Next year's CONCACAF Champions League competition will look significantly different from current and previous versions. Ted Howard, CONCACAF's acting general secretary, announced today that the preliminary round would be eliminated from the competition, and all 24 qualifying clubs will proceed directly to a group stage containing eight groups of three teams each. All sides will play a minimum of four group matches.
The clubs will be seeded into the Champions League in the following manner:
|Pot 1||Pot 2||Pot 3|
|USA 1||USA 3||CFU 1|
|USA 2||USA 4||CFU 2|
|Mexico 1||Mexico 3||CFU 3|
|Mexico 2||Mexico 4||Belize 1|
|Costa Rica 1||Canada 1||Nicaragua 1|
|Guatemala 1||El Salvador 1||El Salvador 2|
|Honduras 1||Costa Rica 2||Guatemala 2|
|Panama 1||Honduras 2||Panama 2|
So those are the facts of the new competition. What are the implications?
The first is that all teams that qualify for the Champions League will play at least four matches -- two to six fewer matches for the regular participants in the competition, and two more matches for those teams who have not advanced past the preliminary round (most of the Caribbean sides, and Nicaragua and Belize).
MLS teams will be particularly grateful for the reduction of matches as they deal with an expanded eight month season, while Mexican clubs will be pleased with the reduced travel demands and competition level. With American and Mexican teams kept separate during the group stage, the latter teams are more likely to field reserve teams in the group matches.
The Caribbean and minor Central American countries will have more Champions League matches, which presents opportunity and risk. The clubs from these countries have the opportunity to gain international experience and perhaps some additional gate revenue. The risk is that these clubs will not be able to complete their group schedules. One would imagine that even these sides could travel to two away matches in the region, but I fear that we will become aware of the clause in the Champions League rulebook governing team withdrawals.
I don't believe the Preliminary Round will be particularly missed. It was never very well-attended and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that CONCACAF ran a financial loss for that phase of the tournament. The challenge for CONCACAF now is to make the group stage viable from a competition and financial standpoint.