CONCACAF announced changes to its Champions League format on Monday, increasing the tournament from 24 teams to 31. The four qualified teams from the United States will join the tournament in "phase two," skipping the group stage and directly entering the knockout rounds.
The New York Red Bulls are currently competing in the 2016-17 Champions League and face the Vancouver Whitecaps in the quarterfinal next month. The club has also qualified for the next edition of the tournament by virtue of finishing first in the Eastern Conference last season. The format change will both positively and negatively affect the Red Bulls.
From a competitive standpoint, the club stands to benefit greatly. It will no longer have to slog through a difficult group stage and its midweek road matches in an attempt to navigate the simultaneous challenges of league and cup play. In past competitions, the Red Bulls' roster was pushed to its breaking point as the club was forced to dip into its reserve squad and use players in unfamiliar positions.
The Red Bulls will now enter the tournament in the winter at the end of preseason. While it's still not ideal for MLS teams to begin a competition coming out of the preseason, guaranteed entry in the knockout rounds is automatically a safer bet than four group stage matches.
Skipping straight to the knockout round increases the probability of capturing the Champions League. No MLS team has ever won the competition in its current format, however D.C. United (1998) and the LA Galaxy (2000) won the CONCACAF Champions Cup, the forebear to the current edition which was solely comprised of a knockout round.
The main downside of the format change is the loss of playing time for younger players. Due to fixture congestion last season, the Red Bulls were forced to dig deep into the roster and use their reserves. Resting first-team players hurt their chances of advancing, but benefitted the club in the long term.
From a development standpoint, players like Tyler Adams and Derrick Etienne were able to gain experience against stronger teams than they were facing in the reserve league. While the group stage only amounts to a few matches that won't greatly improve a player's talent, it has immeasurable mental benefits. Matches in foreign countries against unfamiliar opponents break young players out of their comfort zone and force them to deal with high pressure situations.
Ultimately, the Champions League being moved next season is a net positive for the club. The Red Bulls won't have to struggle with the group stage and will have a better chance at winning the competition and qualifying for the Club World Cup.
The fully professional reserve team will continue to provide minutes for developing players, but there is something lost by not having those late summer, early fall group stage matches forcing teams to get creative with their rosters and utilize younger players. Perhaps the rumored return of the North American SuperLiga will fill the void.