Full details here. Watch the video below, I promise it helps. Read Jeff Carlisle’s breakdown for ESPN, too. It answered most of my remaining questions. The above-the-fold news is a massive expansion of the field and the buzzword is regionalization via the return of the much-beloved/often-maligned group stage and creation of new Central American and Caribbean Cups to replace the Concacaf League and Caribbean Club Championship.
I love it because I love Concacaf – more games, more clubs, more must-win moments, more CCL – but it’s certainly not perfect and there are still a host of unknowns. Before I give you my winners (and one loser), here’s my attempt at a keep-it-simple-stupid explanation for a competition and qualification process (more on that in a second!) that’s going to test even the sharpest among us.
Regionalized group stage in the fall, bringing 34 more teams into the mix. Knockout round in the spring, same as before. Champion goes to the FIFA Club World Cup. Devil is in the details.
- 50 teams qualify for the group stage via domestic leagues and cup competitions – 20 from North America, 20 from Central America, 10 from the Caribbean
- Three pods, separated by region, made up of groups of five playing unbalanced schedules of four games, two home and two away
- 11 North American teams qualify for the knockout round – Group winners, runners-up and three play-in winners
- 4 Central American teams qualify for the knockout round – Group winners and runners-up must win play-in to qualify
- 1 Caribbean team qualifies for the knockout round – Group winners advance to play-in to qualify
- Round of 16 Knockout Round, same format as present
And we still don't have concrete qualification paths! The winners, in no particular order.
Winner: Nerds and Pedants
I said it. You know who you are. I am one of you.
Everybody knows a spreadsheet person. The couple who analyzes their grocery spending to the dime. The guy who’s ready to pull up a review and rating for every beer he’s consumed in the past five years. The national team supporter who tracks and records the playing time and production of youth prospects.
Too close to home?
Fifty teams qualify for the group stage. Five. Zero. They’ve got to get in somehow and given the overlap between league and cup qualification paths, there will be tiebreakers and lots of “if ____ then ____” statements needed to sort it all out. That's before we even know the qualification process and paths to the group stage for a field that's more than tripled.
It’s going to be a glorious mess, and the obsessives out there who also happen to love Concacaf are going to have a field day. Set up those FotMob alerts now! Of course, I am down to do a mock draw.
Winner: The Draw
Can I interest you in a high-stakes live stream that features ping-pong balls, a bracket and a collection of soccer clubs throughout North America, Central America and the Caribbean?
I was already looking forward to Feb. 10, the date of the 2021 draw, but imagine if there were 50 teams in the pot and we were drawing not only for the opponent but the venue. Every single ball drop could change the course of the competition. Every single ball, assuming some sense of normalcy, would set far-flung away day plans in motion. That’s fun.
I’ll repeat for those of you who skim or skip intro paragraphs: the group stage schedule is imbalanced. Five teams per group. Four games. Play it out. You play every team in your group, but there is no return leg. Thus, it really, really matters not only who you draw but where you play your group stage games. Teams that go to Mexico are going to have an uphill climb. Teams that don’t or avoid the giants of the region have an undeniably easier path to the Round of 16.
Must-win games? How about a must-win draw? I’ll buy the beer in 2023 for the watch party.
Winner: Canadian Soccer
From one spot for MLS and lower-division sides (Canadian Championship) to three dedicated Canadian places (CanChamp, plus two additional for the Canadian Premier League, which has one berth in the Concacaf League) is a massive jump in representation.
Just as importantly, Canadian clubs will also be able to qualify via MLS competition (MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield, conference standings etc). It is possible for all three of Toronto FC, CF Montreal and Vancouver Whitecaps FC to qualify for the group stage in addition to two CPL teams.
That’s a huge opportunity for Canadian club soccer, both MLS and CPL.
Winner: Leagues Cup
Summer soccer. Liga MX vs. MLS. Cats on the field. Now with a CCL place (places?) on the line! Perfect tournament.
I only half kid, but anything that increases the stakes and makes coaches, players and fans care more is undeniably a good thing. Leagues Cup has potential, but no history. Now it has both a sporting and financial carrot at the end of the line.
The big question is whether the winner or both finalists qualify. Perhaps the top-performing team from each league for an even split?
Winner: Major League Soccer & Liga MX
The region’s top leagues want to compete against each other on the field and benefit from each other off it. This is yet another step forward in both regards.
The current format sends seven MLS and Liga MX teams into the Round of 16 via automatic qualification. That automatic number might as well be nine thanks to MLS dominance of the U.S. Open Cup and Canadian Championship.
In the new format, it’s likely MLS and Liga MX will send 11 teams to the Round of 16 each year, with only CPL and, should they win the USOC, USL Championship clubs able to spoil the party. That, along with the addition of the group stage, means more MLS-Liga MX head-to-head matchups and more opportunities to judge the leagues head-to-head. It means more bites at the apple for MLS as it chases its first-ever title.
It means more eyeballs on the games and competition. It also means MLS has to handle business in the group stage. There's no time to round into form. Every result is going to change fates and the composition of the competition in the Round of 16.
Loser: Central American teams
The Caribbean keeps their single automatic berth and added nine teams via the group stage, but they lose the opportunity to compete against Central America and the CPL in the Concacaf League. I’d say missing out on cross-region competition is a loss, but I trust Arch Bell on these things.
Pleased to see Caribbean football get a lot more participants in the new Concacaf Champions League format. Nations League initiative has helped Caribbean football at the national team level, and now the expanded CCL will help at the club level.— Arch Bell (@ArchBell) February 4, 2021
However, I don’t think you can argue that Central American teams came out on top.
In the 2020 version of CCL, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala sent six teams to the Round of 16 via the Concacaf League. Panamanian teams have been there in the past. UNCAF will expand their qualifiers to 20 via the group stage, but they can only send four of those representatives to the knockout round. That’s a shame, especially given the upsets sprung in previous tournaments (Olimpia eliminating Seattle, for instance, or CAI over Toronto FC).
Now, like for the Caribbean, the new regional cup could be a big regional positive. But the Concacaf Cup largely served that purpose and losing two berths in the knockout round surely stings.