If MLS has its way, the Portland Timbers will play in the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League. But whether the club will make its international debut next year remains undecided, even as the 2013 MLS season approaches its conclusion.
In past years, both the MLS Cup champion and runner-up booked passage to the subsequent CCL. The remaining two bids went to the Supporters' Shield and U.S. Open Cup winners. If a given team qualified under multiple criteria, the available spot was allocated based on regular season record. That’s how Real Salt Lake qualified in 2012-13, for example (L.A. won both MLS Cup and the Shield in 2011).
Before the 2013 MLS season, the league’s competition committee recommended that the MLS Cup runner-up’s spot should be awarded instead to the club that finished with the best regular season record in the conference opposite the Supporters' Shield winner. The reasoning was clear – it would place a greater priority on regular season performance and increase the likelihood that a stronger team entered the CCL.
Yet sources at the club, league and continental level tell SI.com that CONCACAF still hasn’t signed off on the change. There is an executive committee meeting on Dec. 13 in Miami, where the confederation may do so.
But until then, there’s confusion. Under the old (and still current, at least officially) rules, all four teams involved in the ongoing MLS conference finals would be playing for a CCL spot because the New York Red Bulls (Supporters' Shield) and D.C. United (Open Cup) already have been eliminated. With the qualification change unconfirmed, however, the stakes are unclear to the clubs involved.
Under the system MLS has proposed, the Timbers already would have booked a spot in the 2014-15 CCL because they finished first in the Western Conference. The MLS Cup champion then would take the final berth. But if Portland wins the title on Dec. 7, the last CCL spot would go to Sporting Kansas City, the unqualified club with the best regular season record.
MLS teams have known about the league’s new CCL plan for months, but uncertainty remains until there is final approval. There was an indication during conversations with sources on Monday that CONCACAF officials might believe it’s too late to alter 2014-15 qualification, which already is under way. That could push the change back to 2015-16. It’s unlikely CONCACAF would have a problem with the new MLS format, but timing might be an issue. It’s unclear why a request made at least eight months ago hasn’t been acted upon.
Frustration also is mounting because of the planning that MLS clubs face heading into a season featuring CCL competition. The allocation money granted to CCL qualifiers impacts roster decisions. Meanwhile, season ticket packages have to be created and marketed. Without knowing what lies ahead, teams are handcuffed on multiple fronts.
On Sunday, the U.S. Soccer Federation squashed a report that the U.S. Open Cup winner’s CCL spot was in danger. An MLS source told SI.com that there is no push by the league to end that tradition. But the rumor mill continued to spin on Monday, when a story claimed that CONCACAF was interested in finding a way to admit the NASL champion New York Cosmos into the CCL.
The author of that piece, Kartik Krishnaiyer, directed the NASL’s PR and communications department before leaving the league in May. The NASL and CONCACAF have a common marketing partner in Traffic Sports, a Brazilian-based company, and Traffic Sports USA’s CEO, Aaron Davidson, chairs the NASL board of governors. Traffic also is an investor in three NASL clubs: the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, Carolina Railhawks and Atlanta Silverbacks. CONCACAF and NASL sources told SI.com that they were unaware of any effort regarding the Cosmos and that bending the rules in favor of a single second-division team wasn’t in anyone’s interest. They confirmed that the New York club’s only pathway to continental competition is the U.S. Open Cup.