As time was ticking down in Tuesday’s US Open Cup final, what seemed like a pipe dream suddenly became very real: D.C. United were going to the CONCACAF Champions League. And on this night, at least, Real Salt Lake were not.
That hit a lot of MLS fans hard. The team that has came closest to winning the region’s big prize in recent years – and has staked its very reputation on it – is going to have to find another way in. And the team that is flirting with a historic level of ineptitude in MLS … well, ironically, they’re the first ones into the pool.
The last-place team in MLS just became the first team to qualify for the 2014-15 #CCL. Mind. Blown.— Jonah Freedman (@jonahfreedman) October 2, 2013
The above tweet, which I fired off in the closing minutes of Tuesday night’s match, prompted a lot of response. More than a few people called it “an embarrassment” that D.C. will be representing MLS in CCL play next summer.
That sentiment makes sense. An MLS team has yet to win the tournament since it was reformatted in 2008. The expectations are such that fans want the league’s elite – the perennial contenders like RSL, LA, Seattle, Sporting KC, Houston and so on – flying the flag in the hopes those big boys from south of the border can be dethroned.
Instead, MLS’ first entrant into the 2014-15 CCL is a team that is close to setting a league all-time worst mark in victories, total points, total goals scored and goal differential.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet D.C. United, CONCACAF qualifiers. And it’s going to be awesome.
There are a lot of reasons why you should be excited to see the most decorated team in MLS history back in continental competition. It has little to do with a tradition of success or the memories of dominant teams of the past (though that does figure in).
This team can succeed in the Champions League. Really.
Yes, they’re less than 12 months from being an Eastern Conference finalist. But ignore that fact. They’re not the same team they were then, and they won’t be exactly the same team in 12 months time either. That’s a near guarantee.
D.C.’s current core of youth has star potential, even if they haven't made the team a day-to-day contender yet. Perry Kitchen, Nick DeLeon, Bill Hamid, Ethan White and Luis Silva (the oldest of the bunch at 24) are all starters. Jared Jeffrey, Conor Doyle, Kyle Porter and Collin Martin are waiting in the wings.
Those Champions League dates will force the club to accelerate the youthful rebuild by adding parts. And they have a near-perfect storm of tools to play with: extra allocation money for qualifying to the Champions League and for missing the playoffs, as well as the top spots in the SuperDraft, Re-Entry Draft and the Allocation Order for returning US national-teamers or former MLSers abroad.
That suggests an influx of yet more youth, more savvy veteran influence (perhaps on the cheap) and a spot for a real difference-maker. Who could they land with that allocation spot?
Jermaine Jones has an expiring contract and keeps dropping hints he could move to MLS. And Washington is a perfect landing spot for him, where he could play more of a marauding role in central midfield while Kitchen stays at home, cleaning up behind him.
How about a new Designated Player to fill that No. 9 role D.C. have been sorely lacking? They could do that, too, but they’d have to do better than devoting payroll to players like Rafael or Hamdi Salihi, whose production didn’t match their price tag.
Convincing current DP Dwayne De Rosario to renegotiate his current deal would help free up some cash; Seattle did the same with Shalrie Joseph and were able to land Clint Dempsey as a result.
"The one thing about CONCACAF, everybody knows you have to be deep," D.C. head coach Ben Olsen said at training on Thursday. "You have to have a bunch of guys that are ready and able to go into tough places and play. ... That's what we plan on doing this offseason, as well as just getting better overall."
It’s near impossible to imagine United being worse in 2014 than they’ve been this season. But it’s near ignorance to assume that performance in league play has any bearing on success in the CCL. There are too many counter-arguments.
Toronto FC were the worst team in MLS last season, their 5-21-8 record close to D.C.’s pace this year. And yet it was the Reds – not LA nor Seattle – who went the furthest in the 2011-12 edition of the Champions League, just 45 minutes from reaching the finals before Santos Laguna eventually put them to the sword in Mexico.
Last fall, it was Real Salt Lake – desperate to go one better than their runner-up finish in 2011 – who couldn’t even get back to the knockout stage after failing to score a goal in their group finale at home against Herediano.
If D.C.’s Open Cup run reiterated anything, it’s that a team’s singular focus and preparation (Olsen rotated his squads and rested players with the USOC in mind) can yield vastly different results in one tournament than another.
And then, of course, is the whole pride thing. Olsen himself has tasted continental success, way back in 1998 when D.C. United won the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup. It was a different beast then, and the road to win it was a lot easer. But out of D.C.’s 13 major trophies, Olsen's had a hand in nine of them.
No one will understand how important the CCL is to United better than their coach. It’ll be a chance at more silverware, and the added bonus of playing knockout games at a new stadium come spring of 2015.
"[I've] got a lot of respect for CONCACAF and it's still the one that has eluded this league since they've changed to the other format," the United lifer said Thursday. "So you never know. Maybe we're the ones."
This is a near guarantee that they’ll be one hell of a tough out next summer.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.