The 2012-3 CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) has just recently begun, but last week's Open Cup final had me thinking ahead to the 2013-4 version. The Seattle Sounders have qualified for the CCL three years running and I'd like to see them keep that streak going. Officially, the four berths allotted to the United States are awarded as follows:
Pot A: MLS Cup winner, Supporter's Shield winner
Pot B: US Open Cup winner, MLS Cup runner-up
Sporting Kansas City has claimed the first spot of any team in CONCACAF with their wrenching victory over us in the Open Cup final. San Jose has an almost lock on the Supporter's Shield after last weekend's similarly last moment victory and so on the surface it might seem like the Sounders must break new ground and advance in the playoffs, and advance all the way to the Cup, in order to play in the CCL again next season.
There is another way in, however. Call it the Salt Lake way if you please. When one team occupies two or more of the four spots given to the US, like when the LA Galaxy won both the MLS Cup and the Supporter's Shield last year, then a replacement team is taken. First dibs for that go to the runner-up in the Shield. That is how the Sounders ended up in Pot A for this year's CCL draw, as they were the Shield runner-up in 2011.
But, you probably noticed, the Sounders were already in the CCL by virtue of their glorious US Open Cup victory. Too true. The Sounders filled one of the two spots held by the Galaxy, but doing so just meant that the Sounders were now occupying two spots. And so another replacement team was needed. Precedence for that went to the third-place finisher in the Shield, Real Salt Lake, hence my moniker above.
Since RSL was not already among the qualifiers, it ended there. It could have gone on a step more however. It is entirely possible for CONCACAF to go back to the well again. Imagine if the San Jose Earthquakes do win the Shield, Sporting Kansas City is the runner up as they currently are and then San Jose and Kansas City face off in the MLS Cup; those two clubs would hold all four slots. The Shield's runner-up is Kansas City so that doesn't help. Instead, the second and third runners-up in the Shield would be elevated into qualifying.
And that possibility, along with MLS Cup seeding implications, will have me keenly following the last ~10 regular season games for the top half of the league, not just in the western conference. The Sounders are, based on points per game adjusted for home and away, currently outside that top four, but not by much, and it looks like they'll have one of the easier schedules left. Climbing the table against the east won't make a difference come playoff time, but it might make all the difference when it comes to who plays in the CCL next year.