The draw for the CONCACAF Champions League took place Monday night and, in a pleasant contrast from previous editions, there actually are enticing matchups.
That's somewhat unfair to the previous format, and a bit dismissive of the smaller teams that challenged bigger clubs in past editions. Yet, with two enticing games — with Costa Rica's largest clubs facing off against some of Mexico's best — and the potential for an all-Mexico against all-MLS quarterfinal round, the CCL is shaping up to be a tournament that demands attention.
That hasn't been the case in the early stages of the CCL, and by the latter stages fans seem so checked out there's hardly any intrigue. This time we get to the bigger matchups sooner, with the CONCACAF League serving as a barrier to entry for smaller teams in Central America and the Caribbean.
While a few of the round of 16 matchups should be relatively easy for MLS teams, even ones still working the dust off during the preseason, the quarterfinals will be far more demanding. Tijuana, facing Motagua, and Chivas, against Caribbean side Cibao, also escaped harm, but Tigres and Club America will be tested.
Although Saprissa is not in its best form, the club will be motivated by missing the Costa Rican final and may make significant changes this winter to get back on top. Herediano has not yet won the crown but won the regular season and may have the strongest roster in Central America.
Costa Rican clubs also harbor plenty of frustration about being in Pot 2 in the first place. Both clubs have CCL successes, and while the new CONCACAF coefficient will bring justice to teams that show their quality over time, that doesn't ease the pain the Ticos are feeling right now, drawn against two of the competition's toughest sides. While both Saprissa's opponent, Club America, and Heradiano's familiar foe, Tigres, are deep teams, the CCL will demand that the Liga MX managers send out quality sides — or risk the embarrassment of elimination in the first round.
Taking the competition seriously really should not be a question, and perhaps in the new format it won't be. Making it to the final would add just eight games to your calendar, and even in the round of 16 teams know they can't take a match off. There may still be a few reserve sides from Liga MX teams, and if any of the big teams facing a Central America champion are able to finesse a huge first-leg win, the temptation to rotate for the second leg will be strong.
That happens even in the UEFA Champions League and the Copa Libertadores. Those tournaments are expansive because they can be. The CCL tried that and now has worked out a system that allows fans to skip the wait and go straight into compelling action.
There has been plenty of talk about a MLS-Liga MX tournament. This seems excessive when the CCL is now providing the same thing — if the teams show they deserve to be there by getting out of the first round.
The #SCCL2018 Round of 16 Match-Ups have been drawn - Don’t miss the 10th season kicking off in February 2018!
La ronda de octavos de final de la Liga de Campeones CONCACAF Scotiabank quedó definida. No se pierda la acción de la décima edición que comenzará en Febrero del 2018! pic.twitter.com/bUd0PnrHR2 — THE CHAMPIONS (@TheChampions) December 19, 2017
The biggest barrier to the Champions League becoming successful has been Mexican dominance. That's no fault of Liga MX teams, but rather MLS and other leagues failing to break through and win the tournament a single time. If the potential Mexico vs. MLS quarterfinals all come to pass and all four Mexican teams progress, this new-look CCL would appear very similar to the old-look tournament that struggled for eyeballs. Who wants to watch a glorified Copa MX?
It's on teams from outside Mexico to make things interesting, whether that's Saprissa and Herediano pulling surprises in the round of 16 or an MLS team or two breaking through. CONCACAF has done what it can, and the draw has set up to be an enjoyable tournament. Hopefully the teams can give us one.