Top Stories

A look at the changes to the CONCACAF Champions League and U.S. Open Cup


The recent changes to the Major League Soccer schedule and competition format are hardly the only ones impacting professional soccer teams in North America.

Coinciding with the MLS SuperDraft, U.S. Soccer and CONCACAF announced major changes to the CONCACAF Champions League and U.S. Open Cup going forward, changes that drastically alter the regional and domestic competitions. The biggest change to the CCL is that the preliminary round is no longer, and a straight group-to-knockout format featuring fewer overall games is the new arrangement. For the U.S. Open Cup, it is now a 64-team field with all U.S.-based MLS teams being entered into the bracket instead of having their own qualifying path.

The changes for both tournaments go into effect immediately, meaning that Real Salt Lake and the Houston Dynamo, which had qualified for the now-defunct preliminary round of the CCL, are entered directly into the group stage instead of having to go through preliminary games this summer.

Here is a closer look at the differences between past and present for the two tournaments:


CCLRSL (Reuters Pictures)

PAST: Preliminary-round format with 16 teams vying for eight spots in the 16-team group stage. Eight preliminary-round winners advanced to the group stage, where they joined the eight automatic qualifiers and competed in four groups of four teams each. 

Each team played six group games — all opponents home and away — and the top two teams in each group advanced to the knockout stage, where teams played a home-and-away series with the aggregate goal winners advancing in each round until a champion was crowned. 

PRESENT: Instead of some having to go through a qualifying process, all 24 teams are entered directly into the group stage. There are eight groups of three teams each, and teams play against the other two teams in their group at home and away. Only group winners advance to the knockout stage, which remains unchanged.

Teams are placed in different pots for the group stage based on strength of country from which they are qualifying and the way in which they qualified. For example, the MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield winners get placed in the first of three pots, and the MLS Cup runner-up and U.S. Open Cup winner gets put in the second pot (barring duplicate qualifiers — since Los Angeles won both the MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield, Seattle earned a place in the first pot).

Of the eight teams in the seeded pot, two are the top qualifiers from Mexico, two from the United States and there is one apiece from Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and Panama. Canada's qualifier (One of MLS' Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal or NASL's FC Edmonton) is entered into the second pot.

Teams cannot play against others from the same country in the group stage, and each group will have at least one team from the United States or Mexico.

With only four group games being played instead of six, the CCL puts less stress on teams' schedules. The group stage begins on July 31.

"This new format will streamline the first phase of the competition," Ted Howard, CONCACAF's acting general secretary, said in a release. "It will alleviate schedule congestion on both domestic and international calendars."




Photo by

PAST: Teams from the professional and amateur sects of U.S. Soccer qualify for the tournament proper field, which was at 40 teams in 2011. Six MLS teams made the final field based on previous season's record, while the remaining teams embarked on a qualifying tournament to determine the league's other two spots. Those eight MLS teams entered in the third round.

NASL teams were omitted from the tournament field last year after not receiving provisional sanctioning on time.

PRESENT: A 64-team format featuring 32 teams across all sanctioned levels of U.S. Soccer and 32 affiliated amateur teams of the U.S. Adult Soccer Association and U.S. Club Soccer that qualify are entered into a tournament bracket. All 16 U.S.-based MLS teams are entered into the tournament instead of going through an MLS qualifying bracket to reach the USOC proper field.

The 32 amateur teams are paired together geographically for the first round, though teams from the same qualifying bracket cannot go up against one another. Those winners go up against teams from NASL and USL Pro in the second round, with games being arranged by geographical preference. Winners from those matches go up against MLS competition in the third round, with matchups again being determined by region.

Another major change is how game hosts are determined. In the past it was a blind bidding process, where home games went to the highest bidder. From every round through the quarterfinals, the hosts are now determined randomly. There has yet to be an announcement about how the semifinal and final hosts will be determined.


What do you think of the drastic changes to the CCL and USOC? Think they are steps in the right direction?

Share your thoughts below.


  1. whats the point of the seeding in CCL. If you have 2 American and Mexican teams seeded #1 and 2 teams seeded #2, but you can’t have an american team and a mexican team in the same group…then what the hell is the point of seeding half the american/mexican teams #2…what a complete joke of a system and very typical of concacaf

  2. my only question would be if mls adds 2 more US based teams and/or NASL/USL add a few US based clubs do they automatically get entrance to the Open Cup at the cost of one of the amateur spots?

  3. I bet there are…I play in NJ and there are a ton of teams around. I wonder if it has anything to do with the State and National Cups?

    Ha! I’d love to see that…up close and personal I mean.

  4. “…since Los Angeles won both the MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield, Seattle earned a place in the first pot.”

    That never gets old.

  5. SS winners and US Open winners are not rewarded the same. MLS Cup winner and SS winner are placed in first pot. Open Cup winner and MLS Finalist are in the second pot. Seattle gets into the first pot since LA won both MLS Cup and SS. Hope that clarified your confusion.

  6. I like it the set ups. I really like how the chances of a USA team meeting Mexican team in the knock out stages of the CCL will increase with the new format, which I believe will only help to increase the rivalry.

  7. Doesn’t the USOC winner get placed with the MLS Cup runner up in pot 2, while the Supperters’ Shield and MLS Cup champ go into pot 1? Seems ok to me, but maybe I’m missing your point..

  8. A Chicago Business web site is reporting that Quaker Oats will be the Fire’s new sponsor. Its good to know the Fire will be regular this season.

  9. Um, actually, since (A) each of the 8 groups must have a team from the U.S. or Mexico, and (B) there are 4 Mexican teams and 4 U.S. teams in the field, the math seems to suggest pretty clearly that U.S. clubs and Mexican clubs CANNOT meet in the group stage. Last time I checked, 4 + 4 = 8, and that necessarily works out to EXACTLY one U.S. team OR one Mexican team per group. If there’s some bizarre wrinkle in this system that makes it otherwise, I’m certainly not seeing it!

  10. just looked it up. there are a lot of teams in that bottom rung of the US soccer pyramid. i wonder how those 32 will be picked.

    some of my local teams in the USASA (nyc area) play on high school football fields. would be interesting to see NYRB playing a game at John Dewey high school.

  11. “…and each group will have at least one team from the United States or Mexico.”

    Doesn’t this ensure that a Mexican club and an MLS club cannot meet in the group stage? (There are four teams from each country, and eight groups total.) That’s good for MLS clubs’ chances of advancing to the quarterfinals, but it’s going to make the group stage less interesting.

  12. My interpretation is that the Cup winners and Supporters’ Shield winners are among 8 seeded teams, thereby avoiding the six best teams from the other nations in the first round. Thus, the MLS Cup winners are guaranteed not to face Mexico’s champion in the first round, but the MLS Cup runners-up might face Mexico’s (or Costa-Rica, etc.’s) Champion/best team. This would appear to be the reward for winning rather than coming in 2nd.

    Ives, please correct me if I’m wrong.

  13. where are these 32 amateur teams coming from? would be cool to see an MLS team have to go to a shoddy amateur team’s field to play a cup match.

  14. With the changes to the CONCACAF Champions League format, there must be a discussion as to how slots are allocated. With the abolition of a first round head-to-head qualifying mechanism, the USOC champion is rewarded the same as the Supporters’ Shield recipient. More troubling, the MLS Cup runner up receives the same fate as the MLS Cup winner.

    The first one is not necessarily as problematic as the second (raising the status of cup competition should be on USSF’s agenda…and towards the top, given the continued success Seattle has shown is possible when a club actually cares about winning it), but a discussion should nevertheless take place.

    Ives, you got a take?


Leave a Comment