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There’s a lot to like about new CCL format

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New regionalized group stage will increase the number of games between MLS and Liga MX while limiting travel.

Look forward to more MLS-Liga MX matchups in the new CCL format.
Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

I’ll admit that my first reaction to news that we were getting yet another Concacaf Champions League format was a bit of an eye roll. This will be the fourth format that CCL has adopted — not including last year’s weirdness — since it was created as a replacement for the Concacaf Champions Cup. It’s not that any of those formats were perfect, to be clear, but the constant change has created an even higher bar of entry for more casual fans than already existed.

But once I allowed myself to focus on what the changes actually are, I slowly started to come around. Now, I think this might be pretty close to an ideal format.

First a little history...

The CCL was born in 2008 and was originally envisioned in a format that closely mimicked the much more famous UEFA Champions League. The group stage was comprised of four groups of four teams, which had been whittled down after eight of those teams made it through from the preliminary round. They played a double-round robin of home and away games with the top two teams advancing to the quarterfinals of a knockout stage that was comprised of three rounds of home-and-away competition.

The most games a team could play in that format was 14, assuming a team advanced from the preliminary round to the final. Not only was that a lot of games, the federation stretched from Canada to the northern reaches of South America. In 2011, the Sounders traveled as far south as Panama while also making trips to Guatemala, Costa Rica and Mexico.

Given the number of games and the extreme travel, Concacaf changed the format for the 2012-13 edition. The preliminary round was scrapped and eight three-team groups replaced the four-team groups. That shaved as many as four games off teams’ schedules, but came at the cost of having fewer marquee matches between MLS and Liga MX teams.

That format lasted four years before Concacaf changed it again, this time getting rid of the group stage entirely. The new format was a bit more confusing and included an elaborate secondary tournament called the Concacaf League. There 16 teams — mostly from Central America and the Caribbean — played for a chance to grab the final spot in CCL which was itself comprised of various Liga MX, MLS and bigger Central American teams.

For the 15 teams directly drawn into CCL, the most games they could now play was down to eight. This came with the added benefit of a higher percentage of games being played against the federation’s more monied teams, at least theoretically increasing visibility.

Which finally brings us to the latest announcement.

The new format

I’m not going to get into the whole thing, because frankly I’m not that interested in the parts that will never involve the Sounders. If you’re really interested in those parts, watch this video. The main takeaway is that starting in the second half of 2023 the group stage is back, but with a twist: There are now 50 teams in total, which are broken into three regions.

The North American region — where MLS teams will all play — will be comprised of 20 teams from the United States, Canada and Mexico. Teams will qualify through league play, cup competition and the winner of the Leagues Cup between MLS and Liga MX. As few as seven and as many as 10 MLS teams could potentially qualify. Those 20 teams will be placed in four five-team groups which will play each other just once, two games at home and two games on the road.

The top two teams from each of those groups will automatically advance to the 16-team knockout stage and the top three third-place finishers will face off in a qualifying round. The knockout stage will also feature two legs in each round before closing out with a single-game final.

Mostly positive changes

The more I’ve thought about this new format, the more I like it. I think Concacaf has found a nice balance between inclusivity without sacrificing the most compelling matchups and creating an interesting format while putting reasonable limits of games and travel.

The busiest teams can still play as many as 13 games — four in the group stage, two in the qualifying round and as many as seven in the knockout stage — but that’s counter-balanced by dramatically cutting down on the mileage teams must cover. The North American region is still quite large, but it’s about half as long as it was in previous iterations.

The group stage will have few enough games that every one will feel important but be against enough different opponents that there will be some variety. While MLS teams will be drawn into groups with as many as two other MLS teams, they’ll get to play at least two Mexican opponents.

The Sounders seem to be one of the teams almost guaranteed to benefit from this new format. If we assume at least the top 7 MLS teams qualify every year, history suggests the Sounders will be in this a lot and every year they’d have at least one home game against a Liga MX opponent. Previous matches against Liga MX opponents have proven popular and it’s not hard to see how those game expose Sounders to new fans.

The biggest downside, as I see it, is the knockout stage still has all the same problems it has always had. The biggest is that the knockout stage will be held in the winter and spring, meaning MLS teams will not be in midseason form the way most of their opponents will be. This probably doesn’t make it anymore likely that MLS teams will suddenly be able to compete with Liga MX on an even playing field, but it’s also the product of the United States and Canada being on a different calendar than the rest of the leagues which means very little prospect for change.

None of this is suddenly going to make MLS and Liga MX fans suddenly value CCL over their domestic leagues — the way most fans of European teams feel about their Champions League — but I do think this is a compelling format that has some real potential. At the very least, it promises to be better than any of the previous formats.