Reese: Why Change Who Qualifies for the CONCACAF Champions League?

CCL Concacaf Champions League

BY BILL REESE
Contributing Writer

Conflicting reports over the weekend suggest that the way American Major League Soccer teams qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League may be changed, as soon as next season.

Under the current system, U.S.-based MLS sides receive four automatic berths in the CCL: The MLS Cup champion, MLS Cup runners-up, Supporters Shield champion, and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup champion. ProstAmerika reported that the MLS Cup runners-up would lose their automatic berth, while Goal.com (link since deleted) reported that the spot would be stripped from the winner of the U.S. Open Cup.

Both reports claim that either of these two berths would be supplanted by the team with the best record in the conference that did not win the Supporters Shield; a standing earned by Portland Timbers in 2013. U.S. Soccer’s Twitter later denied the Goal.com report, but nothing official has been released from MLS or the USSF. Brian Straus at SI.com served to clarify the situation which still remains muddled and unclear.

The reason for the change is simple: MLS and USSF are desperate for a better showing in the confederation’s premier club tournament. MLS sides have not won the CCL since the competition was re-organized for the 2008-09 tournament. Only one American club has reached the final in that time, the 2011 Real Salt Lake side that only needed a 0-0 draw to lift the cup but lost 1-0 at Rio Tinto to Monterrey of Liga MX. Not counting the tournament currently in progress, only three American clubs have reached the semifinals of the tournament in six seasons.

It would appear that MLS and USSF believe that the current American berths do not represent the strongest sides in the league. And they may have a point—albeit a misguided point.

CCL Breakdown
In the six years MLS has sent four U.S. sides to the CCL, the weakest of the four berths is clearly the MLS Cup runners-up — the spot ProstAmerika reported would lose their qualification. In five of six seasons, the MLS Cup runners-up have failed to advance past the group stage, with two sides failing to advance past the qualifying round (New England vs. Joe Public (Trinidad) in 2008 and New York Red Bulls vs. W Connection (Trinidad) in 2009). Only the Houston Dynamo in last season’s CCL advanced past the group stage before being dispatched by Santos Laguna this past March.

Meanwhile, the past three winners of the U.S. Open Cup have advanced past the group stage, including the 2011 Open Cup winners, Seattle, who were knocked out this spring by Monterrey en route to the Mexican side’s CCL three-peat.

While MLS sides have had awful performances in the CCL, they are slowly improving. They’ve been greatly aided by the fact that there is no longer a qualifying round, and all 24 CCL clubs begin play in the group stage. American MLS and Liga MX sides are separated in the group stage, a move made to ensure that the quarterfinals is almost entirely Mexican and American, undeniably the two strongest professional leagues in the confederation. Since this switch MLS has gone 3-for-4 in both opportunities. RSL in 2012 and Houston in 2013 were both a win away from giving the U.S. a 4-for-4 sweep in the group stage but lost in their final group matches.

Eliminating the MLS Cup finalists in favor of the best team from the non-Shield winning conference may create a stronger CCL field—but it may not. You needn’t look any further than this season to see what could have happened. Had these rule changes been implemented last fall, Houston Dynamo would not have qualified for this year’s CCL as runners-up. As the 2012 Shield was won by the Western Conference’s San Jose Earthquakes, the fourth berth would have been granted to the top seed in the East. That seed would have been Sporting Kansas City. However, because SKC had automatically qualified by winning the U.S. Open Cup, the fourth berth would have been granted to the East’s second best team in 2012… DC United. Yes, the worst regular season team in the history of Major League Soccer would have been representing the league in the confederation’s biggest club tournament.

Since completing their annual first act bow from the MLS Cup Playoffs, a number of New York Red Bulls fans (myself included) took their time to poo-poo MLS’ premier tournament. After all, it is a far more difficult task to compile the most points out of 19 clubs in a 34-game season than it is to win 5 games in November. Hell, you could lose two games and still win the MLS Cup. You could draw all five and theoretically win the cup on penalties.

Drawing all 34 games might delight Hans Backë, but it would not win a Supporters Shield in the most parity-ridden of seasons. By scheming to remove the MLS Cup runner-up, USSF and MLS are subtly admitting that the MLS Cup playoffs are a crapshoot, and that the best teams do not always win, let alone play for the title.

It should be mentioned that Mexico does not send their regular season champions to the CCL automatically. Liga MX’s four representatives are the finalists of the Apertura and Clausura playoffs. (The top three regular season sides do, however, earn an invite to Copa Libertadores).

MLS and USSF can make all the plans they want to get the best sides in the tournament, but the teams that qualify don’t enter the competition for 9 to 11 months. A MLS Cup runner-up may completely fall apart the season after reaching the final just as easily as a shock winner like DC United could put together a world-beating CCL side 10 months after winning the Open Cup. You gotta dance with who you came to the dance with.

However, until a MLS side raises that CCL trophy and books their ticket to play real, meaningful matches against the Barcelonas and Boca Juniors of the world, none of this matters.

  • Anthony

    Why should USSF give MLS a monopoly on slots? They prove mostly that they treat the group stages like the USOC and cant seem to win it even when they try. Last time two 2nd Div sides were in the tourney Montreal went to the quarterfinals losing a heartbreaker in extra time on away goals, and Puerto Rico in the semis under the same circumstances. If USSF wants to win see a us team win…then maybe they should send the Cosmos :)

    • Bill Reese

      Several second division clubs (either NASL or USL before the reboot) can qualify for CCL through other means. Canadian teams such as Montreal’s pre-MLS side earned their qualification through the Canadian Championship tournament, not MLS. Puerto Rico Islanders and Antigua Barracuda have to enter the Caribbean Cup, as no Caribbean nation has automatic qualification to the CCL group stage. You need at least a third place finish in that tournament to qualify for CCL.

      While some American MLS sides have not taken the CCL or the early rounds of the Open Cup, they do take the latter rounds seriously. We haven’t had a non-MLS finalist in the USOC since 2008 and no lower division champion since 1999, when MLS was still a fledgling league. Should a NASL side, perhaps the Cosmos, go on an astonishing run of Open Cup championships, then I think the discussion of granting the Soccer Bowl champion a CCL spot can begin. Until then, the only real avenue for an American NASL or USL club to enter CCL is the Open Cup.

      This separates CONCACAF from other confederations, as no other Champions League—UEFA, Libertadores, or the Asian CL—allows a club from the second division to automatically qualify for the confederation’s top tournament (unless you have a remarkable situation next season where a team like Wigan wins the FA Cup, is relegated, wins the Europa League and earns a playoff round spot in the Champions League).

      • JR

        actually the Copa do Brasil winner goes to Copa Libertadores and the AFC Champions League includes Cup winners from various countries as well, so technically a lower division side can automatically qualify to their respective CL. this isn’t as unique to CONCACAF as you may think.

  • Stan

    Easy solution, have the MLS cup runner up play the opposite conference winner of the regular season in a game to decide who gets the 4th berth into champions league. This way the mls cup playoffs nor the supporters shield don’t lose their importance. If you 100% remove the runner up to MLS Cup and place the winner of a regular season conference opposite of the supporters shield winner teams will devalue the mls cup and devalue the supporters shield as well.