Is CONCACAF Champions League Format Working Against MLS?
When CONCACAF redesigned the Champions' Cup into its current format of the Champions League, many hailed it as a master stroke that would remove the poor reputation of its predecessor.
The involvement of so many teams from all over the Caribbean and Central American nations showed a determined effort to give support to teams from the smaller nations who rarely had a chance to make the previous version of the club competition.
It provided great opportunities for clubs, such as the then second division Montreal Impact to make the tournament, but the story is always that a Mexican club wins. Every tournament since the re-branding has had a Mexican winner, and only one final has not been an all Mexican final; Real Salt Lake being that exception.
MLS has grown substantially. On the field, the best 11 of an MLS club can compete with any Liga MX club as was shown by the two wins and one draw in three home ties this week. San Jose drew 1-1 with Toluca and but for a heroic performance in the net by Toluca keeper Alfredo Talavera may have done better. Sporting Kansas beat the mighty Cruz Azul with a goal from a homegrown player Kevin Ellis and LA Galaxy got the 'upper' hand against their opponents from 'lower California Tijuana Xolos although they relied on the heroics of their keeper Jaime Penedo to protect that lead in a second half that suggests the second leg will be a difficult task for Bruce Arena's men.
After that first 11, the power of Liga MX comes into play with clubs having an unlimited amount of players on their books, unlike the shackled MLS clubs that are also limited to their salary cap to boot. However, this is not the real problem.
The problem stems from when the knockout phase takes place. As the CONCACAF Champions League format goes, the group stage starts in August and ends into October - all participating nations' clubs are currently playing in their national leagues at that very time.
The knockout phase starts in March and ends by the end of April. Nearly every CONCACAF nation who is involved at this stage has already started their league and been playing for close to a month. MLS is starting earlier than ever and is still just getting underway.
It cannot be stated enough how much the power of being fully underway helps the nations in the knockout phase. A look at Europe bolsters this argument. Any club forced to participate in the July to early August qualifying stages of the Champions or Europa League dreads a tie against the Baltic sides because their season is already underway.
On our continent, the power leagues are MLS and Liga MX although there are the power teams of Costa Rica and Honduras that can give teams from the two big leagues a game, but that is only because of their continued involvement in the Champions League over the years.
Up and down the smaller leagues from the Central American countries are unable to go against the likes of MLS and Liga MX as there is more fan support, wealthier sponsorship, vastly larger TV contracts, and bigger stadiums with fans who are paying more money to enter the gate.
Allt hat being said MLS should be considered within their rights to request that the staging of the Champions League begin later.
In Africa and Asia their continental club competitions, also called the Champions League respectively, go in a spring to fall format to find their winner. The winner has a full head of steam as they enter the December based FIFA Club World Cup. Since the move to the current model, the CONCACAF representatives have constantly embarrassed the confederation when it comes to this competition even when the representatives have nearly eight months to prepare for it. Monterrey were eliminated by Rajah Casablanca in the last tournament, and CONCACAF have to seek a way to avoid that scenario being 'played again' by Sam or anyone else.
A simple change in format seems to be able to give everyone what they would want, especially CONCACAF.
Have the group stage moved into the spring when currently the knockout phase is played. Give the summer months off as nearly all the leagues are shut down and the national teams are busy with their tournaments. Play the knockout phase in the fall when all the leagues who could possibly have representatives there are well underway and to the winner of the competition goes the playing of the Club World Cup on a good vein of form so that CONCACAF can be better represented.
It would be better for all those involved to change the format. Better for CONCACAF and for MLS as well.
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