The UEFA Champions League is the most glamourous club competition in football, watched the world over. Copa Libertadores might be the most entertaining competition, filled with the stars of tomorrow and captivating what might be the most soccer-mad continent in the world. Even the AFC Champions League, Asia's championship, is starting to gain a little traction in the world's most populous continents and filled a 40,000 seat stadium for its final last year.
Then there's the CONCACAF Champions League, which is the confederation's attempt at developing a serious club championship. It replaced the CONCACAF Champions Cup, which was an all-knockout competition that was sometimes played entirely in one country and was routinely mocked. A group stage was introduced in 2008 and the Champions League was born, leaving the Champions Cup behind as all teams got the opportunity to host matches as well as travel for away matches at their opposition's home.
The new Champions League was a real tournament and one worthy of crowning a continental champion, in line with the more glamorous and popular continental tournaments contested around the world. It signaled a change for the competition that it was no longer content to be an afterthought.
For all of the problems that CONCACAF had in establishing its continental club championship as one that should be taken seriously, the Champions League proved to be a major move. By playing the tournament in a similar format to the other championships, the confederation gave the tournament credibility and in the three-and-a-half tournaments played since the change to the Champions League from the Champions Cup, the competition has grown in stature, popularity and legitimacy.
While the first two tournaments were completely dominated by Mexican clubs, which accounted for seven of the eight semifinalists, Real Salt Lake put a dent in Mexico's dominance in the 2010-11 competition by making it to the tournament final. They did catch a break when the draw kept them from having to play a Mexican club in the quarterfinals or semifinals, but they did top Cruz Azul in the group stage and got a draw at Monterrey before falling in the second leg of the final.
Mexico's dominance was further curbed in the group stage of this year's tournament when MLS clubs won twice on Mexican soil in the group stage, while Monarcas Morelia needed a tiebreaker just to qualify for the knockout stages. With the Mexican clubs no longer cruising past opponents, more of them began to send their first teams to matches, giving the Champions League the type of high-level competitive matches that it lacked in the past.
Instead of a platform for Mexican dominance, the Champions League began to represent what continental championships are to supposed to be; A true showcase and battle for the crown of the region's best with clubs from multiple countries. Clubs from four countries and three different leagues were able to qualify for the quarterfinals in the 2011-12 competition.
Last week, CONCACAF decided to put the breaks on the growing competition with a format change that doesn't send it back to the Champions Cup days, but brings it out of step with the rest of the world. Worse off, it makes it easy to question just how important the Champions League is.
Beginning with the 2012-2013 tournament, the competition will abandon the four-team groups it had used and will instead use groups of three. The preliminary stage is gone and the tournament will begin with those three-team groups now before the group winners move onto the knockout stages, which will be comprised of eight teams, as was the case in the previous format.
Going to three-team groups isn't quite as bad as the old all-knockout Champions Cup, but it is not far off. For a competition that has struggled to gain legitimacy and convince followers that it is a serious competition and should be treated as such, to smack legitimacy in the face with three-team groups is bizarre at best.
There are currently no continental championships that use three-team groups. The entire world of football has determined that serious and meaningful tournaments are competed with a group stage and four-team groups, but beginning next year CONCACAF is ditching that format in a competition that is only starting to become relevant and respected.
CONCACAF's argument for eliminating the four-team groups is that it can cut down on travel, which the new format most definitely will. The three-team groups eliminate the need for the two-legged preliminary round and eliminates two matches in the group stages, which means that teams that compete in the preliminary round and group stage will now have to travel for two fewer matches.
However, the reality is that travel in the CONCACAF is not bad at all. In fact, it's some of the easiest travel of any continental club competition. Teams in Copa Libertadores can have to travel from Santiago, Chile to Caracas, Venezuela, which is a 3,044 mile trek. In the CAF Champions League, which is Africa's continental competition, the trip from Cairo, Egypt to Pretoria, South Africa is 3,854 miles and that doesn't even compare to the 5,950 miles teams in the AFC Champions League could have to travel from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to Tokyo, Japan.
Meanwhile, in CONCACAF, the longest possible trip that any team could have had to travel in this year's competition is the 2,395 miles from Panama City, Panama to Toronto*, which is shorter than the trip from Los Angeles to New York. The only continental championship that offers shorter travel than the CONCACAF Champions League is Europe, which could still ask for 2,242 miles from Lisbon, Portugal to St. Petersburg, Russia.
The number of matches that the four-team group CONCACAF Champions League asked of teams was a comparative cake walk as well. The maximum number of matches a team could have to play to win the championship under the old format was 14, while teams could do it in 12, which is identical to the AFC Champions League. In both Copa Libertadores and the CAF Champions League, teams have to play a minimum of 14 matches to win the title and could play as many as 16, while the UEFA Champions League requires a minimum of 13 matches and as many as 21 matches to win the title.
Traveling from Panama City to Toronto is not like walking down the block and an extra 12 or 14 matches on top of a domestic season does tax player's bodies, but continental championships do not and should not come easy. They require the extra work and effort and without that, a continental championship is worthless. It is not as if CONCACAF was asking for anything extraordinary from clubs and players. They were asking for comparatively similar or easier than other confederations. They were asking for a true and legitimate tournament, something that is commonplace in the rest of the world.
In theory, the CONCACAF Champions League new format will thrive because teams will be more willing to send their best teams to Champions League matches if they don't have to do it as often. It is a nice theory, but only that. Teams send their best teams to competitions that they prioritize and teams do not prioritize competitions that have little prestige or legitimacy. Cutting to three-team groups rips the CONCACAF Champions League of its legitimacy and chance at prestige as it pays no attention to what every single continental championship tournament in the world does to crown its champion.
If CONCACAF wants more teams to play their best squads in CONCACAF Champions League, all it has to do is leave the tournament alone. More and more teams are fielding their best teams in CCL games and now, with the exception of an odd Colorado Rapids decision, only the Mexican teams are holdouts from sending their first teams.
Even that is changing, as several Mexican clubs regularly played their best teams in this year's competition. They can't get away with playing reserves anymore and the more it becomes necessary for them to play their first teams to win, the more they will do it. The alternative is losing, and losing regularly in the continental championship is embarrassing for a league like the Mexican Primera that takes great pride in being the region's best.
The CONCACAF Champions League wasn't asking for much from teams. It wasn't asking for a lot in terms of distance traveled and it wasn't asking for a lot in terms of total matches. It was simply played in sync with the rest of the world so it could conduct a respectable competition that crowns a worthy champion. It had already accomplished that and was working towards its next goal of importance and prestige, a goal that can only be accomplished with time. Instead, CONCACAF decided to strip the tournament of its legitimacy, leaving it an outlier and another victim of CONCACAF's incompetence.
* Edit- Panama City to Seattle is actually farther than Panama City to Toronto, but it is still not near the distances travelled in AFC and comes up short of those in CAF.