The fourth edition of the CONCACAF Champions League kicks off tonight with a significantly altered competition over last season's. Gone is the Preliminary Round that fed into the Group Stage; now all 24 participants are guaranteed a minimum of four matches in eight three-team groups. Only the winners advance to the knockout round, and there is no longer a second draw for the Championship Round. Instead the records of the group winners will determine the seedings in the second stage. A very different format, and less work for the CONCACAF front office.
When the draw came out in June, I felt that the main questions for the competition would be the following:
- Will all the Mexican representatives advance?
- Will all of the American MLS representatives advance?
- How many of the top four seeds will be occupied by Mexican clubs?
I believe the answer to Question 1 is yes. There are no American sides that Mexican teams have to play against in the group stage, and with four matches -- all of which are important -- Liga MX teams will be obliged to play their strongest squads. (At least in theory that should be true.) Alajuelense will be the strongest side a Mexican team will face in this stage, and I don't see them overcoming UANL Tigres. The other Mexican clubs should win their respective groups somewhat comfortably.
I will have to answer 'No' to Question 2. Major League Soccer teams will always enter this competition at a disadvantage -- the group stage starts when they are in mid-season form yet beginning to feel the effects of fixture congestion, and the knockout rounds start when teams are in pre-season mode in the New Year. There is the cherry of the FIFA Club World Cup, but the Champions League has little of the financial windfall that rewards participants of the other continental club tournaments, so it's easy to see why some MLS sides can't be bothered. On the field, I believe that American MLS clubs are better on average than their non-Mexican competitors, but the difference in class is not as great as there exists between Mexican teams and everyone else, so upsets are a possibility. I believe chances for a surprise result are greatest in Groups 2 (Herediano and RSL) and 5 (LA Galaxy and Puerto Rico Islanders), Herediano were the best team in Costa Rica and USL teams are exceptionally motivated against MLS counterparts.
As for Question 3, I would answer "Three". With four matches in the group stage, the group winners advancing, and their records determining their knockout draw, no team can afford to take any match lightly. I think most of the Mexican representatives will qualify for the knockout stage with a match to spare, but that final group match will determine where in the draw they land. Maybe the Sounders and/or Houston Dynamo can be the team that breaks the Mexican dominance in the top four -- RSL can do it as well if they defeat Herediano in Costa Rica -- but away matches will be more uncertain for them.
We'll know where everyone really stands in the Champions League by the end of this week. Yes, the matches are that important now.