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CONCACAF gets it right with Champions League rethink

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To say the last couple of years have been rough for CONCACAF is an understatement. FIFA shot down the region’s push for another World Cup place. President Jack Warner was turfed for taking bribes. General secretary Chuck Blazer went out the door. The Gold Cup has been dogged by allegations of match-fixing.

But, finally, CONCACAF has got something right. The re-think of the CONCACAF Champions League, announced this week, was badly needed. The changes will take place in time for the 2012-2013 edition of the tourney.

If this is an indication of the directives we’ll see from CONCACAF under the stewardship of new general secretary Ted Howard, we can hope that the regional body is turning a corner. Because it showed that it understood that a tournament that’s largely held in empty stadiums with little or no TV audience can’t survive. Some drastic measures had to be taken.

“This new format will streamline the first phase of the competition,” Howard was quoted on CONCACAF’s website. “It will alleviate schedule congestion on both domestic and international calendars.”

Under the old format, 24 teams made the CCL; eight went right to the group stage. The other 16, including Canada’s lone entrant in the competition, went into a preliminary round. The eight surviving teams joined the eight seeded teams. There were four groups of four teams.

Now, CONCACAF has phased out the preliminary round. All 24 teams go into the competition. There are eight groups of three, rather than four groups of four. There are those who lament (CLICK) that the group stage has been reduced from six games to four; and four of the groups will be without Mexican teams, and lose the sexy, big draw of a Cruz Azul or a Pumas or a Monterrey.

But, the fact is no one was buying the old CCL format. The rows and rows of empty seats at CCL games was a testament to apathy. Mexican sides and MLS sides had a hard time drawing flies. When the Montreal Impact packed the house for its quarter-final match with Santos Laguna in 2009, it was an exception rather than the rule. Yes, Toronto FC has already sold more than 25,000 tickets at the Rogers Centre for the home leg of its quarter-final match against the Los Angeles Galaxy; but it can’t obscure the fact that Toronto FC’s poorest houses over the past two seasons have been CCL matches.

In the previous CCL, Cruz Azul and Real Salt Lake hooked up in an epic game, a 5-4 come from behind win for the Mexican hosts — a game that should be remembered as arguably the most exciting single clash in a CONCACAF club competition. That match was more engaging than anything Europe or South America offered that season. Yes, it was played in a driving rain that turned the field into a quagmire. Still, the smattering of fans who bothered to watch the game in Mexico City was disappointing.

Empty Seats in the Stadiums

In soccer, as in any business, the customer is always right. Fans aren’t tuning in or going to the stadiums — especially in the group stage. Sooner or later, when you own the company, you have to accept that the product isn’t popular — so you need to change the formula or hang up the “going out of business” sign.

And the reason there is such apathy is because so many MLS and Mexican teams don’t take the Group Stage very seriously, often leaving star players at home for road games. They know they are strong enough to make it through six games each — even if a manager decides to start his B or C lineup for two or three group-stage matches. Instead of a Champions League, it’s more like an international Carling Cup, a tournament that you don’t really care about until maybe the semifinals.

But, with only the team that wins the three-team group advancing to the quarters, each of the four games becomes vitally important. That means coaches will be forced to play their top lineups (at least, in theory). It’s quality over quantity — chances are, each of the group-stage games is meaningful. The tournament will have fewer games, but it’s small sacrifice to make. I would rather watch one or two meaningful games than have to see a road team play its taxi squad in the confines of a larger schedule.

And, CONCACAF also tackles what is a growing problem in soccer — too many games. We are already besieged by numerous needless FIFA friendlies — a full slate of global boredom that replaces decent league football and congests the pro schedules. In North America, we are subject to an array of needless summer friendlies between our teams and European clubs. Competition committees across the world have invented new Cup competitions. The preseason schedules have become ridiculous. And they all take away from the product. They fatigue players. They stretch squads.

As well, the shorter round-robin schedule adds to the possibility of upsets. One slip could cost an MLS or Mexican side. Remember when Europe’s top club competition produced shock upsets? When teams like Steaua Bucharest could beat the boys from the big Western money leagues? That’s because the Cup-tie format allowed a team that played well at home the chance to upset the big fish if it good eke out a decent road result. Now, you may have an upset here or there, it still won’t affect the big picture. Russian side Rubin Kazan upset Barcelona in the group stage back in ’09, but Barca’s form over six matches made sure the Russian side’s success at the Nou Camp was, in the end, only a moral victory. For a tournament to be great, it needs underdogs to succeed. It needs upsets. And it’s that lack of drama, that predictability, which makes the current UEFA Champions League a little less interesting than the old European Champions’ Cup.

Same goes for the CCL. Just as much as the tournament needs a non-Mexican winner to make it more engaging, it also needs more stories like the Puerto Rico Islanders, who went to the semis in 2009. And, getting rid of the preliminary round and reducing the number of games increases the odds of a minnow making a successful bid to swim upstream.

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