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Monday 30 July 2012

CONCACAF Champions League – Restructuring and Pot-Talk

    The restructuring of the initial stages of the CONCACAF Champions League has made it even more difficult for smaller teams to progress to the latter rounds.

    The initial hurdle of a play-in series, of which Toronto fell not so long ago at Puerto Rico, has been removed and all entrants now begin with play in eight three-team groups rather than the four of four from previous seasons.

    Rules – no clubs from the same nation shall meet another in the groups - mean the Canadian representatives – and the El Salvadorians, who find themselves similarly placed - will now have to face either Mexican or American competition in a group where only the top club moves on.

    Added to that hurdle, cutting the number of group matches by a third – from six to four, limits the possibility to make up for mistakes.

    Winning home matches and scrapping for a draw on the road will become even more important in the compressed timeline of the new format.

    Decreasing the number of potential matches – and the previously mentioned cancellation of the play-in round - will ease some of the fixture congestion and limit the, at times, debilitating travel that is a trademark of the competition.

    One could argue that the extra emphasis on each match could cut both ways; the days of bigger clubs playing teams of youth players in the first few matches before getting serious and fielding the regulars should now be over. The immediacy of the need for points means all matches will be treated with importance.

    It is pretty clear that despite the often shockingly poor attendances at matches in Mexico and the US, the tournament is being aimed at those clubs – or at least, to their TV markets – as opposed to the smaller representatives.

    It is unlikely that Canada will ever warrant a second entrance to the draw, with no national league and few professional clubs, but it is possible that the Canadian entrant could move up from Pots B to A, though the same problem of always facing either American or Mexican competition would persist.

    From Pot A, Toronto had the possibility of facing either: Tigres, the 2011 Apertura Champion; Santos Laguna, the Clausera Champions; Los Angeles, the 2011 MLS Cup Champion; or Seattle, the 2011 USOC Champion and runner-up in the Supporter’s Shield.

    Were they drawing opponents from Pot B instead, the options became Chivas de Guadalajara, Monterrey, Houston and Salt Lake - hardly enough of a step down in quality to really expect much breathing room.

A quick note on how the positions in the pots are decided.

    There is no easily understood manner in which it is determined that Costa Rican, Honduran, Guatemalan, and Panamanian top clubs are placed into Pot A, which at least hands those clubs a perceived increased chance at avoiding the biggest hitters from Mexico and the US, as discussed above.

    It does not correspond to FIFA rankings for their respective national teams, Guatemala is seldom in the top ten in CONCACAF, and Jamaica is often interspersed amongst the other clubs. Nor does it correspond to past success in regional competition by clubs such as the UEFA coefficient attempts to plot in Europe, measuring the strength of past representatives to establish an order of sorts.

    Some unofficial statistics may shed some light on this conundrum – courtesy of scoreshelf.com – which provides an excellent, sortable ranking system of club performances in international competition for the breadth of CONCACAF.

    Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica is the top side – and by some distance – fellow Costa Ricans, LD Alajuelense; Honduran side Olimpia Tegucigalpa, and Municipal and CSD Communicationes of Guatemala all feature in the top thirteen, interspersed by Mexican clubs, and a pair from Suriname, who were apparently powerhouses through the Seventies into the mid-Eighties.

    Clearly these clubs are historic and current giants of the region, thereby warranting their nation’s placement in Pot A.

    Curiously, Panamanian teams do not appear on the list for some time, with Tauro and Arabe Unido clocking in at the mid-fifty to mid-sixty range. Though, to be fair, it does appear as though the league and club football in Panama appear to only date back to the Nineties, which limits their ability to compete with clubs who have history – and results – dating back to the Sixties.

So, where does Toronto fit?

    They are currently ranked seventy-third having climbed sixty-six spaces with last season’s Champions League feats.

And the other Canadian sides listed?

    Montreal comes in tied for one-hundred and ninth, while the Toronto Serbian White Eagles enter the fray at one-hundred and fifty-first, by dint of their participation in the 1975 Champions Cup, falling to Monterrey 3-1 over two legs, though the return match in Canada appears to have been abandoned after sixty-seven minutes for a fight.

And what of the opponents awaiting TFC in this round?

    CD Aguila is ranked twenty-third, while Santos Laguna have shot up thirteen places to twenty-seventh having reached the final last campaign.

    Such debates matter not; whether Canada deserves a place in the higher pot - based either on performance in the rejuvenated format or for actually attending the matches en masse - it will take some time, and more solid performances for the Canadian entrant to force their way into the upper echelons of consideration.

    For now - and the foreseeable future - the deck appears stacked against the Canadian representative.

    Though this path has seemingly been made more difficult, that’s not to say there is no chance; few would have thought Montreal would make the spectacular run brought them so close to beating Santos Laguna back in 2008, and similarly few gave Toronto much of a hope at getting past LA in the spring.

    These competitions by their very nature are unpredictable and despite attempts by the organizers there will always be an APOEL FC or a BATE Borisov that sneaks through the hoops intended to filter out the smaller fish and leave the big to feast on the spoils.

Live streams of most matches are normally available at CONCACAF.com, simply register to gain access, and enjoy the fruits of the region.

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