los Angeles Salsa with Jeff Agoos and Jorge Salcedo in defense, lost to Alianza in 1994. In 1996 Seattle Sounders qualified with ease to the final-4 tournament (10-0 over Surinamese Transvaal). The Sounders finished fourth in the final group, with no points as Cruz Azul won the cup for a fourth time.
Champions’ Cup stats for U.S. clubs (1962-1996)
Clubs with most appearances
Greek American AA (4): 1968, 1970, 1986, 1990
Brooklyn Italians (3): 1980, 1982, 1991
New York Pancyprian-Freedoms (2): 1982, 1983, 1984
Maccabee Los Angeles (2): 1974 and 1978 (withdrew)
Clubs with just one participation
New York Hungaria (1963), Philadelphia Ukrainians (1967), Jacksonville Tea Men (1984), Rochester Lancers (1971), NJ Elizabeth (1971), Chicago Croatian (1985), Sacramento Gold (1987), St. Louis Kutis (1987), Detroit Express (1988), Washington Diplomats (1988), St. Petersburg Kickers (1990), NJ Elizabeth (1991), Dallas Rockets (1992), San Francisco Bay Blackhawks (1992), Los Angeles Salsa (1994), Seattle Sounders (1996)
Most successful performances
New York Pancyprian-Freedoms: 1984 semifinals San Francisco Bay Blackhawks: 1992 semifinals