Geofixing, Revisited: Imposed Fairness
Posted on April 13, 2012 4:15 pm
Last year, shortly after Monterrey won their maiden CONCACAF Champions League title, club president Luis Miguel Salvador presented CONCACAF with a list of proposals for improving the competition. At the time, I found his suggestion of reducing the number of group stage fixtures incompatible with the goal of introducing that round in the first place: to increase the presence of and exposure to continental tournaments throughout the region. Sure enough, the next CCL (2011-12) started up with the same format as the last, and I remained certain that the idea was dead and buried.
Then the bottom fell out of CONCACAF’s leadership, with Chuck Blazer excusing himself from the organization; and the remaining Executive Committee (Justino Compean, Alfredo Hawit, Ariel Alvarado and Sunil Gulati), along with acting General Secretary Ted Howard, decided to announce a new setup for the Champions League. You can imagine the cereal guy moment I had after seeing Salvador’s proposal incorporated into the new format; even more surprising, the three-team groups allow for increased exposure, with all 24 CCL participants involved from July to October.
The change does present a major concern, however: with only group winners advancing, there is currently no merit-based differentiation between the quarterfinalists. In other words, as it stands, anyone can get paired with anyone else. My Mexican readers already know where I am going with this: there is nothing stopping CONCACAF from having Mexican clubs eliminate each other ad infinitum in order to keep the tournament international as long as possible. At least my geofixing proposal would have been applied only after the quarterfinalists had been separated into group winners and runners-up, a classification dependent only on the performance of the teams in question. For instance, Toluca in 2010-11 and Morelia in 2011-12 had only themselves to blame for ending up with a domestic opponent in the CCL quarterfinals; and were geofixing codified, Mexican clubs would know in advance that they could avoid such an outcome by sweeping the groups (as they did in 2009-10).
Now that the new format has rendered it inapplicable, I advocate the adoption of another Salvador proposal: rewarding teams that finish with more points in the group stage by letting them host the second leg of their knockout-round ties. More explicitly, CONCACAF should adapt and implement the system used in the Copa Libertadores, with the quarterfinalists seeded from 1 to 8 based on group-stage performance. To start off, I would rewrite Article 2.2.3 of the current regulations, deleting subpoint c (the new format renders it vestigial) and rewriting subpoints d and e in the following manner:
“The teams will be ranked from one to eight based on the following criteria:
- Greater number of points earned in the group stage
- Greater goal difference in all group matches
- Greater number of goals scored away from home in all group matches
- Greater number of points earned in matches against the group runner-up only
- Greater goal difference in matches against the runner-up
- Greater number of goals scored away from home against the runner-up
- Drawing of lots”
The bracket would then be automatically set up by ranking:
1 vs. 8
4 vs. 5
2 vs. 7
3 vs. 6
…with the higher seed hosting the second leg of each series, up to and including the Final.
I do not retract my apprehension to seeding knockout-round participants for the Copa Libertadores: with group winners and runners-up already separated, seeding them unfairly benefits clubs that dominated easy groups over runners-up that had to survive more difficult ones. However, in the absence of any merit-based differentiation (as with the new CCL format), this system should be adopted in order to avoid the complaints of favoritism or discrimination that can arise from simply announcing a draw outcome without a live broadcast.
Two other benefits would be extended to all participants: with the adoption of the ranking system, after CONCACAF announces the initial groups, the rest of the tournament organizes itself, with teams knowing in advance the knockout-round journey that awaits them based on transparent criteria. Also, anyone can take advantage of the reduction in the number of group-stage matches in order to earn a high seeding.
For instance, let us assume that for the 2012-13 Champions League, Real Salt Lake end up in a group with Arabe Unido and Alpha United, while Tigres get drawn with Deportivo Saprissa and Comunicaciones. Based on their past performance, RSL would have a realistic shot at 10-12 points in their group, while Tigres would struggle with hostile away games in Central America and scrape through with 7-8 points. Should RSL and Tigres run into each other in the semifinals, then, the Americans would get to host the second leg, an advantage they will have earned in a clear, transparent manner (Tigres fans could fairly complain about the initial group-stage draw, but their team would only have itself to blame for not winning in Costa Rica and Guatemala).
In short: while a random, live draw remains the best option for setting up the knockout round of the Champions League, a ranking system is far preferable to the status quo.