OPINION- In 2023, the CONCACAF Champions League started with a wild game in which heavily favored Austin FC of Major League Soccer lost to Violette AC, a club from Haiti who can’t even host their home games in their own country. Viewers on Tuesday March 7th saw two goals in the first half scored by Miche-Naider Chery off a cross from Roberto Louima, almost carbon copies, before Amro Tarek put the ball in his own net in spectacular fashion right after halftime. It was an incredible spectacle in terms of sporting upsets, backdropped by a lovely Dominican setting including a large tree within the stadium and Haitian fans playing live music from the stands. Truly something to lift the spirits of any sports fan who isn’t from ATX.
Underdog stories are a major attraction in sports in general. They are exceedingly rare, necessarily and obviously; but, we all remember those moments. When Saudi Arabia beat Argentina in their Men’s World Cup opener in November, 2022, it made headlines the world over. Messi and co. would go on to win that World Cup. A resurgence such as that will not dampen the emotion and shock felt immediately after their first game, though.
THE CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
With CONCACAF (the North American soccer federation comprising all member countries’ individual soccer associations) aiming to revamp their Champions League tournament and drive viewing numbers upward, the element of potential upsets should be something to take into consideration. Clubs from MLS and Liga MX in Mexico will likely be the favorites no matter whom they face in years to come. However, the chance for “lesser” opposition to spring a surprise occurs not just because of the might of the Giant, but also because of the quality of the Minnow. One league within CONCACAF boasts a ton of quality, but no Champions League berths of which to speak. This should be adjusted.
This current iteration of the CCL will be the last to include the format in use for several years now. Ten clubs participate automatically, with four berths for Mexico, four berths for the United States, one berth for the Canadian Championship winners, and one berth for the Caribbean Club Championship winners. Six berths were given to participants from the prior year’s CONCACAF League, which was effectively a preliminary qualification tournament for the top placed teams from countries in North America other than those listed above in this paragraph. Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama, and El Salvador each had at least three berths in this preliminary tournament, for instance, while other clubs from the aforementioned Caribbean Club Championship earned spots as well.
All this rigmarole is necessary to explain even though it will shortly disappear. The 2022 iteration of the CONCACAF League was, in fact, the last, as the future CCL format arrives in 2024. The CCL currently in use was created to allow all of the top teams in the region to put on the best possible show. After much winnowing down, we currently have three clubs from Honduras taking part, a club each from Panama, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, and, of course, Violette of Haiti. Because they were unable to get to this stage, no clubs from the Canadian Premier League are involved. The same can be said for the Jamaican league, the Dominican league, and so on.
If CONCACAF’s number one goal is spectacle, as opposed to the tradition of the competition (and there’s ample reason to believe that’s true), then one league should be included which is not at the moment. Removing all the MLS and Liga MX clubs from the 2023 CCL, the team with the highest market value, according to German website Transfermarkt, is Costa Rica’s LD Alajuelense. La Liga, as they are known, have a listed total market value of €5.08m. Transfermarkt, while imperfect, is frequently regarded as a good measuring stick for individual teams’ quality. Chelsea in England, for instance, have a listed value of €1.03bn. Olimpia and Motagua meanwhile, both from Honduras, have the next highest listed values in this subset at €4.71m and €4.49m, respectively.
If we’re willing to grant that this metric is indeed a good one for gauging quality, then the next best team in all of North America after those in Liga MX and MLS is, shockingly or not, in the USL Championship. Both Louisville City and Phoenix Rising have listed market values of over €6.1m. Regular readers of this RBLR column will be interested in the Tampa Bay Rowdies: their total market value is €4.32m, higher than each team currently competing in the CCL from Haiti, Panama, El Salvador, and Real Espana from Honduras. (It should be noted here the full value of the roster of Violette is extremely difficult to gauge even for a website like Transfermarkt, as the country is very unfortunately devastated from multiple natural disasters and the ravages of endless colonialism.)
To further demonstrate the quality inherent to USL Championship clubs, the fifth most valuable team in the league just last year made it to the US Open Cup final. Despite an unfortunate loss there to Orlando City (who qualified for the CCL with that win), Sacramento Republic took down multiple MLS sides on their way to a runners-up finish. Their exploits also garnered many headlines in the sports world, branching out even beyond their usually obscure American soccer confines.
Unfortunately for them, it is not just market value which determines clubs’ participation in any given competition. To look abroad at other confederations’ Champions Leagues, it is almost never the case that one would see a second tier team take part. Any club in that situation which does make it to a Champions League tournament will do so by having won their country’s version of the Open Cup, which is indeed a natural way for USL clubs to get into the CCL. So why should CONCACAF be different? Why buck that trend?
WHO GETS IN THE CCL
The answer is the same as the one that led them to include the winners of the upcoming Leagues Cup in the 2024 iteration of the CCL: “ to grow the game in North America!” Let’s now take a step back to explain another round of rigmarole. How will teams qualify for the CCL in the future? If it is to be expanded, what expansion has it been deemed worthy to include?
To start with, 27 teams will participate in the 2024 edition. Five teams will qualify directly to the Round of 16: one from Liga MX, one from MLS, the winner of the new Leagues Cup competition to be played by teams from Liga MX and MLS, the Caribbean Football Union Cup champions, and the Central American Cup champions. The remaining slots will be filled by multiple runners up in Liga MX and MLS, the US Open Cup champions, Canadian Premier League champions and runners up, multiple Leagues Cup runners up, as well as multiple Caribbean Football Union Cup and Central American Cup runners up.
Having contestants from all these sub-competitions and regions does make sense to make this a truly North American Champions League. However, there is still the issue of the missing USL Championship clubs. Again, there is no precedent for including second tier teams in a Champions League, outside of those who win Open Cup equivalents. But, of course, there is very little precedent for any of these competitions that act as qualifiers to begin with…
The regional qualification tournament for Central America is now the Central American Cup, which was established in 2021. It’s only natural to have a way for teams from Central America to qualify, so this makes sense if you’re not going to simply deem that every individual league’s champion gets an automatic CCL berth. Automatic berths for every leagues’ champion are the norm elsewhere, but not here. That particular precedent exists in CONCACAF likely because, without it, there would be winners from each individual league in the continent. With no disrespect meant, the winners of the TT Pro League or the Campeonato Nacional de Cuba would have a very hard time getting by in the CCL.
This entirely new tournament for Central America is hardly the worst example of a new competition with CCL importance, though. This column will try to avoid making judgment calls on the new Leagues Cup to be played between all the clubs in Liga MX and MLS. Suffice it to say now that, in other confederations, this obvious money grab would be immediately compared to the much-derided European Super League – at least if there were as much history in our Champions League as there is in theirs. However, North America is a relative soccer backwater in the world. Mexico has a long and proud history in the sport, and it is the national pastime of most of the countries that make up this continent. But, with American football, baseball, hockey, and basketball crowding our sports landscape (to say nothing of wildly popular cricket), something of a vacuum has developed for continental club competitions especially.
In has stepped the Leagues Cup, a joint venture by Major League Soccer and Liga MX to build the game in both countries. What “building the game” means is many different things to a variety of people. But, what we can say is that this competition will likely drive a rivalry brimming between Mexican and American soccer that will create new revenue streams in television rights and ticket sales, the profits of which will hopefully trickle down to the grassroots of soccer in both countries. (This column will also avoid making judgment calls on the validity of “trickle down economics” and the like.)
With more money hopefully sloshing around, the individual teams in MLS and Liga MX will be able to put more into their academies, infrastructure, and so on. It should, ideally, drive more revenue to the revamped CCL as well, which can then be redistributed further. Certainly that is necessary if it is to succeed at lifting the game across all corners of North America. Many countries’ soccer federations have significantly less money than they need to run a full national team setup, let alone a league with proper stadiums, youth sectors, etc. So it’s necessary to note that if the grassroots is intended to grow strong, there is much more soccer than just that designated Major League or decided by la Liguilla.
THE USL IN CCL
If you’re still hung up on the idea that second division teams shouldn’t get Champions League berths, that’s understandable. Before writing this column, I was on the same side. Without winning an Open Cup equivalent, that path doesn’t usually exist – and if it did, it could open up many cans of worms. For instance, in Europe, one of the highest quality leagues is the English second tier. The Football League Championship, as it is known, could likely send clubs and compete against the champions from over 40 of the 55 countries that make up the European confederation, UEFA. This would certainly create a headache for them. However, UEFA also includes the league champion from every one of those 55 member associations’ leagues in their Champions League, which we do not. This stems from the very long and established history of soccer across the pond, which also does not exist here. In North America, we’re still trying to introduce the sport into every community and help it grow at that local level.
One grassroots-level league already in existence – that has a very strong following – being left out of the puzzle does not help CONCACAF’s high-minded goals. As already demonstrated, the USL Championship could very well stake a claim to being the third most important league in North America. To wit, it offers a chance for players from around the continent a place to play at a higher level than even that deemed worthy of the Champions League by the confederation itself: when you have to choose which of your Caribbean nations get to send a club to the CCL at all, a regular destination for the players from those countries might merit further consideration for inclusion. The USL is home to players that represent Grenada, El Salvador, Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, and many more. The only barrier appears to be that second tier designation, as sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation.
By rights, this needn’t be a hurdle, though. I came around to the idea myself upon all this deliberation – and consideration of the Leagues Cup in particular. The only real negative argument would be tradition. “It’s not the way things are done.” Of course, the traditions of intercontinental club competition in Europe differ widely from those in North America, where that precedent of historical relevance, we’ve already noted, isn’t as strong. North America clearly has room to play around with formatting. So why shouldn’t there be a more regular route to the CCL for USL clubs? Why constrain ourselves upon the rules we’ve already thrown away in other cases?
One doesn’t even need to grant that the USL Championship winner gains an automatic spot to the CCL (though, we here at RBLR won’t complain if they do). Frankly, I say make them earn it! Five berths go to runners up in the Central American Cup. You could stick the prior USL champion in that tournament. Two berths go to clubs directly competing in the Canadian Premier League. One could be forced to take part in a playoff. The 2023 Leagues Cup runner up and third place finisher will take part in the 2024 CCL. This column advocated for a USL competitor in that tournament in September of 2021! Most feasible, though, is that one of those two berths for runners up could be redistributed downwards toward a club with upset potential. So one automatic berth isn’t that much to ask for after all, is it?
The final point to be made here is a personal one. In 1989, the St. Petersburg Kickers won the National Challenge Cup, another name for the US Open Cup. Upon doing so, they qualified for the previous version of the CCL that existed at the time. This semi-professional club went on to play the greatest team in the entire region, Club America. I’ve heard many recountings from my dad who played on that team. Going up against full Mexican and Brazilian internationals was daunting. These guys lined up in front of the Estadio Azteca crowd every week and had played in World Cups. It was before all the best players in the world went to Europe.
Club America also knew some of the dark arts of soccer, and the second leg of the two-game tie was forfeit, with multiple Kickers players saying they didn’t want to make the trip to Mexico City. But, that first game ended only in a 1-0 loss. With better refereeing, more professional setups, and reduced travel time, the idea of this happening again doesn’t seem so impossible or even far-fetched now. The day when Club America has to travel to Weidner Field, Lynn Family Stadium, or, yes, Al Lang in St. Pete is the day many memories and lifelong fans will be made. And it is a day that will help grow the game.