A day after the United States Soccer Federation announced significant changes to its annual championship tournament, the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, the governing confederation CONCACAF announced its own major alterations to its Champions League competition. The new format for the 2012-2013 edition of the event will see the elimination of the 16-team Preliminary Round in favor of advancing all 24 qualified teams into an opening group stage of eight, three-team groups.
The new CONCACAF Champions League format will largely utilize the same date windows as was done previously with group matches running from late July to mid October. The changes appear to incorporate a flexible schedule format for the main stage with six dates available for four group contests, allowing the clubs to balance their play in multiple competitions. It will also, undoubtedly assist CONCACAF with severe weather situations which have arisen in the Caribbean and Central America in previous years.
The Championship stage – Quarterfinals to Final – remains unaltered with the eight group winners advancing from the opening stage. The three rounds of two-leg series will continue to run from early March to the first of May.
Previously, US Open Cup champions were unseeded clubs that were required to play in the Preliminary Round, though the 2011 champion Sounders were slated for a direct entry into the Group Phase due to the LA Galaxy winning both the MLS Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup. Under the new format, the clubs that were previously seeded will now be placed in a pot together for the draw that will determine the composition of the groups, ensuring the seeded teams will be distributed equally and avoid one another.
Clubs will also continue to be placed in groups without members from their own nation, though the Can-Am nature of Major League Soccer could still see a Canadian MLS club in the same group as a US MLS side.
The 2012-13 tournament will mark the fifth edition of the event. The Seattle Sounders will represent the US Open Cup for a third consecutive year while league foes Los Angeles Galaxy, Real Salt Lake and Houston Dynamo also participate. A fifth MLS club is likely again via the Nutrilite Canadian Championship. The Sounders struggled in their first campaign, winning just once in the 2010-11 group phase after winning the Preliminary Round series against El Salvador’s Isidro Metapan. The lone win came against Marathon (Honduras).
Seattle has advanced the success of Open Cup champions under the current CONCACAF format, becoming the first to reach the Quarterfinals. The 2007 champion New England Revolution were stunned in the Preliminary Round in 2008, falling 6-1 on aggregate to Joe Public (T&T). DC United, champions in 2008, also advanced versus an El Salvadoran club, Luis Angel Firpo, in 2009 to reach the group phase, winning a penalty kick tiebreaker after a pair of 1-1 draws. In the group phase DC was 3-2-1, missing the cut by two points despite having higher point totals than the second-place clubs in two of the other groups.
The Sounders continue their second CCL campaign with the Quarterfinals in March. They will face Mexico’s Santos Laguna, a regular contender in the CCL, March 7 and 14 while their league rivals Toronto FC and LA Galaxy square off those same nights in the series that would determine their Semifinal opponent should they advance. Seattle rallied from a 1-0 Preliminary Round deficit against Panama’s San Francisco to win 2-1 in overtime. Seattle finished second in the group at 3-2-1 behind Monterrey, whom they defeated 1-0 in Mexico.
Prior to the Champions League format the Columbus Crew were the last club to represent the US Open Cup in the confederation’s club championship event. The 2002 champion Crew won the 2003 First Round series, 4-2 on aggregate (1-2, 3-0) versus Panama’s Arabe Unido before exiting in the Quarterfinals against Monarcas Morelia, who cruised to the aggregate win with a 6-0 opening win, allowing Columbus to take the second meeting, 2-0.