Confederation officials released today a new format for the CONCACAF Champions League. Among those changes are the addition of seven teams (totaling 31), a “qualifying” tournament preceding the main event, and a new main tournament format.
The current CCL format is designed for 24 teams across North and Central America. All these teams are drawn into group stages to determine which of those teams advances to the knockout rounds. As it operates currently, the group stages take place typically between August and October of one calendar year, and the knockout rounds the following year between February and April.
As a result for MLS teams, the competition begins close to the end of the regular season, when some teams are fighting for playoff positions or doing their best to stay healthy heading into the playoffs. The group stage is usually against opposition that are of a much lower caliber and just beginning their respective regular seasons. Additionally, the format prevents teams from the United States and teams from Mexico from falling into the same groups. Then, for those teams that win their groups, they are forced to enter into the knockout rounds as a part of their pre-season, as the first round kicks off weeks before the MLS regular season. Additionally, MLS teams generate the most roster turnaround in that time period between tournament phases, resulting in a situation in which said team is still acclimating new players in their system. This process usually results in clunky, unattractive, and ultimately failing CCL tournament soccer.
CONCACAF officials sought to eliminate that issue, knowing MLS plays on a different calendar than the rest of the confederation.
Now, the tournament opens in the autumn, but only for teams in the Caribbean and Central America. The first phase is a knockout tournament of sixteen clubs: two clubs (not league champions) from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama; the league champion and runner-up in Nicaragua; one club from Belize; and the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th placed clubs from Caribbean Football Union (CFU) Club Championship (a tournament consisting of only Caribbean teams already used to determine the three Caribbean teams to enter into the current CCL format). These sixteen teams will participate in a home-and-away knockout format (how draws are determined have not yet been disclosed) until a champion is crowned.
In the following year, that champion is entered into the 2nd and final phase. Included with the phase 1 champion are: one Canadian team determined by the Canadian Championship; the CFU Club Championship winner; the league champions of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, and El Salvador; the top four teams in Mexico (top two each in Apertura and Clausura), and the four qualifying teams in the United States (MLS Cup Champion, Supporters Shield winner, opposing conference winner [all non-Canadian], and US Open Cup champion). These sixteen teams will compete in the same format as the tournament held in the Autumn to determine the phase 1 champion, being a home-and-away series in which the winning team is determined by aggregate goals. This phase will likely begin in February.
On face value, the new format presents a couple benefits for all teams involved. First, the new playoff structure allows a steady escalation of competition to replace the current format that consists of Mexican, American, and Canadian teams consistently dominating their groups. By allowing the lower-tiered clubs to face off against similarly leveled opposition gives them the opportunity to not only build tension without fearing a total blowout, but to also give the teams an opportunity to develop a tournament phase that has meaning to those regions.
Secondly, for MLS, the new format sees these clubs entering into the tournament with a club built in the offseason, and players not cup-tied to previous teams. The previous format could has potentially hindered certain trades as a player may have played a CCL match under one team, which made them ineligible for another when the knockout phase began. For example: This offseason has seen a trade between the Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City, with Christian Volesky going to SKC. Volesky didn’t play a game with Portland, but for the sake of the example, let’s pretend he did, and played in at least one CCL group stage match in 2016. With SKC advancing into the knockout round, and Volesky hypothetically cup-tied with Portland, Peter Vermes would be unable to field his new acquisition for any future CCL match that year. With the new tournament format, MLS would not play a single match until the second half of the tournament, allowing MLS to freely trade players to other CCL teams in the off-season without the fear of that player being cup-tied to the previous team.
Unfortunately, the benefits seem to end there. For MLS, the issue of the tournament beginning in February still creates conflict with pre-season scheduling, and since the draw format is still unknown at this time, MLS teams still warming up the engine could still run into a top-caliber Mexican or Costa Rican side in midseason form.
Additionally, the 16-team 2nd phase adds two more matches to the calendar for those who advance to the final, compared to the current 8-team format in the current system. Schedule congestions could arise, causing multiple league postponements/reschedules for clubs advancing further into the tournament. If an MLS club or two were to reach the final round (still a 2-leg affair), their schedules will have been impacted all the way until some time in May, pushing other matches back as well as allowing less than a month’s time to rest before the U.S. Open Cup introduces MLS teams. In Canada, as schedules currently stand, MLS clubs would have both the CCL final and Canadian Championship matches practically overlapping on the calendar.
Finally, the distance between qualifying for the Champions League and playing the first match in the tournament has been increased even more than before. For example, Sporting Kansas City qualified via the U.S. Open Cup on September 30th 2015, and the Vancouver Whitecaps via the Canadian Championship August 26th 2015, both for the 2016-17 CCL which kicked off in August of 2016, over 10 months for SKC, and 3 days short of a full year for the Whitecaps. In the new format, 2016 Canadian Championship winners Toronto FC (June 29th, 2016) will not play in the tournament they qualified for until February 2018. Two off-seasons can drastically change a team from who they were when they lifted the trophy that placed them in this tournament.
With this new format, CONCACAF has succeeded in ushering in more participation throughout Central America and the Caribbean in hopes of spurring competition and growth as well as celebrating inclusion for teams that would otherwise be obliterated by clubs in the three biggest countries. However, they have faltered in their attempt to relieve leagues from congestion issues in scheduling during the first half of the calendar year and furthered the gap between qualifying and participating in the tournament.
More information regarding the tournament will be released in due time, with hopes that the draw format will be revealed. Will the draws be randomized a la the FA Cup format, or will the teams be seeded via a coefficient similar to that of the UEFA Champions League? Will teams of the same nation face off in the first elimination round? Will the United States and Mexico remain separated until later stages? When the information is revealed, details on the new format will become more clear.