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Leagues: CONCACAF Champions League

Lower leagues need better access to Concacaf Champions League

Expanded CONCACAF Champions League

Beginning in 2024, clubs in North and Central America and the Caribbean will compete in a revamped and expanded CONCACAF Champions League. The field will grow, adding more teams and matches to the mix, but the makeover still leaves a significant group of American teams on the outside looking in.

The new format will see 27 clubs qualify, and if you’re not caught up, here’s the breakdown:

Expanded CONCACAF Champions League explained

North America:
Canadian Premier League (2): Champion and Regular Season winner
Liga MX (6): Apertura and Clausura Champions and Runners-Up, and the next two best overall clubs
MLS (5): MLS Cup Champion, Supporters Shield Winner, opposite conference winner, next two best overall clubs
Canadian Championship(1): Champion
Leagues Cup (3): Champion, Runner-up and third Place finisher
Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (1): Champion

Central America:
Central American Cup (6): Champion, Runner-up, losing semifinalists and two play-in winners

Caribbean:
Caribbean Cup (3): Champion, Runner-up, and third Place finisher

The Central American and Caribbean Cups will be new regional competitions that act as qualifiers for CCL, with clubs from each region earning spots via their domestic leagues. The champions of MLS (MLS Cup winners), Liga MX (Apertura/Clausura winner with the highest aggregate points total for the whole year), Leagues Cup, Caribbean Cup and Central American Cup will all get byes to the Round of 16, with the other 22 teams entering in round one.

Expanded CONCACAF Champions League is leaving teams out

This is greatly expanded field that includes more representation, including the welcome addition of two direct spots for the Canadian Premier League, Canada’s officially sanctioned first division. But there is still a significant omission.

For clubs in the United States that don’t play in Major League Soccer, which is the majority of clubs that exist in the country, they have but one very slim avenue to continental competition: winning the US Open Cup. On other continents this wouldn’t be too much of an issue, as domestic cups usually don’t feed into top-tier continental competitions anyway, and those teams would have a way to qualify via getting promoted to the first division and earning a spot by finishing near the top of the table. But clubs in the United States have no such opportunity to advance through on-field merit.

By 2024, when the new CCL kicks off, there will potentially be at least 51 (including announced planned expansion teams) fully professional, independent clubs across the USL Championship, USL League One, NISA and MLS NEXT Pro that effectively have no access to continental competition.

The reformatting of CCL was a chance for CONCACAF to pick up the ball where FIFA has dropped it (by basically ignoring their own statutes on sporting integrity when it comes to promotion and relegation in the US league system), and offer some sort of qualification to American lower division sides. But alas, these clubs are still locked out. And with the impending abolishment of the short-lived second-tier CONCACAF League competition, there is no avenue even for a Europa League-style consolation prize.

Lower league teams can compete on the big stage

Many would argue “Why should second or third division teams be worthy of spots in a Champions League competition?” And that’s a fair question. But our continent is unique in how it does things already, why not add one more distinctive wrinkle to the competition?

If it’s an issue of competitiveness, we’ve already seen teams from an American second division league perform well on the CONCACAF stage. Both the Puerto Rico Islanders and Montréal Impact made waves in the Champions League while playing in the old USL-1 second division league.  The Islanders advanced to the 2008-09 CCL semifinals, narrowly losing to Cruz Azul in the second leg via penalty kicks (they had won the first leg at home 2-0). The 2010-11 CCL saw Puerto Rico eliminated in the group stage, however they qualified to that level by defeating MLS’s LA Galaxy 5-3 on aggregate (including a 4-1 away win in the first leg of the play-in). Montréal advanced to the 2009 CCL quarterfinals, holding a 4-1 aggregate lead in the second half of the second leg, but fell to a furious late comeback from Santos Laguna.

When it comes to roster makeup, player budgets, and facilities, many teams in the American lower divisions compare favorably, if not substantially eclipse, a good chunk of teams from the Caribbean and Central America. The USL Championship, in particular, is arguably the most competitive, high quality league from top-to-bottom after Liga MX and MLS in the entire region, yet it has no direct representation in CCL because of its status as a second division. In a traditional soccer system, that would make sense. But these American sides, regardless of their on-field quality and results, are locked into their place in the lower levels, with the only path to Champions League being a single spot at the end of a long, difficult, single elimination knockout tournament.

If given the opportunity (which teams like Puerto Rico and Montréal had via relatively easier qualification tournaments from their respective region/country in those years), surely the top team(s) from USL and NISA could hold their own in Champions League. If CCL is a competition meant to showcase and/or reward the best teams in the region, they are no doubt keeping some of those teams out, simply due to the nature of the closed American league structure.

Representation is key for lower leagues

I’m not suggesting giving American lower division sides the same number of spots as the bigger leagues. All I’d like to see is for them to have one or two representatives. Comparable to what similar quality, if not inferior, leagues in the region get.

How could they do it? To me, it’s simple. I’d take away the runner-up and third place slots from MLS/Liga MX’s superfluous Leagues Cup contest (surely crafted not in some noble attempt at competition, but rather to drive TV deals and ticket sales). Fine, we’ll let the champion of that in, but let the rest of the MLS/Liga MX clubs qualify through regular league play.

Between the two big leagues, they already get 11 spots directly, plus two more potentially via the Canadian Championship and US Open Cup. Throw in the Leagues Cup champion and more than half of the entire field will likely come from MLS and Liga MX in any given year.

Making US soccer something for everyone, not just the few

So, now we have two spots to hand out. I’d give the first to the USL Championship playoff champion. That’s how they decide their league champion, and with an unbalanced schedule, it’s more fair than giving it to the overall best regular season team. For the second spot, it gets tricky because in our infinite wisdom the USA has three unrelated, independent and competing third division leagues. It gets even trickier because one of those leagues, MLS NEXT Pro, is as of this time, entirely filled with reserve teams (save for the lone independent entry, Rochester New York FC). So, for the second CCL spot, it would be ideal to have a play-in round robin between the champions of USL League One and NISA, and the highest finishing MLS NEXT Pro independent team (hopefully there will be more than one before too long), with the winner getting the spot. If USL were to ever implement merit-based promotion within their own pyramid, this would afford USL League One teams access to that first spot, so you could have a simple playoff between the two NISA and MLSNP representatives for the second spot.

This solution would give American lower division pro sides something to really play for, add excitement for fans (and potentially broadcast partners), and offer a slim bit of equity in a fractured American league pyramid that otherwise provides no merit-based opportunities for advancement. And the big boys in MLS and Liga MX would still have more than enough of the seats at the table to go around. There is still plenty of time before the new CCL kicks off in 2024 to adjust the qualification criteria, and I think it would result in a more exciting, well-rounded, and better tournament.

Maybe someday we will have a system in the US that allows for any team to earn their way up the league ladder and capture a place in the continental spotlight the traditional way. But until that unlikely time comes, CONCACAF ought to be giving a fair chance to every club under their jurisdiction to take part.

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