Concacaf released its long-awaited revision of its premier club championship -- the Concacaf Champions League -- and it doesn't do anything to allay MLS's concerns that the knockout stage of the
tournament falls just as its clubs are about to begin their seasons or have just begun them.
The number of U.S. and Canadian entrants remains the same: 4+1. The U.S., Mexican and Canadian
entrants -- as well as the champions from Central America's big five nations and the Caribbean -- go straight into the knockout stage, which will again take place from February to May. The one
difference: the finalists will have played four instead of three two-leg rounds.
The new format expands from 24 to 31 the number of entrants and eliminates the group stage that was held
in July to October. Instead, 16 teams from Central America and the Caribbean compete in Phase 1, a four-round knockout competition that will send the winner to Phase 2.
expansion of the CONCACAF club competitions platform to 31 clubs,” said Concacaf president Victor Montagliani
, "is an important step forward in the Confederation’s efforts to
include more member association representation and increase participation at the highest levels of our competition."
The extra entrants go to Central America -- one more team from Costa
Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador and Nicaragua -- and the Caribbean -- the fourth-place team in the Caribbean Cup.
Concacaf bills the new format as allowing "for a less
congested schedule for all participating clubs."
MLS teams don't have to play in the group stage, saving four dates in the summer and fall -- and considerable travel in the late part of
the regular season. (In 2016, Matchday 6 fell days before the final day of the MLS regular season.)
MLS and Liga MX clubs will be assured of reaching the new Phase 2. The Portland Timbers
and Monterrey were eliminated by Central American opponents in the group stage of the 2016-17 competition that resumes in late February.
But unlike Mexican and Central American teams that
play split seasons and will be in the middle of the second half of their seasons, MLS clubs are just starting up in late winter. In this year's quarterfinals, the New York Red Bulls will play the
Vancouver Whitecaps and FC Dallas will meet Panama's Arabe Unido in both legs of the quarterfinals before the MLS begins its 2017 season in March.
While pushing Phase 2 to later in the spring
would be MLS's preference, Concacaf will have to squeeze an extra round into the schedule. And it faces a hard end-date of the end of May when the Mexican and Central American club seasons wrap up.
Once June hits, international play takes priority.
The downside of playing the Concacaf Champions League in a calendar year -- Phase 1 in the spring and Phase 2 in the summer and fall --
is that MLS teams would be forced to prioritize their participation in domestic and regional competitions. In the group stage, MLS teams often sent out reserve teams, even calling up players from
their USL affiliates.
If MLS clubs are going to play in the regional competition, they should be playing their first teams. Indeed, ESPN FC reported that MLS wanted to avoid having its clubs play in the
fall because of the priority it places on the end of the regular season.
While Concacaf's calendar is certainly an issue, it didn't stop Real Salt Lake and the Montreal Impact from making
the final of the Concacaf Champions League in 2011 and 2015, respectively, and earning ties on the road in the first leg.
More than a better schedule, better players -- which MLS is
addressing with its TAM program -- will ultimately determine whether an MLS club finally wins the Concacaf Champions League.