I want to care about the CONCACAF Champions League. I really, really do. I mean, it is the regions competition featuring the supposed “best” teams from each country with a top-tier professional league after all. It should be the loftiest of goals for each and every North and Central American team to not only compete in the yearly competition, but to also be crowned champions of this world’s No. II quadrant.
Over the past 30 hours or so, the UEFA Champions League – the unquestioned number two footballing competition in the world, behind only the World Cup* – has provided soccer fans all across the globe with the kind of drama, exasperation, and the ultimate highs and lows of football that causes the game to run so deeply within its fans’ souls.
* Champions League, World Cup; World Cup, Champions League – that’s not what I’m here to argue.
Yesterday, Chelsea FC did what was thought to be the unthinkable – taking down the world’s best, FC Barcelona – not only over two legs, but on the road and after going down to ten men just before halftime of the second leg – holding on for 45 more minutes against “the world’s greatest club team ever.” Today, FC Bayern Munchen did something much the same as Chelsea, defending a 2-1 advantage coming into the second leg, away to the other “world’s greatest team,” Real Madrid CF and ultimately winning in penalty kicks. The craziest, most unlikeliest of storylines played out before our eyes, half a world away.
It was exciting; it was fascinating; it was enthralling; it was can’t-look-away-from-the-television viewing. It was all part of a competition that netted the European Football governing body – and the clubs in participation from the first qualifying round to these two semifinals – somewhere in the ballpark of a billion dollars. It’s no wonder the competition has soared to the same heights of the quarter-annually World Cup, and
Despite the obvious constraints – global popularity, standard of play, money, etc., etc. – there’s not a single reason the same thing can’t be enjoyed by fans in the league of champions from the Northwestern Hemisphere every year; and ultimately, to expand further to the rest of the footballing world, much like the European version has taken every corner of the globe.
In its current state, Champions League football brings excitement and glory to maybe a single club or two, typically the pair advancing to the final round of the competition, competing for the region’s status as top dog. With a few alterations to the format, the way Major League Soccer teams approach the tournament as a whole, and savvier marketing, CCL could take on a whole new meaning to North and Central American football fans, players, and club owners.
First things first, every competition needs a ‘villain’ of sorts, to drum up interest and also provide an outlet for undeserved hatred and vitriol from fans region-wide. Let’s choose the Americans, because, why not? We’re already the “bad guy” when it comes to economics, foreign policy, and use of leisure time; might as well continue the trend into the soccer world, too, if we really want to be a world power.
Like everything else in the world, throwing money at a problem is the easiest and quickest way to find an ultimate solution, is it not? We’ll do that a bit here in making MLS the “New York Yankees” of CONCACAF, but do so in moderation, within good reason. Clark Hunt’s only going to spend to a point that he knows he will still make X-number dollars at the end of the year. But, if any good economist every taught you anything, (and I am not one) it’s that you have to spend money to make money.
Winning the competition does get you into the Club World Cup the following December after all. What greater exposure and potential source of revenue could there be than playing against a Barcelona, or Bayern Munich, or Real Madrid on a stage for the entire world to see? Instead, those curious eyes scour the Internet, only searching for information on the Mexian Primera Division.
In 2011, MLS made the first move in this direction, signaling that they intend to make CCL a priority in the future for clubs that are willing to spend. Clubs qualifying for the CCL are now allotted an additional (undisclosed) amount of allocation money. Allocation money can be used to “buy down” salaries of players under contract, thus freeing more actual salary cap dollars for the club. This allows teams competing in CCL to spend slightly more than the rest of MLS, but only slightly.
Step one, make the dollar figure larger. One would assume the number is around a quarter-million dollars; it terms of allocation money, that’s a nice chunk of change, but nothing that’s going to take a top MLS team and put them over the top of Mexico’s best, where money is spent freely at the discretion of a club’s chairman. Step two, force each team that is allotted this extra money to spend it. Some teams – Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle Sounders come to mind – won’t have trouble doing this, but others – 2010 MLS Cup champions Colorado Rapids, anyone? – will nickel and dime the loophole, only playing reserves and youngsters and crash out in the group stage – just as they did in the 2011 rendition of CCL.
On average, team-wide salaries are three to four times that of most major clubs, with an unusual exception being New York Red Bulls or LA Galaxy with their multiple, large contract Designate Players. If Sporting Kansas City were to face off with CF Monterrey – one of the 2012 finalists – the Mexican club would have a dollars and cents advantage of about ten-to-one over Sporting. Obviously, that’s a massive gap, and “will and desire to win” can only level the monetary advantage so much.
Inversely, to create a true “hotbed” of action and coveting of the competition’s trophy, there must be a hero to each villain. In this case, we’ll make the FMF (Mexican League) clubs the heroes for when MLS spends serious coin and catches the southern neighbors in on the field production. What could possibly make FMF clubs want the CONCACAF Champions League crown more than anything? At present time, they generally fight amongst themselves for what is little more than a domestic cup competition.
Go two or three years with the Galaxy, Sporting and Sounders winning the thing; FMF clubs and chairmen will place higher value and emphasis on competing in the CCL. “Those rich Americans can’t win everything,” they’ll say; “they already have everything; this is our chance at prominence.” While they’re only just competing amongst themselves for a somewhat hollow trophy, make an international competitor better than them, and their desire for the cup will increase tenfold.
Simply throwing money at the competition won’t make it more appealing to the consumer – from where the money comes from, by the way – though. The CONCACAF version on the tournament could use a few formatting and stylistic upgrades, and we’re here to give them.
As a rule of thumb, if UEFA does something in a different way than CONCACAF currently does, typically lean towards the European way; it truly is what the fans want. The UCL is, year in and year out, the most drama-inducing, big money sporting tournament you’ll ever find.
The biggest change that must take place will probably be the most difficult to work out logistically, and to get teams to agree upon. The ultimate draw of Champions League football to smaller European clubs is (other than the gobs of cash for the club) those wondrous “European nights” at the club’s humble football ground. The allure of playing a regional power in front of fans who’ve supported a club through the leanest of times spurs players on in and of itself, and an opportunity to move on to bigger and better things individually as well.
Think of what a “North American night” at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park could be like. Think of 18,500 packing the stands for a second leg semifinal against Cruz Azul, present club of Omar Bravo, with Sporting needing just a goal to advance to the final where they could face the Galaxy, Sounders, Monterrey, or any other famed North American club; the opportunity to face wonder-kid Neymar of Brazil’s Santos FC, and Manchester United waiting after that.
Put that kind of football in the hands of the Sporting Kansas City marketing team, and the sky isn’t even close to the limit.
The problem with creating that same setting, is that when MLS teams qualify for CCL, it’s nearly a full calendar year later that they’re competing in the group stage. When Real Salt Lake advanced all the way to the final in 2011, they were playing for a title in a competition for which they had qualified some 18 months prior. In Europe, you chase that precious Champions League spot until the very last day of the season, and the beginning of the following brings the European game to your doorstep. Synching of calendars between MLS and FMF must be somehow worked out, for each’s benefit.
Some of the smaller details, yet still important from an aesthetics perspective, are as follows: the final of the tournament must be a single-game, predetermined location, all-or-nothing situation. The 2012 European final on May 19 is expected to draw well over 100 million audiences (not viewers) worldwide, whereas only the country of Mexico has any interest whatsoever in this year’s CONCACAF final.
One of the more famous events surrounding big, world football events is the live television drawings of group play, knockout rounds, etc. CONCACAF must trot out former MLS and FMF legends from past-Superliga competitions, no matter how farcical and forced it will seem, to excite the masses in advance of the first ball being kicked. Give the Internet fanboys something to prognosticate. Lastly, and this is for the benefit of the on-field aesthetics, yellow card accumulation must not, in any way, every result in a player missing the final. Just look at who’s going to be missing from Chelsea-Bayern Munich in three weeks’ time. It’s a travesty.
This is just the world in which I desire to live.
I want all that. I want that badly. But, what I instead have is an international video feed of a second leg match in Mexico, complete with commentators opining from a broom closet somewhere north of the Rio Grande River, and an entire league’s fanbase that couldn’t care less, more interested in a regular season battle between a pair of Western Conference could-be’s on this night.