CONCACAF Champions League has changed its format going forward for the "2017"-18 season, moving from a group/knockout style of tournament to a strictly knockout contest. To eliminate the group stage, there will be a “Phase 1 Tournament” and then a “Phase 2 Tournament”, which is the CONCACAF Champions League. In both “phases”, match winners will be determined by a home-and-away, aggregate goal series.
The first qualifying stage is made up of 16 teams - 13 from Central America as well as three from the Caribbean. The winner of this “Phase 1” Tournament moves on to battle it out with the big boys in “Phase 2.” The teams that have qualified for CCL skip this first phase, a.k.a. the 2017 matches.
“Phase 2” consists of the winner from “Phase 1”, Canadian Cup Champion, Caribbean Club Champion, five Central American teams, four Mexican teams, and four U.S. teams (MLS Cup winner, Supporters’ Shield winner, highest finisher in the opposite conference, and the U.S. Open Cup winner).
Without the long and drawn out group stage, MLS teams will have a lighter load scheduling-wise, hopefully making it easier for teams to stay healthy in a shorter knockout stage style of competition. The main issue most have with the new style is that the competition will now take place February through May, which is preseason and the first few months of the MLS regular season.
The realignment seems to be geared towards getting more MLS teams into the final, by lightening the load and placing the tournament in a non-critical time of the season, meaning the MLS teams can put their entire focus on CCL.
What does this mean for the Rapids?
Well, the new setup means that the Colorado Rapids won’t play in CCL until 2018. After all the excitement and trials of the 2017 season have ended, after two transfer windows have passed, and after the 2018 SuperDraft, the boys in burgundy will play in Champions league.
The team that plays in this tournament will look very different than the one that stands before us now. But is that so bad? Going into the off-season one of my worries was depth of this roster. The Rapids would have to play in the U.S. Open Cup, CCL, the regular season, post-season, and we would have to let Tim go play for the USMNT. Now we are losing CCL, the focus can be winning silverware this year. The opportunity for a trophy this season is huge, and with the success of last year, coming away from 2017 without anything shiny will be a disappointment. Champions League could be the icing on the cake.
One major challenge the Rapids will have is that Kevin Doyle and Alan Gordon will be out of contract by the time Champions League comes around. Who knows how Gordo will do this year, or if Doyle will produce enough to stay around. Assuming one or even both are gone, the Rapids would have a short window to bring in an attacking player. Preseason will need to be very focused, and the Desert Diamond Cup will have to be played at a higher intensity to try and match the competition that they will face only days later.
I don't think there is going to be a great time for CCL to take place in the existing MLS schedule. It is a long season, and no matter what there will be extra games, but playing at the beginning of the year will change the way teams look at this tournament. Teams will take it more seriously, which could lead to teams being more ready at the start of the season and MLS seeing higher competition at the beginning of the year. They will get stronger earlier and will be able to focus on one competition at a time.
Do you think this format change will benefit the Rapids? How?