The Portland Timbers have been confirmed as the fourth and final U.S.-based entrant into the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League, nearly a full year after MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation first asked the regional governing body to approve a change in the qualifying format.
Portland will play in the continental championship tournament for the first time thanks to its first-place finish in MLS's Western Conference. The other three U.S. spots will go to Sporting Kansas City (MLS Cup champion), the New York Red Bulls (Supporters Shield winner) and D.C. United (U.S. Open Cup winner).
Real Salt Lake, which had its own claim to the berth, will be left out as a result of Friday's decision by the CONCACAF executive committee.
In years past, the MLS Cup, Shield and Open Cup holders were joined in the ensuing CCL by the MLS Cup runner-up. Before the 2013 season, however, MLS asked CONCACAF (via U.S. Soccer) to transfer that spot to the club finishing with the best regular season record in the conference opposite the Shield winner.
MLS teams were made aware of the request at the start of the 2013 campaign. But in the absence of a final ruling, they entered the stretch run unaware of their potential CCL fate. There were even some who believed the new format wouldn't take effect until next year. RSL and Portland wound up meeting in the Western Conference finals, a two-game series won emphatically by the side from Salt Lake. But it's the revitalized Timbers, who finished one point ahead of RSL in the regular season standings, that will head to the CCL.
"Achievement in the MLS regular season is important," MLS executive VP Nelson Rodriguez said. "Awarding a spot to the points leader from both conferences is a worthy reward and confers greater importance on regular season matches."
The change makes sense, and Portland is a worthy participant. But the timing is awkward. Neither MLS nor CONCACAF offered an explanation for the lag between the request and Friday's ruling.
Under the new format, the U.S.-based MLS club with the next-best regular season record -- regardless of conference -- will earn a CCL berth if another team qualifies through more than one mechanism (i.e., finishing first in a conference and winning the Open Cup.) Canada's lone CCL berth is determined through the Canadian Championship, a tournament that features the country's five professional clubs.
Friday's news ends a brutal week for Real Salt Lake. It started with an agonizing shootout loss to Sporting in Saturday's MLS Cup final and continued with the Tuesday departure of coach Jason Kreis to New York City FC. RSL nearly won the CCL title in 2011, coming far closer than any other MLS team, but now will have to live with sitting out the 2014-15 tournament because of near misses on three fronts. In addition to its close calls against Sporting and in the Western standings, RSL was shocked in October's Open Cup final by visiting D.C. United, MLS's worst team. The quarterfinals of the 2013-14 CCL will be played in March. SKC, the L.A. Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes remain in contention for the title.