By Brian Trusdell
With the elimination of the Preliminary Round, and the reformulation of the second phase from four groups of four teams, to eight groups of three teams, the fifth season of the Champions League will be noticeably different from the first four.
As teams prepare for the kickoff on Tuesday, veterans and newcomers alike to the competition are aware the stakes have changed - especially the one that requires winning each respective group to get to the quarterfinals.
"There really is no room for error this time," said Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who helped guide his club to the finals in 2011. "You could maybe have a slipup in last format, and then maybe recover by winning away or winning out your games as a second-place team in some way.
"So it is cut throat with only three teams and having to win, but I think it's exciting, and it does cut out a little of the travel."
Under the old format, teams played a minimum of six games in the Champions League, three at home and three away, between July and mid-October. With international fixture dates, sometimes teams played a dozen or more games in three weeks.
For teams that didn't qualify automatically for the Group Stage, they had to play an additional two games in the Preliminary Round.
Beckerman said that in the 2010-11 Champions League, by the end of the Group Stage, RSL "ran out of steam" as it headed in the Major League Soccer playoffs.
The revised format requires teams to play fewer games, and spreads them out over the same time period.
This year teams will play only four games instead of six in the Group Stage, which intensifies the importance of each one.
"The tournament will be a lot of tougher and goes right into the Group Stage," Alajuelense midfielder Pablo Gabbas said. "There's less margin of error than last year. You have to take advantage and take points both home and away."
Mexican teams have never failed to advance out of the Group Stage, with all four clubs reaching the quarterfinals in each year the Champions League has existed. They also have won all four titles.
The United States has put two teams each into the second round the past two seasons - three this past year if you count Canada's Toronto FC which plays in U.S. Major League Soccer.
Some of the most anticipated matches of the Group Stage in past years included the United States vs. Mexican clashes. American fans celebrated last season when FC Dallas and Seattle finally ended the MLS jinx of being unable to win in Mexico.
But those will now be restricted to the quarterfinals or beyond, raising the expectations for clubs in both countries and making the initial phase somewhat more perilous.
"The early stages can always be tricky," said Seattle striker Eddie Johnson, who while Seattle will be playing in the competition for a third straight time it will be his first experience. "You can go some countries and the pitches are not as nice as you're used to. And each team will try to use that to its advantage."
Further adding to the necessity to win is a regulations change that for the quarterfinals will pit the group winner with the best record against the group winner with the worst record.
That means the "luck of the draw" which grouped 11-time Mexican league champion CD Guadalajara or "Chivas" with four-time reigning Canadian champion Toronto and El Salvador's Aguila could end up costing whichever teams wins Group 1.
Regardless, when the Champions League kicks off Tuesday with two-time defending champion Monterrey against Panama's Chorrillo, each team will have its own motivation - regardless of the challenges stacked by rules changes.
Monterrey wants a third consecutive title to equal Cruz Azul's record; last year's runner-up Santos wants another chance at the final; Real Salt Lake feels it came so close in 2011 and feels it deserves another title try; Chivas wants to extend its domestic success onto a bigger stage; Toronto from last season and the Puerto Rico Islanders from 2009 want to prove their past achievements were not flukes; and Central America clubs are eager to prove they can do more than just make the knockout rounds.
"We're really excited," Beckerman said. "It's been a goal of ours since we lost that final to get back in it and see if we can make another run at the trophy. We had a lot of fun in it last time. So hopefully we can put on some good performances and have a go at this."