Major League Soccer teams got their first taste of the new look CONCACAF Champions League Tuesday night, when reigning treble-holders Toronto FC cruised to a 2-0 road win at the Colorado Rapids in the first leg of their Round of 16 series.
MLS’ maiden voyage into the new format wasn’t exactly a showcase event for the confederation, with frigid conditions – temperature at kickoff was just 3 degrees Fahrenheit, 16 degrees below the previous coldest-ever game between MLS teams – understandably affecting both the play and crowd at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
CONCACAF can’t do anything about brutal February weather in Colorado, but the regional governing body is hoping that its new format for the CCL will be a boost for the tournament.
Prior to this year, the CCL always included a group stage, with the most recent iteration featuring eight groups of three teams. The group stage was contested in a round-robin format and held from late summer to early fall, with the winner of each group advancing to the eight-team knockout round, which usually began in February.
That format mirrored the UEFA Champions League, but it created real problems for participating teams and CONCACAF. The gulf between some of the best teams in the region and their lesser-known counterparts was often huge, leading to lopsided group stage matches and creating an environment in which top teams and their fans put little stock into the first phase of the competition. The break between the group stage and the knockout round coincided with the offseason for both MLS and Liga MX, meaning participating teams sometimes completely turned over their roster between phases.
Put it all together, and CONCACAF felt the competition wasn’t hitting its full potential.
“Before, you had the group stage in the fall then you had about a two-, three-month break where fans sort of tune out and forget this competition is going on,” CONCACAF Chief of Football Manolo Zubiria told MLSsoccer.com over the phone Tuesday.
Last January, the confederation announced a change. The confederation eliminated the CCL group stage, placing 15 teams from the US, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama and the Caribbean directly into the springtime knockout round. The winner of a 16-team Central American and Caribbean play-in tournament held the fall prior – dubbed the CONCACAF League – would join them in the main bracket. The format will be in place for at least four years, at which point CONCACAF will again consider updating the tournament.
“All the games mean a lot more now,” said Zubiria. “Basically, you have two chances to get through or you’re out. Whereas before, perhaps in the group stage, you could have some games that you could see by the scores were less relevant for the spectators, for the audience, for the fans and for the teams themselves.”
According to Zubiria, MLS played a significant role in changing the competition, working in concert with CONCACAF and other participating leagues and federations to tweak the format.
The new look should benefit MLS clubs, who no longer must worry about fixture congestion between the CCL group stage and MLS playoff chase in the fall, though they still have to deal with beginning the knockout round during the league’s preseason in February.
Mexican teams have completely dominated the CCL, winning all nine editions of the tournament since CONCACAF ended the old Champions Cup and created the Champions League in 2008. Only twice have non-Liga MX teams even reached the final, with Real Salt Lake and the Montreal Impact carrying the torch for MLS in 2011 and 2015, respectively.
“The tournament needs more variety in terms of the finalists and I do get the feeling from the region – I’ve seen some comments from Toronto – that they like the format,” said Zubiria. “This gives them an opportunity to actually play the competition with the same team, where in the past you play the group stage with one team and at the end of the season, starting the new season and you continue on in the next round of competition perhaps with a completely different team. That’s always been a challenge for MLS, so I think now doing this, I think it’s going to create room for a lot of surprises.”
“It’s healthy,” he added later. “Again, a lot of it is related to performance. The more that you have teams performing better from different countries, the more the competition is going to go higher.”