Champions League: Winning is Everything

Posted on July 14, 2012 3:40 pm

One of the benefits of the disparity in interests among the featured writers here is that even if we coincide on a main story, we are naturally inclined to study it from different angles.

For instance, on the topic of this weekend’s CONCACAF Executive Committee meeting in the Cayman Islands, my colleague Bill Archer handled the much sexier issue of future plans for the Gold Cup, while I spent much of the last few hours poring over a 37-page rulebook. Mind you, after CONCACAF’s new leadership confirmed that the Champions League knockout round would be set up based on a ranking system, I waited patiently for weeks for the new regulations to be published, so the chance to read through it and study the codification of the new format was met with no small measure of enthusiasm.

Rather than provide a reaction to every last item of the 2012-13 CCL Regulations, I will primarily address the key changes that have been introduced, including one adjustment to the knockout-round bracket that was presented back in May. But first, let us review important aspects of the tournament that have avoided alteration:

- The tiebreaker procedure for teams that finish level on points in the same group still gives precedence to head-to-head (points earned, goal differential and away goals, in that order). The away goals rule also remains in effect for the knockout round, with no exception made for the Final [Article 2.3].

- However, the away goals rule still “turns off” if the second leg of a knockout-round series goes into extra time [Art. 9.3].

- Furthermore, CONCACAF retained its commitment to providing travel grants to the away team in every fixture [Art. 4.4].

- No such subsidies are offered, though, to offset the costs of playing at alternate venues, should the team’s home stadium fall short of CONCACAF standard for evening games [Art. 4.5]. On the plus side, the anticipation of stadium inspection has encouraged a number of Central American clubs to invest in infrastructural improvements at their home venues.

- Finally, CONCACAF continues to claim five percent of gross ticket revenues from each participant’s CCL home games [Art. 4.5].

With that covered, here are the main adjustments that have been incorporated for next season’s competition:

- As we already know, the group stage will be composed of eight groups of three, with only group winners advancing [Art. 2.2.1 b; 2.2.1 j].

- Also, US and Mexican clubs are kept apart in the group stage [Art. 2.2.1 c].

- To begin with the novelties, the following criteria will be used to rank group winners that finished with the same number of points [Art. 2.2.3 e, iii]:

1. Best Goal Difference
2. Most goals Scored
3. Most Goals Scored Away from home
4. Most Wins
5. Most Away Wins
6. Drawing of Lots

It should be noted that points 4 and 5 are unprecedented in world football. Of course, the Copa Libertadores is the only other continental club championship to rank knockout-round participants based on group stage performance; but in case two teams are tied on the aforementioned points 1 through 3, CONMEBOL skips straight to a draw.

In practical terms, let’s say that Santos Laguna and Real Salt Lake both finish their respective groups with six points. Assuming that they have the same goal differential, number of goals scored and number of away goals, if Santos Laguna won both their home games and lost on the road, while RSL beat Tauro at home and tied the other three matches, Santos would win out on the fourth tiebreaker.

- Furthermore, while the article relaying the draw result noted that the winner of the 3 vs. 6 quarterfinal would host the second leg of their eventual semifinal, the regulations give preference to the 2 vs. 7 winner [Art. 2.2.3 f, ii]. The following is the revised knockout bracket, with the team listed first hosting the second leg of each series.

Quarterfinals

1 vs. 8
4 vs. 5
2 vs. 7
3 vs. 6

Semifinals

1/8 winner vs. 4/5 winner
2/7 winner vs. 3/6 winner

Final

1/4/5/8 winner vs. 2/3/6/7 winner

- Finally, the allocation of CCL berths (by pot) is included in Appendix A. Curiously, instead of including the Belizean and Nicaraguan championships among those in Pot C, the list contains “SLV3″ and “HON3″ (in both the English and Spanish-language versions). Considering that Real Esteli have already been drawn into Group 6, and that their home stadium has already been approved for CCL play, I presume the Nicaraguans will lobby to get that typo fixed for next year.

I am aware of the number of complaints that have been voiced over the new format, from the decision to separate US and Mexican teams in the group stage to freezing the knockout bracket, instead of letting the higher-ranked team host throughout. Regardless, we should not lose sight of the tremendous improvement in transparency provided in the new regulations. Now, instead of the path to the CCL title and the Club World Cup being determined behind closed doors in New York, without cameras present to dispel rumors of favoritism or anti-Mexican bias, the knockout round will be set up based on readily-available criteria that can be independently monitored. Now, instead of Monterrey having to play the second leg of CCL finals on the road because CONCACAF said so, they will be able to earn the #1 rank based on their own efforts (i.e. taking the first team down to Guatemala and Panama and blazing through Group 7). Or RSL could earn the honors by torching Group 2. Or, for all we know, Olimpia could slip in as the fourth-best group winner, claw their way through the knockout round and host the second leg of the CCL Final in Tegucigalpa. Either way, it’s out of Enrique Sanz’s hands now.

Speaking of the new CONCACAF General Secretary, I will finish up with a couple of reactions to Bill’s piece on the Jeffrey Webb interview. First, if Webb aimed to avoid upsetting any one of the blocs within our region, the shrewd, outside-the-box selection of the Colombian-born Sanz suggests that Webb may be more adept at handling CONCACAF politics than we initially imagined. Of course, moving the administrative headquarters to Sanz’s home base of Miami should also improve accessibility for football officials in Central America and the Caribbean. It does increase travel distances for the Canadians, but for some reason I presume they will have no difficulty getting to Florida.

As for the discussion of possibly moving the Gold Cup out of the US, I would just like to point out one thing: we already know where Euro 2016 will be held. The hosts have over four years to make sure that infrastructure is up to standard, and fans have plenty of time to seek out travel packages and excuse themselves from work for the continental extravaganza. On our side, though, whoever would host the 2015 Gold Cup (assuming it is not the US) still has no idea that this event is coming, and preparations would have to take place on short notice.

Which countries would be able to handle these conditions? Canada is out of the picture, with a couple of events already filling out the CSA’s 2015 summer calendar. As for Central America and the Caribbean, Costa Rica and Panama could present a strong joint candidacy, with the former already set to improve infrastructure for the 2014 u-17 Women’s World Cup (imagine USA vs. Jamaica at Jacó beach). If CONCACAF elects to move the tournament, then I would be hard-pressed to see anyone other than Mexico or Costa Rica/Panama receiving the honors.

There is also the important question of how this would affect CONCACAF finances. In my view, the argument that focuses on CONCACAF damaging its own golden goose is based on the reality of a year ago, when Chuck Blazer pointed out that the Gold Cup was the only tournament that made money for the confederation. In the present day, however, a couple of new factors need to be taken into account: first, the CONCACAF Champions League is no longer the “long-term investment” (read: money loser) that it was back in 2008. The number of matches prior to the knockout round, where the lowest attendances were recorded, have been reduced from 64 to 48; overall attendance has grown 32 percent since 2008; and in a positive indication of the tournament’s value as a TV property, Fox Sports outbid ESPN for the Latin America broadcasting rights for next season.

Secondly, if all goes well with negotiations, CONCACAF will soon be able to look forward to the expanded Copa América as a secondary source of revenue. If the 2016 Panamericana can earn hefty TV contracts in North America (as well as the rest of the world), then CONCACAF could well receive enough not only to commit to a new World Cup cycle (1 Gold Cup + 1 expanded Copa América every four years) but move their own championship around the region.

Whether anything comes of this soundbite will depend on how Webb manages the expectations of his constituencies, as well as the extent to which CONMEBOL is willing to cooperate. But the idea may be more feasible than it would appear, under current circumstances.

Finally, on a different note: often it appears that those in the blogosphere operate on separate planets, blissfully unaware of each other’s work. However, I did want to acknowledge the impact that the HexagonalBlog, maintained by Howard Hamilton since 2005, has had on my interest in football through our region. He recently announced that due to the demands of managing his start-up company Soccermetrics Research, he will scale back on his writing for HexagonalBlog. I would like to express my appreciation for his work, my agreement with his assertion that “there is more to CONCACAF than the USA and Mexico”, and my hope that he finds an acceptable means for continuing to provide his unique, valuable perspective on our sport.

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