American soccer fans, the thrill of Champions League soccer is coming to a stadium near you.
No, UEFA isn't outsourcing its matches to the United States. CONCACAF is launching its own edition of the foremost club competition in the world.
Some devoted fans may be wondering what happened to the CONCACAF Champions Cup. Well, the new Champions League is essentially that tournament, on steroids.
The old Champions Cup featured a very small field of only eight teams. There were four qualifiers from the North American Zone (two each from the US and Mexico), three qualifiers from the Central American Zone (qualified through the UNCAF tournament) and one qualifier from the Caribbean Zone (qualified through the Caribbean Football Union tournament.)
The new Champions League is essentially a clone of what happens every year in Europe, on a much smaller scale. Only 24 teams are competing for the title. Not 24 teams in the group stages. 24 total, between qualifying rounds and group stages.
The tournament will feature four teams from Mexico, four from the US, one from Canada, two each from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama, one club each from Nicaragua and Belize, and three Caribbean teams. Eight of these teams get a free pass directly to the group stage. The other eight must win their two-legged qualifier to advance to the group stage.
Now, things get tricky in the US because not only MLS teams are eligible. The MLS Cup champion and runner-up as well as the MLS Supporter's Shield winners will go. The US Open Cup winner also receives an invite. There could potentially be only three MLS clubs in this competition every year.
Things get even more complex when Canada is added to the equation. Toronto FC, the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact will take part in a round-robin tournament every season to determine who gets the Canadian Champions League spot. So the tournament could have as few as three or as many as five MLS clubs in it every season.
Once a team advances to the group stage, the competition will be an exact mirror of the UEFA Champions League right up until the final, which is two-legged in the CONCACAF version. Win the final, and you get a pass to the FIFA World Club Championship. The runner-up also snags one of three CONCACAF invites to the Copa Sudamericana, essentially a poor man's version of the UEFA Cup.
What was wrong with the old Champions Cup?
The big problem was that an eight-team tournament to determine the champion of an entire confederation is not a good idea. Central America and the Caribbean were essentially ignored in the old format. Now, cup and league winners and runners up from each country can attempt to stake a claim to the CONCACAF title just like in Europe.
This just seems like a far more legitimate way to determine a confederation's best team.
The new format will have several notable advantages.
First of all, just as in Europe, a tournament like this will generate a lot more revenue for every club involved. If a team makes it to the group stage, they are guaranteed six games. There will be television rights and gate receipts, not to mention merchandise sales.
From an MLS fans' perspective, it gives a league that is not internationally respected more of a chance to test itself against established clubs like Joe Public F.C. (real name) of Trinidad & Tobago, or Atlante of Mexico and Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica.
For young Americans like Marvell Wynne and Robbie Rogers, it will give them international experience that will be a huge benefit as they hope to get capped for the US team.
To be clear, this tournament is NOT the UEFA Champions League. The best clubs in the world vie for that championship. This is a confederation realizing that their old way of finding a champion was too outdated when you consider the number of teams that could have a legitimate chance of winning.
A tournament like this is a great move by CONCACAF. Aside from Oceania, this is the weakest confederation in all of FIFA thanks to shoddy refereeing and some really awful teams in the Caribbean and Central America. This tournament will serve to boost CONCACAF's profile immensely.
The first games take place on August 26th-28th, with the return legs happening between September 2nd and 4th. The first matchday in the group stages will happen between September 16th and 18th.