As has been speculated here and there over the past month or so, it appears Toronto FC will not return to the CONCACAF Champions League until 2018.
Kurtis Larson of the Sun confirmed over the weekend that TFC are not expecting to be back in the competition this year despite qualifying as winners of the Canadian Championship. That’s because of upcoming changes to the tournament’s format.
TFC qualified for the 2017-18 CCL by way of winning last year’s Canadian Championship.
But incoming changes will see the 2017-18 tournament begin next February instead of this summer.
Furthermore, all five MLS qualifiers are expected to bypass the CCL group phase and enter a 16-team knockout tournament.
The aim of the format change is believed to be to fit each edition of the competition proper into a calendar year. Currently - much like the UEFA Champions League - the group stage is played from August through to October before the knockout stages begin in February, with the final taking place very early in the MLS season.
There might also be some competitive motivation behind having the MLS clubs (and presumably most, if not all, of the Liga MX qualifiers as well) bypass the group stage - currently comprised of 24 teams - for a 16-team knockout competition. That would create an extra round of knockout ties between the strongest teams while reducing the amount of dead rubbers in the group stage, where seven of the eight groups featured a club that did not win any of their four matches this season.
Those clubs - generally from the smaller Central American and Caribbean countries - would probably go through some kind of qualification process late in the previous year, like the current group stage.
This all sounds good in the long term but does create a problem, of course, of figuring out how qualification works for 2018. If 2016’s MLS qualifiers - the Sounders, Rapids, Red Bulls and FC Dallas, in addition to TFC - enter a year from now, what happens to the teams that qualify in 2017?
It could potentially mean a one-off situation in which the affected clubs face qualifiers of some kind, making the Reds’ route back into continental competition a little more difficult than expected. Alternatively, perhaps they can make things simpler for themselves by going and retaining this year’s Canadian Championship.