By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Feb 21, 2018) US Soccer Players – It’s time to pay attention to the CONCACAF Champions League. The confederation’s most important club competition is new again for 2018, keeping the top leagues out of the group stage which now operates as a separate feeder competition. That’s something easily missed, highlighting a major problem with the tournament.
Getting attention for the Champions League is a long-term problem. Lots of fans either don’t know it exists or don’t care enough about it to give it their time. And yet, this new-look tournament is intriguing. This latest format change, which all but eliminated the group stage and is essentially a knockout-only competition, seemed like a step backward. Now that it’s here the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League promises to bring some drama and intrigue as leagues are now in the spotlight for the first time since last spring.
The CONCACAF Champions League is an ever-evolving competition. While that evolution is a source of frustration and confusion, it’s not necessarily a negative. It seems that no matter the format, this tournament has always produced emotion and tension. Tuesday’s opening games did that. Colorado vs Toronto FC provided the first test for the defending MLS Cup champions while Tigres vs Herediano was a solid showing for the Liga MX and Costa Rican clubs.
There was certainly some drama in the opening games. Toronto FC turned a clinical second-half into a 2-0 takedown of Colorado. Sebastian Giovinco provided a nifty goal while the club showed that its dominant 2017 form should carry over into this year. Tigres and Herediano did better in the early game. Tigres held a 2-0 lead in the 89th minute. They gave away a penalty with Herediano scoring the equalizer in the third minute of stoppage time. That meant a 2-2 draw and questions for the defending Liga MX champions heading into next week’s second-leg at Estadio Universitario.
Moments like those are what make this tournament a must-watch event. Two games into this phase of the tournament and both were worth watching. There are 28 more games left in this tournament, from the Round of 16 all the way through to the final. That means more opportunity for CONCACAF to show why their tournament matters.
It’s that drama that keeps this tournament going. That is the major selling point for this event. Sure, the tournament decides which club is the best and by proxy which league is superior. MLS fans typically band together and pull for the remaining MLS teams, the result of years of Liga MX dominance.
That’s the problem with the CONCACAF Champions League as we know it. The winning league is a foregone conclusion. The only real question is which Liga MX club will take the title.
MLS is changing and with it the competition with Liga MX. Is the commitment to spending producing teams that can advance past Liga MX clubs? Is MLS catching up? A decade ago or more, the money tossed around to MLS player salaries was not what it is now. While MLS salaries are still not what they are around the globe, there are plenty of millionaires and other high-priced players in that call MLS home.
Then there’s the calendar. MLS and Liga MX don’t match, with Liga MX already in their Clausura season when the Champions League begins. The old group phase at least had the potential for Liga MX and MLS teams to meet in season. Now, the new group phase is limited to Caribbean and Central American teams and qualifies exactly one team into the knockout round. It’s hard to decide one league is obviously better with such a limited data set and this schedule.
Perhaps the best format the CONCACAF Champions League had was when 16 teams were spread out over four groups, with each team playing three group-stage matches at home and three away. That version, which ran from the 2008-09 tournament through the 2011-12 edition, was a true tournament. There were difficult groups, not-so-challenging groups, must-win group matches, and travel challenges. To survive the group stage was an accomplishment.
Now, the tournament proper looks a lot like an expanded version of the old CONCACAF Champions Cup. Initially, that seemed like a regression, an admission of failure. Then again, the tournament may have simply realized what the selling point is – drama. This tournament is not about what league is best or what club is best. It is about providing dramatic moments on fields across the confederation.
Even in the short-lived version that existed around the turn of the century featured some drama. That event, which was played exclusively in the United States in a couple-weeks timeframe and in no way tested CONCACAF teams. For one, teams could not take advantage of their home grounds. No altitude or weather challenges, no dodgy Central American fields or sketchy airports to navigate.
Will the best team win the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League? Sure, but does that mean that team or that team’s league is the best in CONCACAF? That doesn’t matter. This tournament is good soccer, good drama with a champion at the end. Call it the Champions Cup or the Champions League or the Champions Showdown for that matter, so long as we get drama and intensity. We’re already seeing that in 2018.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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