What Does The New Champions League Format Mean For The CPL?
Today, the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League announced a brand new format set to arrive in the 2023-2024 season which will drastically reshape the tournament and, at the same time, signals the eventual end of the lower-tiered Concacaf League.
The Canadian Premier League currently sees its league champion qualify for the Concacaf League, but ESPN is reporting that the new Champions League format will see two Canadian Premier League entrants qualify for the Champions League group stage instead, with Canada’s third slot going to the winner of the Canadian Championship.
Here’s what Concacaf President Victor Montagliani told ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle on the increase of Canadian representation in the tournament, which extends beyond just the CPL:
In Canada, specifically on the three slots, one will be the Canadian Championship and two will be the CPL. But the other relevancy is that the three Canadian MLS clubs will be treated as MLS clubs in their totality, and therefore they will also be able to qualify for the [CCL] through the MLS slots, which wasn’t the case in the past, which was an injustice, quite frankly. You either are an MLS club or you’re not, in my opinion.
The clubs who fill the aforementioned CPL slots will be two of twenty North American clubs selected for the new Champions League North American Group Stage, where they’ll be joined by the Canadian Championship winner and – depending on how the three Canadian MLS teams perform – potentially more teams from north of the border, too.
With the Canadian MLS sides now having a bigger chance of qualifying through Major League Soccer’s US slots under the new qualification rules, we could see the clubs test out more domestic youngsters in the later stages of the Canadian Championship if the domestic cup isn’t their only realistic route to Champions League glory.
ESPN is also reporting that the Leagues Cup (which features MLS and Liga MX teams) is another route of qualification, too.
The group stage is divided into the regions of North America, Central America, and the Caribbean, with the CPL obviously being in the North American contingent. This twenty-team group stage will feature teams from Canada, the United States, and Mexico, which are then divided into four groups of five teams. Here’s a breakdown of how that looks:
As we mentioned, Canada will see at least three teams there each year, with the possibility of more. The US will see clubs qualify exclusively through the US Open Cup, the Leagues Cup (if an MLS side wins it), and MLS league play. That means the only path for any non-MLS US side to qualify for the Champions League is strictly through the US Open Cup.
In the fall, each club in the above four groups of five teams will play a total of four group stage matches (two at home and two away), with each group winner and runner-up advancing straight to the Champions League knockout stage, with three additional runner-up clubs then qualifying for a play-in.
The Central American group stage is largely the same, with the caveat that the group winners and runners-up then go to a play-in against one another that will see only four teams advance to the knockout stage, while the Caribbean group stage – the smallest of the bunch – sees ten clubs split into two groups of five, with the the two group winners then facing eachother with the sole winner reaching the knockout stage.
In all, that means that North America will feature eleven clubs in the knockout stage, while Central America has four and the Carribean has just one.
In the spring, the 16 clubs to reach the Champions League group stage will see home-and away knockout rounds through the round of 16, quarter-final, and semi-final before a single leg final determines the winner, who will hoist the trophy and qualify for the Club World Cup.
The result means that the Canadian Premier League sides that qualify each year will be pitted against Major League Soccer and Liga MX competition right from the get-go. While this makes for some potentially salivating cup matches, it’ll throw CPL clubs into some potentially lopsided bouts that are a far cry from the more evenly-matched Caribbean competitors that Forge has faced in the current Concacaf League format.
Still, it seems a positive change, with the increased representation in the Champions League being a good draw for Canadian Premier League clubs in terms of talent recruitment, too.
In the current Concacaf League format, reigning champions Forge FC surpassed expectations last year but ultimately fell in a Champions League play-in match against CD Marathon. Their cup run saw them travel to El Salvador, Panama, and Honduras.
2023 will be a transition year for the tournament, with the last edition of the current Champions League format playing out in the spring, with the group stage of the new format beginning in the fall.
While it’ll still be a few years until the changes take place, it’ll be interesting to see how the two CPL entrants are determined. While the North Star Shield winner will obviously take one slot, the second slot could either go to the North Star Shield runner-up or, perhaps, the regular season winner.
All-told, the changes seem very positive for Canada’s top flight: the Canadian Premier League will double its representation in continental action at a minimum, bringing more eyes to the league and the potential for fans to more easily travel to historic away games. While things may change ahead of the 2023-2024 Concacaf Champions League, these changes will likely be a boon to the league as the country heads towards a 2026 World Cup.