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CONCACAF must emerge from shadow
The lights of the UEFA Champions League burn so brightly that they obscure the fact that the CONCACAF Champions League – a similar competition in function with comparable levels of intrigue – takes place much closer to home.
It makes sense that the top club tournament in Europe dominates the headlines. The best players and the biggest clubs in the world take part. A thrilling knockout tournament between the most successful clubs on the European continent eventually whittles the field to two teams. The showpiece final in one of the world's most famous stadiums concludes the tournament and draws a massive worldwide television audience.
But it makes little sense that a similar tournament, close to home, is left in the dark.
The CONCACAF Champions League receives a mere sliver of the attention of the European competition – yet it is arguably more intriguing and unpredictable. Many of the top teams in North America take part every year. The mix of larger clubs and smaller minnows is far more combustible than in Europe and upsets are far more common. The rewards for ultimate triumph – including a continental title and a place at the Club World Cup – in the two-legged final are massive for this region.
And yet, the CONCACAF Champions League lags well behind the European version in terms of both importance and popularity on these shores. Yes, there is a significant difference in on-field quality. But there is also a perception gap, some of which has been self-inflicted.
The UEFA Champions League is predictable: fans know the games are Tuesday and Wednesdays at the same time every year. The CONCACAF Champions League has moved its game days around and doesn’t occupy the same sort of set space. Some of that is due to tinkering: CONCACAF originally modeled its tournament after the European version but has changed the group stage to comprose eight groups of three teams. This was for a reason: it reduced some of the scheduling burdens facing Liga MX and MLS sides and it strengthened the competition on the whole. But it also made it more difficult for the casual fan to follow the tournament on a yearly basis, and it’s notably difficult even for a hardcore supporter to explain the CCL to others in a concise manner.
UEFA packs its Champions League with a cast of usual suspects and rotates a group of prominent runners-up from major leagues and a handful of champions from smaller leagues through the competition to fill out the 32-team group stage. Most, if not all, of those teams enter the competition with some name recognition. CONCACAF's brief to expand and improve club football throughout North America, Central America and the Caribbean mandates a more democratic approach and requires the inclusion of a number of smaller clubs in the 24-team group stage at the expense of competitive balance.
By casting a wide net and thrusting clubs from far-flung destinations into the mix, CONCACAF creates several intriguing story lines -- but makes it difficult for supporters to fully invest in the competition. The prospect of traveling to distant lands (or even to their own stadium) to watch lopsided matches against modest sides holds little appeal for supporters of the big clubs. Sadly, the region’s smaller clubs simply do not possess the resources to fill their own stadiums or ship their fans to other venues.
American and Mexican clubs exacerbate the problem by fielding second-string lineups in the group stage, waiting until the knockout rounds to trot out all of their regulars. While Liga MX and MLS sides have occasionally suffered as a result, more often than not, the big clubs find a way to muddle through. But it has hurt the tournament: fans rightly wonder why they should treat the competition and the opponents with respect if the Liga MX and MLS sides don’t seem to.
MLS has taken steps in recent years to address that problem at the behest of commissioner Don Garber. The league has introduced measures to provide Champions League participants with additional allocation money to strengthen their squads ahead of the tournament. Those modest strides may promote MLS squad depth, but they do not eliminate the massive money advantage enjoyed by Mexican sides or remove the hindrances imposed by domestic scheduling concerns. In the tug-of-war between jockeying for postseason placement or pursuing continental glory, most MLS sides favor their domestic commitments. There is a dearth of public pressure to perform well internationally.
One of the commonly suggested solutions involves merging the CONCACAF Champions League with the Copa Libertadores to create a tournament for North and South America. It is an alluring option for the top sides. Liga MX already supplies a pair of representatives based on the results of the Apertura tournament, but the introduction of MLS and perhaps a few prominent Central American clubs would substantially increase prize and television money for the combined competition.
But such a reform would come at a great cost to the overall development of soccer in the region. The current setup creates an incentive for clubs outside of Liga MX and MLS to build strong squads, claim a place in continental competition and pursue a place in the Club World Cup. Although Mexican sides have lifted every Champions League title since the tournament adopted its current format, they will not win every year and their success does not negate the competitive benefits created for smaller sides.
Several remedial measures – including finding ways to improve competitive balance in the group stage and the Mexico-dominated knockout round, highlight the occasional successes of unheralded clubs and promote genuine Liga MX and MLS involvement in the group stage – would help the competition take the necessary steps toward that goal. Yet even those revisions will not provide a instant solution.
It will take some time to convert skeptical supporters here. It will take even longer to foster the devout following enjoyed by the UEFA Champions League. But the CONCACAF Champions League deserves attention on its own merits, and possesses the necessary pieces to command it.
The hardest part of the process? Finding a way to sell the CONCACAF Champions League and getting people to invest in it emotionally. Once those two objectives are satisfied, this tournament may finally find a way to emerge from the overwhelming glow of its more famous counterpart and receive the spotlight it warrants.
Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @kylejmccarthy.
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