By J Hutcherson (Feb 18, 2020) US Soccer Players - For better or worse, part of the job of a confederation is to run championships for its region. The history of Concacaf's efforts for club and country are stories of relevance, issues, money, and if we're being honest, relevance all over again. The club version, in particular, is a story of trying to force meaning on a competition that may not have any. That's as true for the clubs involved as the players over the years. Concacaf has had issues pushing its tournament to the top of the table across the region.
It's worth the reminder that the giants of the original North American Soccer League gave the old Champions Cup a hard pass during that league's prime in the late 1970s. They eventually subbed in their own TransAtlantic Cup rather than bother with Concacaf's tournament. Enforcing participation rules for member leagues took away that option, but the Champions League is still an obligation. Concacaf may hold the key to the Club World Cup, but that tournament is also firmly in the obligation category.
FIFA is attempting to change that with their revamp of the Club World Cup, but it's happening alongside new tournaments and revamps across the board. Anything to add broadcast inventory whole playing up an importance that may or may not really exist. That's the problem with any tournament that isn't UEFA's Champions League, and even that proven moneymaker faces an existential threat. That's in part because it's so good at making money. The clubs know that they're the reason why and it's not a huge step for them to wonder if they need UEFA's involvement.
Meanwhile, Concacaf forces the issue across their region. Clubs from weaker leagues face an unnecessarily laborious qualifying process with scant reward. Knocking off an MLS team focused on the start of the season isn't exactly a moment of glory. It's also unlikely to move the needle for how many fans that club draws at home. If it did, Concacaf would tell us all about it. We're talking about a tournament where the Mexico home games normally require significant discounts to draw a respectable crowd.
Liga MX clubs win the Champions League, full stop. That gets them additional games courtesy of FIFA with no significant blowback if they don't play well at the world championship level. So there's very little risk for a questionable reward. A big reason for that is MLS teams failing at Champions League.
Sub in whatever you like for "failing" because it's worth asking if that's what is happening. The Champions League gets a lot of play in MLS circles for two reasons. It's an obligated part of the schedule, and it comes at a time that doesn't favor MLS. With the league in preseason, it's easy to overplay the Champions League. That too wasn't always the case.
Back in the early days of the league, CONCACAF's championship got the unnecessary obligation treatment from most of its entrants. Played out over a compact schedule normally at the same site, winning it wasn't unimpeachable evidence for regional superiority. DC United became the intercontinental champions in 1998 by beating Vasco da Gama with their opponents playing their home leg in front of a sparse crowd in Fort Lauderdale. That's how that sort of thing used to go. Now, everything needs the importance that justifies its place on the schedule and the rights fees. Otherwise, why bother?
The confederations and FIFA will point to their right to obligate, but that quickly runs up against the opinions of the clubs involved. If not enough of them take a tournament seriously, why would anybody else?
For Concacaf's championship, importance has never been a guarantee. It would be nice for the organizers, but clubs are aware that they could run tournaments themselves. The new MLS vs Liga MX Leagues Cup can't include the best teams in deference to the Champions League, but it's the obvious step. They can force games that count onto their schedules in concert with their clubs. Even that slight change in scope is enough to matter for all involved. That it's a direct challenge to Concacaf may be important only in theory. Concacaf keeps the elite teams from both leagues for their tournament. Why would they care enough to intervene with what the two best leagues in their region do with their mid-table clubs?
Well, because it's not just UEFA and FIFA needing to pay attention to the limit of inconveniencing their primary drivers. Elite clubs exist relative to scale. In Concacaf, it's Liga MX and MLS topping that table. That's the most competitive teams from the lucrative media markets, something no promoter is going to ignore. Draw up a tournament, and it's likely to involve teams from Mexico City, LA, and New York. Add in Miami with MLS putting another important piece in play.
Concacaf's place in this scenario is insisting on its importance. The Champions League has to matter because it's a Concacaf property. Everything else slots in under its position as the bureaucratic head of soccer in this region. They can insist, obligating membership as long as they have the votes to keep what they want on the schedule. That doesn't answer the question about the importance of the Champions League, but it guarantees it keeps its place short of a fundamental reshuffling of the power structure in this sport. Considering what FIFA and UEFA are up to, that's not out of the question.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
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