Switching the CONCACAF Champions League from the current fall-to-spring format to a calendar year schedule should help MLS clubs that typically have difficulty negotiating knockout rounds played during their preseason.
But a new (and old) competition structure now being considered may make qualifying for those knockout rounds considerably tougher.
D.C. United coach Ben Olsen spilled some of the beans on Tuesday, moments after his reserves dispatched Panama’s Árabe Unido, 2-0, to clinch first place in their three-team group with a game to spare. D.C. accomplished the same feat last year, only to be thrashed by LD Alajuelense, 5-2, in the first leg of the quarterfinals in February. A 2-1 win in the return match wasn’t enough to overhaul DCU's deficit.
“It’s always a challenge for MLS teams to get up to speed, to change the way you do your [preparation] in preseason, in a safe way for your players. It’s a challenge. It’s a real challenge,” Olsen told reporters. “I am thrilled they are moving the CONCACAF to a–how would I say that–in a seasonal way. They are changing things.”
CONCACAF later confirmed to several outlets that a calendar-year schedule “is a discussion item which has come up along with others."
It turns out another key “discussion item” is the competition format itself. According to two sources with knowledge of the proposal, CONCACAF is considering returning to the structure used during the first four seasons of the tournament (2008-09 through 2011-12). If it’s adopted, CONCACAF would scrap the three-team groups and start the CCL (and the year) with a preliminary round featuring 16 clubs paired off in home-and-home series.
The eight winners would join eight automatic qualifiers in four, four-team groups for a double round robin contested in the spring. The top two finishers in each group would advance to the late summer/autumn quarterfinals. The knockout rounds then would proceed as normal, with the finals likely completed by the end of October.
A key driver behind the proposal is ensuring additional games between MLS and Liga MX clubs, according to a source. Under the current format, they can meet only in the knockout rounds. Using four-team groups would add a third home game to each club’s slate and increase the number of matches required to win the trophy from 10 to 12 or 14. Two or three MLS entrants (depending on where CONCACAF slots the Canadian team) may have to negotiate the preliminary round. And the groups will be tougher on MLS clubs thanks to the early elimination of weaker sides and the likely trip to Mexico.
Since the CCL went to the three-team groups in 2012-13, MLS teams are 45-13-14 in group play.
The revamped CCL could kick off in 2017 or 2018, according to one source. Nothing has been decided definitively—CONCACAF is still gathering feedback—and there are potential complications to consider. An obvious one is that the transition will require the confederation to juggle qualification for the first calendar-year CCL.
That process could prove cumbersome.
At the moment, MLS teams theoretically are vying for spots in the 2016-17 CCL. U.S.-based clubs can earn them by winning the 2015 MLS Cup or 2015 U.S. Open Cup titles or by finishing ahead of unqualified rivals in the regular season standings. The Vancouver Whitecaps already have earned Canada’s 2016-17 ticket as winner of the 2015 Canadian Championship. But if the next CCL was pushed back and scheduled to start in the spring of 2017, there would be an extra year’s worth of qualifiers to deal with (the 2016 MLS Cup and Open Cup winners, etc.).
Mexico sends the winners and runners-up of its spring and fall league seasons, so the transition to the calendar-year CCL would leave at least two Liga MX teams in the lurch. If the 2017 CCL kicks off that spring, Mexico would have qualifiers from the 2015 Apertura and then the 2016 Clausura and Apertura—up to 6 clubs—for four spots.
It’s unclear how that will be resolved. CONCACAF could just skip a qualifying cycle, which likely would upset teams that get the shaft. Or it could ask leagues to find a fair way to determine entrants based on more than a year’s worth of results.
What is clear is that the shift to the calendar year will benefit the region’s two heavyweight leagues, MLS and Liga MX, despite the tougher group stage that would result if CONCACAF returns to the 2008-12 CCL format. MLS teams qualifying for the quarterfinals will be in midseason form when they hit the knockout stage. August is a far cry from late February. United’s quarterfinal opener at LDA was its first competitive match in 110 days. The hosts had played 10 in the previous six weeks.
The shift also will boost Mexican teams, which will remain favored to win the CCL for the foreseeable future (the championship streak is 10 and counting). Under the current schedule, the CCL winner must wait nearly eight months for the Club World Cup. Rosters can change quite a bit during that stretch. Form fluctuates and momentum is lost. Mexican teams have fared poorly in the CWC compared to those from Asia and Africa, which conclude their continental championships in November. African clubs have advanced to two of the past five finals while Asian entrants have claimed four bronze medals.
Meanwhile, CONCACAF has medaled just twice since the CWC was relaunched in 2005. Deportivo Saprissa won bronze that year and Monterrey finished third in 2012. In three of the past five tournaments, the Mexican entrant has lost to an Asian or African side in the quarterfinal.
It’s not clear when CONCACAF intends to decide on the format and timing of future CCL tournaments. The LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, Vancouver Whitecaps and Real Salt Lake remain alive, along with DCU, in the 2015-16 edition.