Champions League Revision: Something for Everyone

Posted on January 15, 2012 9:21 am

I originally planned to kick off The Regional Review for this year with a calendar of competitions, so that regular readers can follow along and anticipate which championship is coming up on any given month. That will have to wait for next week: on Thursday, CONCACAF announced significant changes to the format of its Champions League, a topic that needs its own entry. Most of the reaction pieces that I have seen focus on how the new setup affects the interests of one particular league or another. While that should be taken into account, I will primarily look at this from a continental perspective, in terms of football saturation and the level of interest generated by the tournament.

Let’s begin with the announcement itself: starting with next season’s CCL (2012-13), the number of phases will be contracted from three to two.

(outgoing format)

Instead of having a preliminary round, group stage and knockout round, all 24 qualifiers will be drawn into eight groups of three. Only group winners move on to the quarterfinals; from that point on, other than the knockout-round draw having no restrictions whatsoever, the new format presents no change from the status quo.

It is important to note that all other aspects of the competition remain as is. Three of them merit particular consideration: first, the tiebreaker procedures currently used in the group stage and knockout round will remain the same, with head-to-head taking precedence in the former and away goals counting in both. Secondly, the allocation of qualifying spots remains the same, and the three existing pots (automatic group stage qualifiers, seeded prelim teams and unseeded prelim teams) will now be used to set up the eight groups, although CONCACAF has stipulated that US and Mexican clubs will be kept apart. Finally, the allocation of top seeds in Central America remains the same: one each to Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and Panama. I have previously argued that El Salvador could convincingly lobby to get its top seed back, based on results from the last two tournaments. Correlation does not equal causation, but here is my slightly-educated guess about why El Salvador remains the odd man out: between Panama, Guatemala and El Salvador, can you guess which one does not have a compatriot on CONCACAF’s Executive Committee?

The big winners from this revision are the Caribbean qualifiers and the Nicaraguan champion; I would throw in Belize’s representative as well, but as far as I know the country still lacks a stadium up to CONCACAF standard. In the current format, the Nicaraguan and Caribbean CCL participants are obligated to upset higher-seeded opponents in preliminary series just to get to the tournament proper; now, they will get to participate in the group stage from the start. For instance, Nicaragua’s Real Estelí bowed out of the 2011-12 CCL after two games against Toronto FC; should they qualify for the 2012-13 edition, however, they will have a 50% chance of getting to host a high-profile Mexican opponent at the Estadio Independencia for the first time ever.

The top clubs from Nicaragua’s neighbors (Honduras and Costa Rica) will not find their CCL experience significantly enhanced; and the stipulation keeping US and Mexican teams apart also puts an end to Honduras-Costa Rica showdowns in the group stage. It is unfortunate that clubs from the two best leagues in Central America will only be able to cross swords in the quarterfinals at the earliest, since the matches between Deportivo Saprissa and Marathon in 2008 and 2010 (and Motagua’s home game with Alajuelense last year, when the Honduran champions still had a fighting chance at survival) turned out to be hotly-contested affairs in front of animated crowds.

Further north, US and Mexican clubs will also have to wait until the knockout round to face each other. Given the number of memorable matches between them in the group stage under the current format – the Pumas-Houston Dynamo series in 2008, the Real Salt Lake-Cruz Azul series in 2010 and the four matches between Monterrey and Seattle, to name a few – it is difficult to imagine that CONCACAF would view the end of USA-MEX first-round encounters as beneficial for the tournament. On the other hand, now every US qualifier to the Champions League will know in advance how many games to expect, making it possible to anticipate and offer the two home matches as part of the season ticket package. And General Secretary Ted Howard’s comments about reducing fixture congestion will ring a bell with MLS sides, for whom salary cap restrictions prevent most teams (especially new qualifiers) from building up the kind of depth needed for a drawn-out continental campaign. As for Mexican clubs, the main takeaway from this format change is that they will have fewer opportunities to field scrub teams, since they are obligated to win the group with only four games. Cruz Azul in 2010 and Morelia in 2011 could afford to drop road points left and right and still move on, but now just one poor performance will put their Club World Cup dreams in serious jeopardy.

The two CCL participants most negatively affected have to be the champions of Canada and El Salvador. They will find themselves in Pot 2, along with two teams each from the United States and Mexico; and thanks to the aforementioned stipulation, the latter four will automatically end up in the groups with the highest-seeded Central American sides. As a consequence, while Costa Rica’s and Honduras’s second qualifiers have the opportunity to avoid their fate by winning their respective country’s top seed, the Canadian and Salvadoran representatives will be automatically forced to challenge one of the US or Mexico’s best qualifiers for a single ticket to the knockout round. For instance, whoever wins the next Canadian Championship will have to throw down with either the LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, Tigres or the Mexican Clausura winner, and I would consider them serious underdogs in any of those pairings.

On a regional level, we can now rest assured that the CCL is here to stay. The new CONCACAF leadership could have decided to save money by reverting back to the old CONCACAF Champions Cup, but instead they tweaked the first round and left the tournament as is. The number of poorly-attended matches before the quarterfinal round most likely inspired the format change; now, each team will only have two matches to market, and each game will carry much greater significance, so hopefully more fans will show up to see their respective club fight for continental survival right off the bat. Furthermore, every qualifier will be involved until September, guaranteeing prolonged exposure to Champions League play in each participating country (especially Nicaragua).

The main drawbacks relate to the three-team melee for one qualifying spot that we will follow in each group. Say a Mexican club plays in three of the first four group stage fixtures and wins them all. Most likely they will have already qualified for the knockout round before Matchday 5, leaving two scrimmages that will probably attract poor attendance and low interest. Also, while CONCACAF could have allowed for simultaneous finishes in the group stage (and chose not to) under the current format, it is now impossible for that to occur: one team in each group will remain idle on Matchday 6. Should their chances of qualifying depend on the result in this last fixture, they will have to depend on the goodwill and honesty of their rivals, never a pleasant situation. Finally, with no runners-up moving on, any group winner can be paired against another one in the quarterfinals. For this reason it is more important than ever that the knockout-round draw be conducted and broadcast live, in order to avoid any accusations of protecting or favoring teams from any one league (by the way, this format change renders my geofixing proposal moot).

I will finish by suggesting that the stipulation keeping US and Mexican clubs apart points to the influence of a certain actor. As we found out in a rather blatant fashion in 2009, when the fixtures in the Herediano-Cruz Azul preliminary series got switched ex post facto, television networks get a seat at the table whenever the format of CONCACAF tournaments is up for discussion. With the stipulation, those networks are now guaranteed that only 16 first-round matches will not feature a team from the two biggest countries in the region. And for CONCACAF, this rule guarantees that no group will be ignored by international broadcasters; unfortunately we are not yet at the point where a group with San Francisco (PAN), San Carlos (CRC) and San Juan Jabloteh (TRI) sells itself.

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