Luis Bueno
Wednesday May 13th, 2009

With Atlante's scoreless draw over Cruz Azul in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final on Tuesday, los Potros punched a ticket to the FIFA Club World Cup, where they could meet either Manchester United or Barcelona come December.

That's not necessarily a good thing.

Atlante is nowhere near an elite side in Mexico, let alone CONCACAF. After spending years as the forgotten club in Mexico City, the Cancún-based team is hardly a threat to reach the playoffs consistently.

Perhaps it's fitting, though, that Atlante won the new-look CONCACAF tournament. After all, a flawed club walked away with the title of a flawed tournament.

But not everything was terrible. The first Champions League tournament produced some quality matches, gave some lesser-known teams international attention and respect and put the region's clubs and respective countries on the forefront. Still, the tournament didn't produce a club worthy of representing the region.

With so many storied clubs that could have represented CONCACAF, a club that has won three Mexican league titles -- one of which came in the 1940s -- and had won just one international tournament before Tuesday will now carry the region's flag to the globe.

Atlante found it less than challenging to get through the group stage, and its only competition were its fellow Mexican sides in the knockout rounds. The tournament will return once again later this year, about the time Atlante will be on its way toward another lousy league campaign. To make things better, though, the tournament would do well to undergo a few minor tweaks. Here are my suggestions:

Atlante won the Mexican league title in December 2007 and the club is reaping some rewards two years later. Similarly, MLS Cup '08 champion Columbus is suffering through a rough start to its '09 season. And in 2010, the Crew could find themselves in a similar situation. In theory, Columbus could do well during the group stage while crashing out of its home season. In 2010, Columbus could make a run through the knockout rounds while continuing to struggle in league, and wind up in the 2010 Club World Cup without having enjoyed success for previous two years. New York could do the same, as the Red Bulls are once again appalling.

It would be best to have the tournament start in late January or early February and culminate in the summer. With the group matches starting a week before or after Feb. 1, the group stage could be completed by early April. I say, hold the quarterfinal round in mid- to late-April, the semifinals in early May and the finals in early June. That's typically the same format the Copa Libertadores follows, and things work out just fine for those respective clubs.

With this format, teams wouldn't be so far removed from their championship days, and the possibility of having a champion fall from grace (but still do well) in the Champions League would be minimized.

Counting the preliminary rounds, Mexico and MLS each get four spots in the Champions League. Only one of those leagues, however, deserves its quota of clubs. MLS teams were disastrous in the tournament as New England and Chivas USA failed to even qualify.

MLS' participation was made more questionable when two teams from the USL, the American second division, reached the quarterfinals with one advancing to the semifinals. MLS claimed four spots despite not having a club reach the finals since the tournament went to a home-and-away format in '02.

With three Mexican clubs in the final four of this year's tournament, the Mexican league proved its dominance, and it should get four spots. MLS should have, at most, two spots, with one of them going to the USL.

Now that Mexico has pulled out of South American tournaments, the tournament should change its format. Instead of taking the runners-up in the previous two tournaments, the regular-season champions should each gain direct entry into the CONCACAF Champions League. Thus, if Pachuca doesn't win the Clausura '09 Championship, its standout regular season wouldn't pass without reaping some reward from it.

Pachuca and Toluca are the two best teams in CONCACAF entering the Clausura '09 playoffs, but it's possible neither of them will even make the tournament.

Before, the Copa Libertadores or Sudamericana still could have been in the running, but now that those tournaments are out of reach, the regional championship could take on extra significance. Aside from the Apertura and Clausura champions, the respective regular-season points leaders should also reach the Champions League.

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