This past week has been an important one for CONCACAF at both the club and national levels, with MLS having their first sustained success against Liga MX clubs in the CONCACAF Champions League, and the first details of the CONCACAF Nations League.
Most of us are familiar with Liga MX’s domination of the CONCACAF Champions League. Since the introduction of the format, in 2008, all nine previous champions have been from Liga MX. In fact, seven of the nine runners-up have also been Liga MX clubs, with Real Salt Lake in 2010/2011 and Montreal Impact in 2014/2015 being the only non-Liga MX clubs to make it to the final. Going one step further, of the tournaments 36 semi-finalists, just seven (Salt Lake, Toronto, Los Angeles, Seattle, Montreal, Dallas, and Vancouver) have been from MLS. Needless to say, it has not been a positive showcase for MLS. There are plenty of suggestions as to why this has occurred, including the talent discrepancy and scheduling issues (MLS is in preseason while Liga MX are already into their Clausura season).
This week, the quarter-finals of the 2017/2018 tournament began, with Toronto FC hosting UANL, Seattle Sounders hosting Guadalajara, and Tijuana hosting New York Red Bulls. Surprising to most, MLS clubs had the clean sweep in the three matches, with TFC winning 2-1, Seattle 1-0, and New York defeating Tijuana 2-0 in Mexico. We will have to wait until the return legs next week, to see if there might be a changing of the guard, especially with Toronto and Seattle having to travel to Mexico to play; the often-difficult task for MLS clubs. However, with the influx of Targeted Allocation Money in MLS, leading to more mid-level talent and club depth, this could be a turning point in Champions League, which sees this tournament finally become competitive.
Monday also saw CONCACAF provide the first details about the newly formed Nations League, set to replace friendlies during international breaks. Beginning in September, and concluding in March, the initial phase of the Nations League will see the 34 nations, including Canada, not in the 2018 hexagonal World Cup qualifying play four qualifying matches to determine the CONCACAF Ranking Index -the six nations which played in the hexagonal are automatically ranked 1-6. The Ranking Index will then be used to seed the three Nations Leagues. The Leagues will crown a champion each ‘edition’, will be used to qualify for the Gold Cup, and will feature promotion and relegation. The theory behind the Leagues is to provide regular competition for smaller nations within CONCACAF, with the objective being to develop soccer across all of CONCACAF. One could argue that the reason small nations such as Iceland are currently making waves on the international scene is because they are forced to play regular matches against powerhouses like Germany, Spain, Belgium, France, etc. The desire is to see that begin to occur in CONCACAF, with the top teams benefiting as well from stiffer, regional, competition.
The top six finishers in the four qualifying matches will be placed in Division A, with the six hexagonal nations, while the top 10 finishers will qualify for next year’s Gold Cup.
Canada’s first match will be away to U.S. Virgin Islands, in September, followed by a home match against Dominica in October, away to St. Kitts & Nevis in November, and then home to French Guiana in March. The ranking tournament will be our first chance to see newly hired manager John Herdman in competitive action (Canada does play in a friendly March 24th).
What are your thoughts on the surprising MLS results in Champions League this week? Or are you not surprised? Do you see this as a closing of the gap between Liga MX and MLS or just an anomaly?
What about the Nations League? Do you feel that it will improve the quality of nations in CONCACAF? Are you concerned that Canada might not make the top six, or potentially the top 10?