The long drought for MLS clubs in the CONCACAF Champions League could soon be a thing of the past after the format changes announced last week, which will take effect with the next edition of the competition.
Moving forward, the Champions League will consist of a 16-team knockout-round tournament that runs every year in a condensed window from February through May.
Those changes will obviously not alter the fact that the Mexican league will still have an almost two-month head start on MLS at the start of the calendar year – Liga MX action resumes in mid-January, while MLS kicks off in the first week of March. Or that Mexican clubs that play at altitude still have a considerable home-field advantage (since the first edition of CCL in 2008-'09, half of the eight titles have been won by clubs based in Mexico City, whose home grounds sit at a lofty 7,700 feet above sea level).
But despite those inherent advantages enjoyed by Mexican teams, the new format could still help erase the already-slim margins that have up to now proved insurmountable for MLS clubs (Real Salt Lake and the Montreal Impact both fell to Mexican rivals in the CCL final, by one and two goals, respectively, in 2011 and 2015).
While the new format isn't a cure-all or a guarantee MLS clubs will reach the final on a regular basis, it does offer relief in three key areas which could lead to the end of what's been an unbreakable Liga MX stranglehold on the CCL trophy:
1. Most MLS vs. Liga MX matchups will come in March
While there's always a chance an MLS club could face a Mexican team in the Round of 16 – if five MLS clubs qualify alongside the four Liga MX clubs, one of those nine teams will fall outside the group of eight highest seeds – the likelihood is that MLS clubs will consistently start with a dose of Central American and Caribbean teams in the first round of the knockout stage.
Central American sides are by no means pushovers – see the havoc that Costa Rican sides Deportivo Saprissa and Alajuelense have wreaked on the competition in recent editions. Yet MLS teams will definitely feel better about their chances against them in their first competitive matches of the calendar year (all four MLS clubs opened against four Liga MX clubs in the knockout rounds played in February 2016, and all four were eliminated).
And as an added bonus, the MLS sides get their longest road trips out of the way before the quarters.
2. MLS rosters should be healthier in the spring
Teams from the rest of CONCACAF may be battle-tested in league competition by the time they hit the CCL knockout rounds – but they also run a higher risk of picking up injuries from the league play.
MLS clubs will instead be rested and healed up, barring any unfortunate training-camp incidents.
3. No more clashes with MLS Cup playoff race
Several MLS teams over the years have had a tough time balancing the stretch run of the MLS season with the rigors of the Champions League group stage, which was regularly held between August and October. In fact, many succumbed and failed to advance.
Not only do up to five MLS teams receive an automatic ticket to the Champions League knockout rounds, thus improving the league's chances of landing a team atop the podium, but without the competing demands of an MLS Cup playoff chase, coaches will likely always field their best lineup.
So, see? There's hope here. This time, the light at the end of the CCL tunnel might not be emanating from a charging Liga MX train.