MLS and the US Soccer Federation have reportedly cleared up how they will distribute bids to the changed CONCACAF Champions League, according to Sports Illustrated’s Brian Straus.
CONCACAF amended the format of the CCL in January, eliminating the tournament’s group stage in favor of a 16-team qualifying tournament that will be held each fall, starting this year.
The winner of the qualifying tournament will join 15 automatic qualifiers in the tournament proper in the spring. Both the qualifying tournament and CCL proper will be knockout competitions, with each matchup contested as a home-and-away, aggregate goals series.
Qualifying MLS teams will automatically be slotted into the tournament proper each spring.
The changes created a qualifying quagmire for MLS. Seattle, Dallas, the New York Red Bulls and Colorado all earned spots in the 2017-18 CCL based on their 2016 results and were originally slated to begin their tournaments in August, but CONCACAF eliminated the group stage, slotting them into the 16-team knockout round that will begin in the spring of 2018.
As Straus noted, by then there will be 2017 MLS Cup, US Open Cup and Supporters’ Shield winners, creating a tough predicament with regards to allocating the USA's CCL spots for the spring 2018 tournament, with as many as eight teams eligible based on the current qualification mechanisms.
Straus reported that MLS and US Soccer have found a solution for the qualifying bottleneck. According to SI, officials felt that it would be unfair to remove any of the four clubs that qualified last year for the 2017-18 CCL, so Seattle, Dallas, New York and Colorado will all participate in the tournament next spring.
Under the current rules, the US sends the MLS Cup, US Open Cup and Supporters’ Shield winners and the first-place team from the conference opposite the Shield winner to the CCL. If a Canadian team were to claim any of those places or if one team won two of those trophies, then the open berth was allocated to the non-qualified US-based team with the best regular season record.
If CONCACAF hadn’t made any changes to the tournament and the qualification mechanisms had remained the same, the four slots for the 2018-19 CCL would be been filled in the 2017 MLS season. However, in order to accommodate the new structure, the league and USSF will now reportedly not give CCL berths to the 2017 and 2018 Shield winner and first-place finisher from the opposite conference. Instead, Straus reported that the US’s four slots at the 2019 CCL will be filled by the 2017 and 2018 MLS Cup and US Open Cup winners.
It’s not yet clear what will happen if a Canadian club wins MLS Cup or if a US team wins more than one of those trophies, though the SI report noted that it is "probable" that the berth would be allocated based on regular-season performance.
Straus also reported that MLS and USSF plan on return to the old qualifying format for the 2019 MLS season and 2020 CCL Round of 16. The 2019 MLS Cup, US Open Cup and Supporters’ Shield winners and the first-place team from the opposite conference will play in the tournament in the spring of 2020.
Canada, whose teams get a berth to the CCL through winning the Canadian Championship, announced last month its plans for the amended Champions League. If defending Canadian Championship winners Toronto FC claim this year’s tournament, they’ll play in the 2018 CCL. If TFC fall short, they’ll host the 2017 winner in a one-game playoff on Aug. 9 to determine Canada’s 2018 CCL participant.