There's no imitation
CONCACAF Champions League is an ill-bred concept
Posted: Friday February 1, 2008 11:30AM; Updated: Friday February 1, 2008 12:40PM
Europe has the UEFA Champions League, South America has the Copa Libertadores. Almost by default, North America also has to hold an international club tournament that pits champion against champion.
The model in use now, the CONCACAF Champions' Cup, has produced quality games in recent years, but typically always follows a similar pattern: Mexican teams win, Costa Rican teams come close and MLS teams whine that it's their preseason.
But despite the obvious disparity between the soccer haves and have-nots that comprise its member nations, CONCACAF this week unveiled its latest and most ambitious plans for an international club tournament. The CONCACAF Champions League will begin play in August and will include more than just the eight teams currently invited to the Champions' Cup.
This new tournament, though, has far more questions than answers and more holes than the Guatemalan national team's defense.
A full 24 teams will participate, with a third of the clubs getting an automatic bye into the group stage. Sixteen clubs will participate in two-leg series to determine the other eight teams in the field. The entire group stage will be played in September and October, but we'll have to wait nearly four months for the knockout rounds to begin.
Sure, the mother of all champions leagues -- Europe's version -- also takes a prolonged break between the final group-stage games and the first knockout matches. But all that does is generate more buzz and anticipation for fans and media willing to wait patiently for epic matchups. CONCACAF will lose whatever momentum it built up from the group stage following its winter slumber.
Handing out automatic spots to member nations also produced some head-scratching decisions. Mexico will be allotted four clubs, which makes sense since its league is tops in the region. But the U.S. also gets four clubs -- twice as many as Costa Rica.
And if Toronto FC also gets in as Canada's representative, MLS will have five representatives in the tournament even though the American-based league has severely underperformed in previous CONCACAF Champions' Cup tournaments.
Even more puzzling is the poor treatment Costa Rica gets. Its two biggest clubs, Deportivo Saprissa and Alajuelense, have traditionally outmuscled MLS clubs. Saprissa won the Champions' Cup in 2005, knocking off the L.A. Galaxy en route to the title. No matter, though. MLS gets four, possibly five teams in, while Costa Rica gets as many as Panama.
The tournament might also turn out to be a curse for some MLS teams. Typically, some MLS clubs have a hard time fielding competitive teams for both league play and the U.S. Open Cup, and many eschew the latter by fielding reserves for it. Throw in a tournament with a potentially brutal travel schedule and MLS teams might be on fumes in all competitions come September.
Chivas USA, for instance, was one of the best clubs in MLS a year ago, but by October the club had peaked, and that was before injuries ravaged the squad. Addin the factor of a travel calendar that could have them playing in league games on both coasts, with a trip down to the Caribbean sandwiched in between. Such a logistical nightmare could be enough to knock out any club from league and cup play.
Still, the allure of watching clubs from this region is there, however minimal. World Cup qualifying and the CONCACAF Gold Cup have long been the best way for nations of this area to duel and show whose soccer is best. Now, the leagues will have the same opportunity to do so, and there could be some exciting matches.
But that could have been done in a much shorter time frame and would have cost a lot less money. If the Champions' Cup wasn't working -- and this new league style points to that tournament's failures -- why not condense it instead of expanding on it?
Why not generate interest and good soccer in a short amount of time rather than having it drone on for months? CONCACAF could have held this tournament in much the same way is it did the 2000 version. In a week's span in Southern California, teams from all across the region fought for the title.
CONCACAF could do the same now: Hold matches in one venue over the course of a week or so and crown the champion that way. Less financially secure clubs would only need to travel once instead of three times and all clubs could focus on their league campaigns and divert their own resources towards those.
Instead, we'll be stuck with an overkill of games this summer. Already, SuperLiga will take up a portion of it. The first year produced some very good games and classic moments, but can that be replicated? When that tournament is over, we'll have more games that supposedly matter, all while the individual leagues in the region will either be starting or heading down the stretch.
For now, the CONCACAF Champions League is just another ill-fated tournament with little upside.