CONCACAF celebrated July 4 by giving America's (And everyone else's but we know why they picked Independence Day for the announcement: thanks CONCACAF; we think you're pretty special too.) CCL-bound teams a vision of their future: the CONCACAF Champions League 2014-15 group stage schedule.
Yay! The New York Red Bulls are off on a tour of the region. El Salvador! Canada! Ok...so maybe we already know about Canada, but those who make the trip seem to have a pretty good time in Montreal. So why not have an extra helping of Quebec this year?
We're getting four extra games crammed into the schedule, but we knew that was coming. There will inevitably be complaint about fixture congestion: again...we knew it was coming. Part of the challenge of these competitions is figuring out how to manage the burden of extra games.
RBNY, of course, doesn't have a great track record of managing anything greatly beyond the week-in-week-out requirements of the MLS regular season. Crowded playoff schedule? Not so much. US Open Cup match dropped into mid-week? Rather be on vacation, thank you.
But the team knew it would have this sort of problem since it won the Supporters' Shield last October. There really shouldn't be a great deal of angst expended on the fact that the schedule just got a little crowded. We. Knew. It. Was. Coming.
Let's just get on with winning games and getting out of the group stage.
Still, the CCL fixtures do unquestionably present a challenge to the team's playing resources. Here's what we're looking at:
8/2 - vs. New England Revolution (MLS)
8/10 - @ Chicago Fire (MLS)
8/23 - vs. Montreal Impact (MLS)
8/26 - vs. FAS (CCL)
8/31 - @ D.C. United (MLS)
9/6 - vs. Sporting Kansas City (MLS)
9/10 - vs. DC United (MLS)
9/13 - @ Philadelphia Union (MLS)
9/17 - @ Montreal Impact (CCL)
9/20 - vs. Seattle Sounders (MLS)
9/24 - @ FAS (CCL)
9/28 - @ LA Galaxy (MLS)
10/4 - vs. Houston Dynamo (MLS)
10/11 - vs. Toronto FC (MLS)
10/19 - vs. Columbus Crew (MLS)
10/22 - vs. Montreal Impact (CCL)
10/26 - @ Sporting Kansas City
Clearly, September is going to be a bit of a problem. It isn't CONCACAF's fault RBNY has three games in seven days at the start of the month. Overall, the CCL schedule puts its games three or four days after a RBNY league game, and three or four days before the next one: this is pretty standard.
Could the seven-games-in-a-month crunch have been avoided? Yes. But we need to look to MLS for explanation of the problem.
CONCACAF Champions League has six sets of match days in its group stage, and each club will play on four out of the six. This year, the MLS All-Star game is on 8/6 - about a week later than it has traditionally been scheduled in recent years - and that date puts the All-Star game in direct competition with the first round of CCL (8/5 - 8/7).
Portland clearly can't host a CCL game when it's distracted by Bayern Munich. But, notably, the only MLS team playing the first round of CCL is Montreal: until recently, the worst team in the league and not a squad with a great many high profile, All-Star worthy candidates.
Since there are two MLS clubs in CCL Group 3 (RBNY and Montreal), it would play havoc with the CCL schedule to have both sit idle for one round. I have no inside information, but it certainly looks as though MLS struck a little bargain with CCL: trading off future inconvenience for being able to maximize the pool of players available for the All-Star game.
The arrangement (if it is an arrangement - and if it is not, what exactly do the execs do all day?) suits CONCACAF as well, since the tournament would be diminished by having it openly treated as subordinate to an exhibition game.
Because, as we may well see when Montreal opens its CCL campaign against FAS on August 5th, teams often play their reserves in these early games - especially at home, and especially when the opponent is effectively in pre-season. The El Salvadoran league will kick off some time in August; FAS will not be at the peak of its form by some distance.
One slightly shabby match between MLS reserves and a half-fit Salvadoran champion is OK. But if there were four (or even five - imagine if CCL had scheduled RBNY vs Montreal for 8/5...or 8/6) MLS clubs sending reserves around the region while the stars went to Portland to help Bayern with its pre-season training - it doesn't look good.
Conclusion: this year's CCL schedule for MLS would appear to be largely shaped by the league's desire to protect its showcase friendly - and that is the league's prerogative.
From a RBNY perspective, once the first round of matches is off limits, the room for flexibility in the schedule is limited: we have to play four games and there are five dates available.
There is, of course, the second round of CCL games - 8/19 to 8/21 - and RBNY is absent from those also, for no greatly obvious reason. Perhaps Montreal wanted to play that round, and got preference after drawing the short straw of playing during the All-Star "break". Perhaps FAS had a say in things.
CCL is not just about RBNY or MLS. Trade-offs must presumably be made, or else the tournament will lose what little credibility it has by being transparently manipulated by one league or another. As it is, such manipulations are merely implied, not openly stated.
This is, of course, speculation. But the CCL scheduling appears a little too neatly aligned with MLS's interest in promoting the All-Star game without distraction. And the sting in the tail of RBNY's 2014 schedule looks suspiciously like a debt that had to be paid as a result.