People are talking about the CONCACAF Champions League.
After the three remaining MLS teams in the tournament topped their Mexican opponents in last week's first legs, the continental championship is getting an unprecedented amount of attention on both sides of the border ahead of the second legs Tuesday and Wednesday. That hasn't always been the case, with interest difficult to generate in a tournament that has been dominated by Mexican clubs.
It's clear MLS teams' first-leg success has added a jolt to the competition this season, and CONCACAF Chief of Football Manolo Zubiria said he's encouraged by the extra buzz.
"I think the gap is closing and I think with this new format obviously it’s tougher to just go into a knockout round right away rather than having a group stage to see how your team’s doing and see how the other teams in the competition are doing," Zubiria told Goal. "Now you kind of go into things with, 'Let’s see what happens.' Obviously teams are going in full steam ahead as we see by the lineups. The teams are putting out their top teams, they’re not taking any chances. With the group stage, perhaps you had more chances to have a bad game and still recover. Here there’s no room for error.
"The Mexican teams still are taking it very seriously. You could just see from the media reaction in Mexico, humiliated by the fact that three teams had lost. It’s always good when you have that kind of reaction from the fans in general and the media because you want that, you want a healthy competitive balance and you want these rivalries, not just U.S-Mexico, I think we’re starting to see other participants stepping up."
Zubiria is responsible for the department of the confederation charged with "providing overall management and execution of CONCACAF’s tournaments, major events, as well as football development programs," according to a news release announcing his hiring in summer 2017.
CCL is now a 16-team tournament with each round played over two legs and the winner advancing. Previously there was a group stage before the knockout round, but many of the clubs from Central America and the Caribbean who would've been part of this round are instead taking part in the CONCACAF League. The winner of that tournament, this year Honduran giant Olimpia, get a berth in the Champions League.
The confederation has tried a number of tweaks since a 2008 overhaul of what was previously CONCACAF Champions' Cup. This year's changes were by far the most drastic, and while Zubiria left wiggle room for future modifications, he said CONCACAF is sticking with the current format for the foreseeable future.
"I think now, based on the results we’re seeing, you could say that it’s working, but it’s too soon to say, 'OK, we nailed it. It’s going to stay for 20 years.' Obviously there’s going to have to be a lot of evaluation at the conclusion of the tournament," he said. "We know we’re locked in with this format for a couple of years, but like I said we’re always working to constantly prove and we take very seriously the feedback from the teams, the leagues, the federations and our partners to try to find the best format for the competition."
One frustration for MLS fans is the timing of the tournament, with Mexican and Central American teams generally approaching the midpoint of their spring short tournament while MLS teams are still in preseason when the tournament begins. However, the American and Canadian league also has taken a step past Liga MX in helping its teams prepare for CCL, giving them the option of having a bye week between rounds and trying to accommodate their clubs still in the tournament.
"The league (is) helping the teams by not making them play, working around the schedule and respecting the fact hat there’s a lot of things that take a toll on the teams, traveling across the region and then you’ve got to come back and play another match in 48 hours and then get back on the road to have to play another match. It puts a lot of strain on the teams, and it makes for difficult decisions for the coaching staff and also the players," said Zubiria, who took his current post with CONCACAF after serving as AS Roma's Head of Team Operations.
Zubria also believes MLS relaxing roster restrictions, with the introduction of Targeted Allocation Money helping teams acquire players who may previously have been out of reach, is putting American and Canadian teams closer to finally lifting the CCL trophy.
"I think MLS has done a great job finding new players, talent, players with experience on the international level for their rosters," he said. "The deeper that rosters get with MLS will allow them to be competitive in the league and in regional competition. I think that’s going to make a big difference going forward. We’re already seeing that things are going shift in how MLS has been bringing talent, maybe shifting away from players who are older, retiring players to younger talent that can definitely give you more hours on those legs during the season with the quick rotation between regional competition at the international level and home competition. I think going forward the league has definitely done a good job giving the opportunity to bring in players and I think it’s only going to get better and better and better."
MLS would like to prove it can compete now, with this week setting up to be a critical one for the league. The matches kick off at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday with the New York Red Bulls hosting Club Tijuana before Tigres faces Toronto FC at 10 p.m. ET. Chivas and the Seattle Sounders play at 10 p.m. ET on Wednesday.