On Wednesday, the Houston Dynamo defeated W Connection of Trinidad and Tobago 2-0 in CONCACAF Champions League play, while the Los Angeles Galaxy traveled to San Jose, Costa Rica, to beat C.S. Cartagines 3-0. It was not the best use of time for all the clubs involved.
The CONCACAF Champions League is, for the most part, not all too valuable for Major League Soccer teams. It is well behind even the Europa League, UEFA’s oft-ridiculed secondary cup competition. Next to its namesake, Europe's finest offerings, the CCL is not on the same planet.
One issue is the lack of anything approaching competitive balance. In the five years CONCACAF’s top-level club trophy has been saddled with the seemingly satirical “Champions League” moniker, all five winners have been from Mexico. Nine of 10 finalists have been from Mexico, and 14 of 20 semifinalists have been from Mexico. In the CCL, it’s Liga MX by a mile, then MLS, then everyone else.
MLS sides matched up against Caribbean and Central American clubs in the group stage often play virtual reserve sides and either breeze through walkovers or are (with reason) accused of apathy towards the tournament. Upon reaching the knockout rounds, they find themselves overmatched by the richer, deeper and more talented Liga MX teams.
This Mexican domination would at least be palatable if the wider substance of the CCL wasn’t so constantly bordering on the farcical. Teams with inadequate facilities are required to find alternative venues or risk being thrown out. In most cases, this means clubs playing in cavernously empty national stadiums in front of a few dozen fans. Due to a lack of usable stadiums, no team from Belize has ever participated in the CCL. They aren’t missing much.
Top-level professional sports are driven by television revenues. Here, the product offered by the CONCACAF Champions League may be generously described as painfully lacking. Of the three CCL ties played Wednesday, just one was carried on traditional national television in the USA (Houston's win over W Connection on Fox Sports 2).
For those few games carried on FS2, the broadcaster continues in the long-standing tradition of Fox soccer broadcasts having only the merest acquaintance with production values. And those are the lucky ones. Matches relegated to the online streaming of Fox Soccer 2Go are, on the occasions they aren’t blurry or buffering to the point of being unwatchable, often played without a score box or clock and only occasionally provided with a single, largely uninterested commentator.
For the teams most tasked with selling it, and the most to gain from a thriving continental competition, the CCL is a huge step down from league play until the latter stages, often in quality of play and facilities, and universally in terms of the televisual production. Liga MX and MLS sides could replicate the CCL experience at a lower time and monetary cost by playing friendlies between their respective first and reserve teams and live-streaming the proceedings, sacrificing little more than the thin veneer of legitimacy afforded by CONCACAF sanctioning.
They could call it "SuperLiga."
How To Fix The CCL
The CONCACAF Champions League is not a lost cause. It needs, broadly speaking, two elements to be successful. It needs viewers to want to watch the product on offer, and it needs large clubs to take it seriously so an improved product can be offered. The two are inextricably linked.
Shrink the field, expand the contenders: There are two leagues, Liga MX and MLS, with a plausible chance of producing a CCL winner. These leagues currently contribute nine of the 24 clubs in the competition (four each from Mexico and the USA, one in Canada). This leaves 15 teams, almost two thirds of the field, just there to make up the numbers. CONCACAF doesn't have enough quality teams in enough quality leagues to justify such an imbalance, and too many of the CCL group stage matchups end up as broadcasting dead weight.
The CCL should shrink the number of teams involved and increase the number of teams with a chance at winning. The group stage should be limited to 16 teams, in four groups of four, and a pair of two-legged pre-tournament qualification phases should be added, with all spots determined by a nation's overall performance in the five previous years.
Twelve spots would go to automatic qualifiers, with the final four to be fought over by the 16 teams in the qualification spots. The top eight clubs in the competition (based on previous performance) would be seeded to promote balance. This would make the CCL group stage more palatable to broadcasters and the fixtures more enticing for fans, while actually offering a greater number of teams a chance at continental competition.
As a rough example, four automatic spots and two qualification spots would go to the top-ranked nation. Two automatic and two qualification spots would go to the second-ranked nation, with fewer spots available to nations whose clubs haven't performed well in past years.
To accommodate the existing special cases, one automatic spot and two qualification spots would be made available to the three teams qualifying via the CFU Club Championship, while the winner of the Canadian Championship would receive a single automatic spot and the U.S. Open Cup winner would receive a qualification spot. In practice, this would give Liga MX six and MLS five of the 28 available spots. Of the 16 group stage places, seven would automatically go to North American sides, with a potential maximum of 11 in a miracle draw that kept Mexican and U.S. qualifiers apart.
Example Allocation (based on previous CCL performance, five preceding tournaments):
Under this format, the teams with absolutely no business being in the competition would be eliminated in two or four games before the group stage instead of looking out of depth and embarrassingly under-supported in a third of the games in the more valuable group stage.
The top two teams from each group would progress, giving the CCL knockout rounds from the quarterfinal stage onwards. The qualification spaces would be re-allocated at the end of every tournament, based on performance. A country whose clubs consistently perform well would win more spots over time.
Incentivize the clubs: European clubs don't obsess over Champions League qualification because they really want to visit Manchester in January. The financial reward for continental qualification, much less winning the whole thing, makes it a worthwhile endeavor. While CONCACAF doesn't have the financial muscle of UEFA, its clubs require far less to be motivated. A few hundred thousand dollars in CONCACAF has the same effect as several million euros in UEFA. Funds could be obtained from a share of CONCACAF World Cup TV rights (now that Jack Warner is no longer buying the Caribbean broadcast rights for $1), a cut of Gold Cup revenues, and renegotiated CCL TV contracts which would improve due to the presence of an increased number of notable clubs from countries with larger TV audiences.
Streamline the schedule and improve the broadcasting: With a third fewer clubs in the mix, the CCL schedule could be cut down to two days per week during the six week long Group Stage, which would start in late summer. Four games would be played per day, with two at 7 p.m. ET and two at 9 p.m. ET. For the lucrative North American markets, this would allow broadcasters to pick one match to show from each pair and give viewers a regular prime time slot. Setting minimum production standards and requiring on-site broadcast teams would help make the games watchable for the casual fan.
The CONCACAF Champions League, in its current form, is mostly irrelevant. But it doesn't have to stay that way.
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