CONCACAF has officially announced the long-awaited, well-leaked and predicted changes to its Champions League. As anticipated by the rumor mill, the 2017-18 edition of CCL will actually be two tournaments.
From August to October 2017, there will be a 16-team "Phase 1" competition that gathers qualifiers from Central America and the Caribbean. Two teams each from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama; one team from Belize; three Caribbean Football Union qualifier: 16 teams in a straight knock-out tournament.
The teams will (presumably) be seeded into a draw that will set up eight home-and-away fixtures. Winners advance to a quarterfinal round, then semis, then a final. The winner of this tournament will gain entry to the "Phase 2" tournament.
From February to May 2018, the Phase 2 CCL will follow the same format as Phase 1: no group stage, straight knockout rounds, clubs playing home-and-away to determine a winner in each match-up.
The winner of Phase 1 will be joined by four Liga MX teams, four American MLS teams, one Canadian team, one Caribbean team, and one team each from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama.
Strictly from the perspective of the New York Red Bulls - already qualified for CCL 2017-18 - the new format may come both as a relief and an additional burden. The relief will come from not having to deal with the pressure on the roster and schedule that used to come with a CCL group stage in the summer. Under the new format, MLS teams have no worry about CCL after May, and are free to attack their regular season and run to the MLS playoffs without having to accommodate four Champions League games between August and October.
The burden is the need to hit the ground running in February for the Phase 2 tournament. As RBNY is demonstrating with particular panache this year, working toward meaningful games in February can be difficult to align with the traditional MLS preseason.
MLS teams have long complained about the traditional CCL format, arguing that it does not align well with the league's calendar. They are not wrong, but as the current format change illustrates: careful what you wish for. Qualifying for CCL means extra games on the schedule. Planning for those games is part of the challenge that comes with the privilege of competing at the regional level. There will be fixture congestion somewhere in the season: it is the burden all teams hope to be successful enough to have to address.
RBNY doesn't seem to have done the best job working out a preseason plan to coordinate with this year's CCL knockout rounds. The club now has more than a year to figure out a preseason approach that will align with its CCL 2018 obligations.
Of course, the CONCACAF Champions League has priorities greater than the concerns of a single league. The new format raises some concerns about the tournament's objectives. While the competition has been expanded, it has also been divided: Central American and Caribbean teams look under-represented in Phase 2. This suggests CONCACAF isn't really looking at CCL as a means to raise the level of competition across the region, more as a vehicle to preserve and promote the cash-cow that is the Mexico-USA rivalry.
One can argue this is simply a concession to the reality of CCL: it generally boils down to annual MLS vs Liga MX match-ups (that Liga MX teams tend to win). Equally, one can argue that the role of CCL is to raise the standard of soccer all over CONCACAF, and that mission is not well served by partitioning the majority of Central American and Caribbean clubs in the tournament away from North American teams.
Both arguments will be well aired in discussion of the new format. For RBNY, the news simplifies its schedule for at least the next two seasons: the team has a CONCACAF knockout tournament in February 2017, and it can look forward to one in February 2018 as well.