In June 2022, CONCACAF officially unveiled their new Champions League format, starting in 2024. From that season on, the Canadian Premier League will have two allocated spots in the competition, with both the regular season league winners and overall CPL Champions qualifying for the first round of the Champions League. In the event a team does the double, the league runner-up gets the spot.
This comes off the back of Forge qualifying for the 2022 champions league, thanks to their efforts in the CONCACAF League the year before. The CONCACAF League, the second-tier club continental competition, is being scrapped after 2022, and despite the prestige that comes with playing at the highest level, the axing of the CONCACAF League is perhaps a concern to the CPL.
The CONCACAF League was first launched in 2017, and featured sixteen Central American sides and Caribbean sides who didn’t qualify for the Champions League, but were deemed good enough for continental soccer. The format was a straightforward knockout format with C.D. Olimpia of Honduras defeating Santos de Guápiles of Costa Rica on penalties in the final. The 2018 and 2019 versions were won by Herediano and Deportivo Saprissa respectively of Costa Rica, and for 2019, it was announced that the competition would be expanded.
After the CPL was formed in 2019, it was announced that the winner of the CPL’s spring season would appear in the expanded 2019 CONCACAF League, which now featured twenty-two teams, including the Canadian side Forge FC. Forge dominated the CPL in their first two seasons, winning the championship twice, thus earning qualification to the CONCACAF League as well in 2020 and 2021.
Every season they were in the CONCACAF League, Forge improved, going from the last sixteen in 2019, all the way as far as the Semi-final in 2021 where they were eliminated only on away goals to the Honduran side Motagua. The competition provided many great moments for the Hamilton side; from David Choinière last minute winner against Antigua GFC in their first ever continental soccer game, Daniel Krutzen holding his nerve to secure a win from the spot in Panama against Tauro, to perhaps most famously, overturning a 3-1 first leg deficit at home against the Costa Rican side Santos de Guápiles by winning 3-0, thus earning qualification to the 2022 Champions League.
Forge being in the CONCACAF League was not only good for them, but it also helped to legitimize the CPL as well on the regional stage. Despite the league being less than half a decade old, it’s shown that CPL teams can compete with well-established sides across the continent in more soccer-centric nations like Honduras, Panama, and Costa Rica. In that sense, the CONCACAF League provides the perfect platform to help CPL teams get to the next level.
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In February 2022, thanks to their efforts in the 2021 CONCACAF League, Forge played their (and the CPL’s) first ever CONCACAF Champions League match in Hamilton against six times Champions League winners, Cruz Azul. Although they lost 4-1 on aggregate, it was still a moment of pride to see how far the CPL had come in a short space of time, with Forge’s David Choinière scoring at the famous Azteca stadium being the highlight. It’s great to see CPL teams in the Champions League, and while the expansion of the competition and guaranteed places should be celebrated, there is a feeling of regret surrounding the fate of the CONCACAF League.
The CONCACAF Champions League doesn’t have the same financial muscle as UEFA. In Europe, teams of the level of Celtic, Anderlecht, and Malmo are very well financially compensated for participating in the tournament, despite the high likelihood of early elimination. In CONCACAF, that’s not the case. Winning the competition will bag you $500,000, significantly lower than the prize money for equivalent continental tournaments in Africa, Asia, and South America, so there is a much lesser financial reward in CONCACAF for making the tournament.
If a CPL team was to crash out early in a much more financially lucrative Champions League, then participation would feel much more justified, but that’s, unfortunately, not the case. The CONCACAF Champions League is almost always dominated by Liga MX and MLS teams, with the last team outside those leagues to reach the final coming in 2008 with Costa Rica’s Deportivo Saprissa. In the fourteen years since, the gap between Liga MX and MLS has only grown bigger, and teams from those leagues very rarely lose to teams from other leagues, effectively ending their Champions League campaigns before they even begin. While Forge playing Cruz Azul was a great moment for the league, if constant first-round elimination is the norm, the competition may almost feel like an inconvenience rather than a reward.
In contrast, the CONCACAF League only featured Central and Caribbean teams, alongside the one CPL participant. It had provided a chance for teams who otherwise wouldn’t have continental glory to create memories and iconic moments of their own, whilst competing for silverware in a very open tournament. Since its inception, teams from Honduras, Costa Rica, and Guatemala have all won the competition, and teams from Canada, Panama, and El Salvador have all made it as far as the last four. While playing marquee Champions League games against Liga MX sides is fun, the very real chance to win the CONCACAF League is a much more exciting prospect over the course of a season.
The format going forward is in place, an expanded Champions League of twenty-seven teams and the introduction of two new regional competitions in the format of The Leagues Cup, contested between MLS and Liga MX teams, and the Central American Cup, which leaves the CPL with just the Champions League. It’s a shame that the CONCACAF League was disbanded, personally, I believe that it could’ve stayed under a similar format to what they do in Europe, where UEFA Champions League teams can parachute down to the Europa League.
I hope that the expansion works, and I hope the CPL teams can be competitive in the Champions League and not just immediately be eliminated by Mexican and American teams, but I do think that getting rid of the CONCACAF League was a mistake, and has robbed Canadian teams and fans of many historically great nights for their clubs. This week, 2021 CPL Champions Pacific begin their first and last CONCACAF League campaign against Jamaica’s Waterhouse FC, and I sure hope it’s the start of a long and exciting campaign.
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