The 2021 MLS regular season has become a bit more meaningful, as it will now furnish three of the four clubs that will compete in next season’s Concacaf Champions League.
Faced with the cancellation of the U.S. Open Cup for the second consecutive year, the U.S. Soccer Federation will announce Tuesday that the CCL berth that would’ve been awarded to the winner of the federation’s knockout tournament will go instead to an MLS team based on its regular season performance.
So the U.S.’s 2022 CCL bids will be awarded as follows:
— MLS Cup champion
— MLS Supporters' Shield winner
— First place team in MLS conference opposite the Shield winner
— Next-best MLS regular season record (instead of U.S. Open Cup)
If one club earns a spot via two mechanisms, then the empty berth also will be filled based on MLS regular season results. Canada’s three MLS clubs can’t qualify for the CCL via league play—they can only do so via the Canadian Championship tournament.
The qualification decision, proposed by U.S. Soccer and approved by Concacaf, means that next season’s CCL will be the first since the event’s 2008 expansion that offers no access to lower-tier pro or amateur American clubs. Absent the possibility of promotion, the Open Cup was their only avenue to international competition.
Following the cancellation of the 2020 Open Cup, U.S. Soccer opted to maintain that tradition of access by awarding the available 2021 CCL berth to 2019 USOC champion Atlanta United. It felt strange to see a team qualify for two consecutive CCLs based on one achievement but theoretically, any team in the country could’ve won the 2019 USOC and earned that berth. The move maintained the Open Cup’s rightful position as a CCL qualifier. Doing that again, however, was a non-starter. No rational case could be made for granting Atlanta three CCL runs off of one USOC triumph.
Concacaf isn’t interested in admitting lower-tier teams to continental competition via league play. Despite its size (31 teams) the USL Championship is designated a second-division circuit by the USSF. So awarding the open CCL spot to the USL Championship champion, for example, also would’ve been a non-starter. That left U.S. Soccer with only one realistic option: a fourth MLS club. And it opted to prioritize regular season record rather than playoff results (the MLS Cup runner-up was guaranteed a CCL place from the 2008-09 CCL through 2013-14).
The 2021 CCL has been another disaster for MLS. The Columbus Crew, Portland Timbers, Atlanta and Toronto FC all fell in the quarterfinals. The Philadelphia Union are the lone semifinalist, and last season’s Shield winner advanced that far in large part because it drew Atlanta in the CCL quarters. The Union trail Club América, 2–0 on aggregate, heading into Wednesday’s seminal decider in Chester, Pa.
The U.S. Open Cup and its CCL berth will return in 2022, and amateur qualifying is already underway.
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