The day after Major League Soccer’s participation in the 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League concluded, the confusion over how its clubs will qualify for subsequent editions of the revamped competition finally has been cleared up.
CONCACAF’s January decision to conduct a qualifying tournament each fall and delay the start of the Champions League proper until the following February/March created a qualifying bottleneck. The Seattle Sounders, FC Dallas, New York Red Bulls and Colorado Rapids earned spots based on 2016 results and originally were supposed to begin their group-stage runs this August. Instead, CONCACAF eliminated the groups and scheduled a knockout round of 16 for early 2018.
But by then, there will be 2017 MLS Cup, U.S. Open Cup and Supporters' Shield winners as well, and as many as eight American clubs for only four berths (there may be fewer eligible teams if one of the aforementioned quartet qualifies again).
U.S. Soccer and MLS have been silent on the subject since CONCACAF announced the revamp but now appear to have come to a solution. While it might make sense to resolve that bottleneck as soon as possible, SI.com understands authorities felt it would be unfair to bar any of the the four clubs that qualified last year. So, Seattle, FC Dallas, Colorado and the Red Bulls will take their places in the round of 16 next February or March, more than a year after they booked those spots (MLS and Liga MX teams will be kept apart until the quarterfinals).
The solution will impact the 2019 CCL. Typically, the USA sends the MLS Cup, Open Cup and Supporters' Shield winners and the first-place team from the conference opposite the Shield winner. If any of those clubs are Canadian or if one team wins two trophies (as FCD did last year), the open berth(s) are determined by regular season record.
In order to reduce the 2019 qualifiers to four, the Federation and MLS will eliminate the two berths determined by regular season record—the Shield and first-place finisher in the opposite conference—this year and next. So the 2019 CCL qualifiers from the USA will be the 2017 and 2018 MLS Cup champions and the 2017 and 2018 Open Cup champions. In short, the league and cup winners will go.
It’s unclear what happens if a Canadian club wins MLS Cup or if a team wins more than one trophy. Regular season performance would be the probable solution, but it’s unknown whether it’ll be based on just one year or the 2017 and ’18 records combined. Sending an MLS Cup or U.S. Open Cup runner-up is less likely, but still possible.
Either way, MLS and the USSF intend to return to the old qualifying format in 2019. That means the 2019 MLS Cup, Open Cup and Shield winners and the first-place team from the opposite conference will advance to the 2020 CCL.
Canadian clubs qualify for the CCL only through the Canadian Championship, the CSA’s annual cup competition. Canada gets one berth, and it announced last month that it’ll solve its bottleneck sooner rather than later. Toronto FC claimed last year’s tournament and if it doesn’t win the 2017 edition as well, it’ll host the winner in a one-game playoff on August 9 to determine Canada’s 2018 entry.
The new CCL format calls for four American, four Mexican, five Central American, one Canadian and one Caribbean club—plus the winner of this fall’s qualifying competition—to contest a 16-team, knockout tournament.