Manuel Veth –
CONCACAF has introduced wide sweeping reforms to its premier club competition, the CONCACAF Champions League. Now, under the new format, the competition will be expanded from 24 teams this season to 31 teams in 2017-18, and the group stage will be disbanded.
Under the new format, the tournament will be split into two phases. The first phase, which begins in August will see sixteen clubs from Central America and the Caribbean compete in phase one of the competition. The winner of that competition will then join five teams from Central America, four teams from the USA and Mexico, as well as one club from the Caribbean and Canada.
“The expansion of the CONCACAF club competitions platform to 31 clubs is an important step forward in the Confederation’s efforts to include more Member Association representation and increase participation at the highest levels of our competitions,” said CONCACAF President Victor Montagliani.
Montagliani concluded, “The continued growth of club competition in CONCACAF is representative of the strengthening of the sport throughout the region and, along with the new format for the Champions League, provides the base for a formidable club championship structure that will entertain and engage fans region-wide for years to come.”
Changes to the CONCACAF Champions League could see Liga MX teams return to the Copa Libertadores
CONCACAF believes that the new schedule will lead to less congestion in the busy Liga MX and Major League Soccer schedule. On top of that, Liga MX clubs are hoping that the new CONCACAF Champions League schedule could allow Mexican clubs to participate once again in the Copa Libertadores—Liga MX clubs pulled out of the competition this season due to scheduling conflicts.
The reform will, however, not just allow Mexican clubs to potentially return to the Copa Libertadores, but should also go a long way toward making the CONCACAF Champions League more attractive for Major League Soccer and Liga MX teams. One problem of the old competition was that group stage games, in particular, were suffering from low attendance.
Originally conceptualized to mirror the successful concept of the UEFA Champions League, CONCACAF hoped that creating a group stage before going into the knockout stages would result in more money earned for clubs through attendance. In truth, however, most MLS and Liga MX teams struggle to fill stadiums for midweek Champions League fixtures.
Furthermore, the lack of a television deal also meant that the competition received little attention before the knockout stage. The Vancouver Whitecaps, at one point, even resorted to broadcasting their group-stage games of this season’s competition via Facebook.
The CONCACAF Champions League was never a loved competition
This does not mean that North Americans did not care at all about the competition. Montreal Impact’s run in the in the 2008-09 edition, and the 2014-15 season come to mind as examples of North American teams drawing spectacular attendance numbers.
In 2009, Montreal reached the quarterfinal of the competition, and drew 55,571 spectators to the old Montreal Olympic Stadium. The club won the home match against the Liga MX side Santos Laguna 2-0, but was then eliminated in the return leg when they threw away a 2-1 lead to lose the game 5-2 in the dying moments of the match.
Then in 2015, Montreal once again made history by becoming the first Canadian, and only the second MLS team, to reach the final of the CONCACAF Champions League. After drawing Club América 1-1 at the Azteca Stadium, the Impact managed to sell out the 61,000 Olympic Stadium for the return fixture. The Impact lost the return match, but received a huge boost in popularity.
The above two examples highlight that the competition had potential and that CONCACAF needed to eliminate the meaningless group stage games. This has now been achieved—by going straight to a knockout stage format, the CONCACAF Champions League brings back the allure of the old European Cup.
The new format means more games that matter
This means that, starting with next season, every game in the CONCACAF Champions League will matter. Furthermore, the top clubs of Liga MX and MLS will be pitted against one another immediately, which will make it easier to market this competition as a form of super cup between the two strongest leagues on the continent.
The reform of the competition not only brings much needed change, but will also open the door for new marketing opportunities. This second part has been the goal of Liga MX, who wanted both to keep the door open to return to the Copa Libertadores, and also to have a suitable continental competition in their own backyard.
The allure of seeing the likes of Tigres, América, Chivas, and Pumas pitted against top MLS teams like the Sounders, Toronto FC, New York City FC, and many more straight from the get-go will make it easier to create rivalries, which in turn should lead to more opportunities to sell television rights, and also should make it easier to fill stadiums, even for midweek games.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, writer for Bundesliga.com, and podcaster for WorldFootballIndex.com. He is also a holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.