CONCACAF is expanding its flagship Champions League club tournament starting, with the door open to more Canadian participation.
The confederation covering North and Central America and the Caribbean is also revamping a series of regional tournaments that will serve as Champions League qualifiers.
Starting in 2024, the Champions League will grow from the current 16-team format to having 27 participating clubs including 18 from North America. Of the 27 teams, 22 will begin play in the first round and five will receive a bye to the round of 16.
The Canadian Championship will continue to serve as a pathway to the Champions League, with the Canadian tournament winner booking its ticket. But an expanded Leagues Cup, which starting in 2023 will include all of the MLS and Mexico's Liga MX teams, will decide three more Champions League berths — with the Canadian MLS clubs eligible.
And two Canadian Premier League teams will also make the Champions League field. How those two CPL teams will be determined has yet to be announced. Currently the CPL title-holder has a chance to qualify for the Champions League via the CONCACAF League, a feeder tournament.
Starting in 2023, MLS and Mexico's Liga MX will pause their seasons for a month to take part in the revamped Leagues Cup.
The current Leagues Cup, which started in 2019, features four teams from each league competing in a knockout format. The Seattle Sounders take on Mexico's Club Leon on Wednesday in the 2021 Leagues Cup final at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
The new Leagues Cup will feature 29 MLS teams (with the addition of expansion Charlotte FC in 2022 and St. Louis City SC in 2023) and 18 Liga MX franchises taking part in a tournament featuring a round-robin and then knockout stage.
Organizers say the new tournament will make history as the first major soccer competition to feature every club from a pair of top-flight leagues.
The new-look Champions League will see 15 of the participating North American clubs join in the first round, including the Canadian Championship winner and two CPL sides. They will be joined by five Liga MX clubs, four MLS teams, the Leagues Cup runner-up and third-place finisher as well as the U.S. Open Cup winner.
CONCACAF says detailed qualification criteria for the Liga MX and MLS teams will come at a later date.
The Liga MX and MLS Cup champions plus the Leagues Cup winner will advance directly to the round of 16,
A new Central American Cup will send six more teams to the Champions League with a revamped Caribbean Cup providing three more.
The Central American Cup and Caribbean Cup champions will qualify directly to the round of 16.
"The CONCACAF Champions League has consistently grown in recent years and this new format will provide a major boost to the competition," said CONCACAF president and FIFA vice-president Victor Montagliani, a Canadian. "Working collaboratively with our stakeholders we have been able to create a new calendar which grows and enhances our Champions League and fully incorporates regional cup competitions,"
"This will elevate clubs and leagues from CONCACAF and provide even more compelling regional rivalries. It will also provide more international relevance to our club competitions, and a very competitive pathway as clubs strive to qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup and succeed on the global stage," he added.
The new Champions League will feature five knockout stages (first round, round of 16, quarterfinals, semifinals and final). The first four stages will include home-and-away play, while the final will be a single-leg match to be played on a weekend date.
The current Champions League format will remain in place for the 2022 and 2023 editions. In 2023 it will be a transition year with the last edition under the current format played in the spring, prior to the new regional cup competitions commencing in the fall.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 21, 2021