Making the CONCACAF Champions League Work


The inaugural CONCACAF Champions League is in the books and to nobody’s surprise it was won by a Mexican side, Atlante. The club which struggled to attract fans in Mexico City until moving to Cancun less than two years ago now represents the region at the FIFA Club World Cup.

But the tournament has proven to have many flaws. Most notably the over representation from a league whose last CONCACAF finalist was nine years ago and the involvement of second division sides in the tournament. A tournament that features as many automatic entries from MLS as the FMF can only be said to completely lack credibility.

My opinion which truthfully doesn’t matter in this debate is that every single Mexican First Division side would compete to win MLS Cup. Even Nexaca or Indios this season would be among the handful of strongest MLS teams. So given that opinion, I obviously do not believe the two leagues should be equally represented in the Continental Championship.

MLS fans often make assumptions about Mexican Football based on wishful thinking or simple ignorance. I’ve read many an article claiming the leagues are comparable in quality. As I have stated before I am a strong supporter of MLS but the hubris some supporters insist on showing with comparisons which lack credibility or any sort of critical eye on their favored product are simply laughable.

Most MLS fans don’t watch Mexican Football regularly (I on the other hand try to catch at least two FMF games each weekend and am looking forward to the Clausura playoffs which start this week) and base their analysis of the league on what English language European or MLS oriented journalists write about it.

It is really difficult to describe the gap between the two leagues because I think it is possibly as wide as the perceived gulf between MLS and many second tier European leagues. MLS fans need not despair: The league is what it is, the only live first division football the world’s most powerful and important nation can provide. But to continue to make silly comparisons between an obvious third tier league and those that are first and second tier leagues undermines the cause of promoting the sport and the American game.

This all having been said, MLS deserves some guarantees from CONCACAF going forward. This means two guaranteed slots for US based MLS teams and a guaranteed spot for Toronto FC and then beginning in 2011, a playoff between TFC and the Whitecaps.  USL-1 sides would be ineligible for these slots and would be forced to qualify through a play off with the 3rd place Honduran team before the qualifying round.  The reigning USL-1 Champion (this year, Vancouver) would participate in that play in game.

Puerto Rico would still be able to qualify and compete in the CCL via the CFU Caribbean Club Cup. The Islanders are in the semi-finals to be held this weekend and a win there would put them back in the tournament. Canada’s spot should be given automatically to Toronto FC for the 2009-10, and 2010-11 tournaments. Beginning in 2011 a playoff should occur between TFC and the Whitecaps, with Montreal’s potential MLS entry joining the fray in the future.

The two vacated US spots would be awarded one each to Mexico and the Caribbean. Costa Rica would not gain a spot as has been argued by some considering the poor performance of Costa Rican teams in the recently completed competition, even though Saprissa did reach the finals of the final CONCACAF Champions Cup.

Thus MLS would be reduced to two US based spots and one Canadian spot. This actually matches the current guarantee for MLS spots with the Canadian Cup and US Open Cup being eliminated as qualifying tournaments. So MLS isn’t being punished, but the FMF is being rewarded based on performance while the Caribbean is being rewarded for the Islanders run and Joe Public’s 6-1 aggregate thrashing of an MLS team last year.

The USSF could under this formula ask CONCACAF to award spots not to MLS specifically but to the federation which then would allow for the US Open Cup champion to re-enter the tournament. However, I do not expect the USSF to make such a move and likely will embrace this as a way to reinforce the USL’s second division status which has now become questionable in the eyes of some, thanks to the most recent CONCACAF tournament. Thus the Open Cup would lose its automatic spot and the Nutralite Canadian Championship can be suspended until 2011 at the earliest.

The Open Cup is not a proper cup competition to determine a spot in a Continental Championship. The USSF awards home games based on financial bids from participating clubs. In the later rounds of the tournament this almost always means MLS clubs play host to USL-1 or USL-2 clubs.

I’ve heard many an MLS proponent put down USL by stating that the MLS always wins the Open Cup. But the reality is the MLS teams tend to win Open Cup matches at their home ground while USL teams tend to win on their home ground. MLS teams almost always host the semifinals or finals and thus win the tournament.

The criteria MLS uses to determine who fills its CCL entries is entirely up to the league itself. Mexico would gain a fifth spot to presumably be assigned to the winner of Interliga, or by using some other formula while every semifinalist in the Caribbean Cup would now make the Champions League. Hopefully at some point in the near future Belize can earn back the spot that CONCACAF took away from the nation last week and awarded to Honduras, giving the Honduran League a third CL qualifier. We propose to allow USL-1 to have an opportunity to gain that spot given to Honduras last year through a play in game prior to the qualifying round.

Only by recognizing the pre-eminence of the FMF in the region can the CONCACAF Champions League gain the credibility it needs and quite frankly deserves as our continental championship. Much like UEFA’s formulas for awarding spots based on countries this is a work in progress. We must be patient as CONCACAF tries to establish this tournament the way we all know it should be.

The final breakdown would look like this:

Mexico  5

CFU      4

USA       2    (MLS only)

Honduras 2

Costa Rica  2

Guatemala 2

Panama 2

El Salvador 2

Nicaragua 1

Canada 1 (MLS Only)

Play in  1: USL-1 Champions (US/Canada only) versus Honduran 3rd place. *

If Puerto Rico Islanders win USL-1, the league runner up qualifies for the play in game.

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About Kartik Krishnaiyer

A lifelong lover of soccer, the beautiful game, he served from January 2010 until May 2013 as the Director of Communications and Public Relations for the North American Soccer League (NASL). Raised on the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the old NASL, Krishnaiyer previously hosted the American Soccer Show on the Champions Soccer Radio Network, the Major League Soccer Talk podcast and the World Soccer Talk Podcast. His soccer writing has been featured by several media outlets including The Guardian and The Telegraph. He is the author of the books 'Blue With Envy' about Manchester City FC, and 'Soccerwarz' about the MLS, USL and NASL infighting.
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