CONCACAF revamps, expands Champions League format with regional group phase

·5 min read

Canada will send at least three teams to a revamped, expanded CONCACAF Champions League, the top-tier club tournament for North and Central America and the Caribbean.

Of those three, two will come from the Canadian Premier League with the other being the Canadian Championship winner. But there could be more MLS Canadian representation depending on their league performance.

The new format will start with 50 teams, with regional group play in the fall sending 16 onto the final knockout phase of the competition that will follow in the spring.

From 2023 onwards, the tournament will kick off with a regional group stage that has 20 clubs from Canada, Mexico and the U.S., 20 from Central America and 10 from the Caribbean.

While the field has been expanded and opened up, teams from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico will continue to dominate the knockout-round field under the new format, with those three countries providing 11 of the 16 teams.

The knockout stage will be in the form of two-legged series in the round of 16, quarterfinals and semifinals, to be followed by a single-game final. The winner advances to the FIFA Club World Cup.

The expanded format also readies CONCACAF for an expanded Club World Cup, with FIFA's initial plans calling for the region to send three teams to an expanded 24-club competition.

The current CONCACAF Champions League format involves 16 teams, with the tournament traditionally starting in mid-April.

Canada currently has one automatic berth, filled by the Canadian Championship winner. The CPL champion has a chance to qualify through the CONCACAF League, a 22-team feeder event that sends six clubs on to the Champions League.

Other current MLS doors into the Champion League — the MLS Cup winner and Supporters' Shield winner, for example — are only open to U.S. teams. CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani says that will change under the new format with Canadian teams eligible for all MLS berths.

Montagliani called the current rules barring Canadian MLS teams from such qualification "an injustice, quite frankly."

"You're either an MLS team or you're not, in my opinion," he said.

Montagliani said he doesn't believe the current format represents a true Champions League.

"To call it a real Champions League, you have to have a robust plethora of games and competition," he told reporters.

While Montagliani said some details will come later, he suggested the CPL representation could be the league champion and the team with the best regular-season record. He said CONCACAF will decide after the CPL makes its recommendation.

The Champions League tournament has gone through a variety of formats since it was first organized in 1962 as the CONCACAF Champions' Cup. A group stage was done away with prior to the 2018 tournament.

The current format will remain in place for the 2021, 2022 and 2023 editions. CONCACAF says 2023 will be a transition year — with the last edition under the current format played in the spring, prior to the group stage of the new format starting in the fall.

Montagliani says the expanded format is a continuation of what the confederation has been doing on the national team front — citing the expanded Gold Cup and new Nations League competition.

The CONCACAF League will be scrapped under the new format, with Montagliani suggesting a new competition may replace it down the line.

CONCACAF says the 20 clubs from Canada, Mexico and the U.S. will qualify for the revamped Champions League through performance in domestic leagues and cup competitions, including one qualification slot through the Leagues Cup.

The confederation said a specific breakdown for MLS and Liga MX qualification for the new tournament will come later. The U.S. Open Cup winner will still qualify, with Montagliani saying that would be the only route a team from the United Soccer League, the second tier in the U.S., could earn a berth.

The 20 clubs from Canada, U.S. and Mexico will be drawn into four groups of five. Each club will play four group stage matches, two home and two away.

The four group winners and runners-up will advance to the tournament's knockout stage. They will be joined by three more North American clubs via a play-in round that will follow the group stage.

In the Central American group stage, 20 clubs from Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama will qualify through their domestic league performance and a new Central American cup competition.

Like the North American field, they will be drawn into four groups of five for the group stage. The four group winners and second-place finishers will qualify for a play-in, with the four winners advancing to the knockout stage.

The Caribbean group stage will feature 10 clubs, with eight qualifying through domestic league play and two through a new Caribbean cup competition.

The 10 clubs will be drawn into two groups of five. Following round-robin play, the two group winners will qualify for a play-in match with the winner competing the 16-country field for the Champions League knockout stage.

The current Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League champion is Mexico's Tigres UANL.

CF Montreal (2014-15) and Toronto FC (2018) have both made the finals in the past, each losing to Mexican opposition. The draw for the 2021 edition of the tournament is scheduled for Feb. 10.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 4, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press