Around these parts, playing in CONCACAF Champions League has started to seem almost like a birthright. The Seattle Sounders have played in the continental tournament every year in which they've had a chance to make it, basically by virtue of their winning three straight U.S. Open Cups.
Of course, that run was put to a halt this year, which means the Sounders will have to qualify another way if they are to make it into the 2013-14 tournament. The good news is that this year is lining up nicely for some non-automatic qualifiers to make it.
First, let's recap the ways that U.S.-based teams automatically qualify:
- Win the U.S. Open Cup
- Win the Supporters' Shield
- Win the MLS Cup
- Make the MLS Cup final
After this week's tie and the San Jose Earthquakes' win over Chivas USA, the Sounders are now eight points behind in the Supporters' Shield race. Let's go ahead and rule that path out. Let's also ignore the two other obvious ways as there's simply too many variables to consider that either likely or unlikely. Rather, I'd like to focus on some of the less obvious ways the Sounders can still qualify.
One nice thing about a legitimately good team winning the Open Cup is that there's a possibility that they'll qualify a second or even third way, which would open up more spots. The additional spots are awarded to the U.S.-based teams with the best regular-season records.
In this case, if Sporting KC were to catch the Earthquakes for the Shield, that would mean that at the very least the team with the second best record in MLS would get a CCL berth.
Let's assume the Earthquakes hold onto their seemingly safe five-point lead for the Shield. As long as they make it to the MLS Cup final, that would open up an additional spot as well. If they were to play, Sporting KC in the final, that would open up two additional spots. In the instance that Sporting KC finishes with one of three best regular-season records and makes the MLS Cup final, a team that finishes as low as fourth in the overall table would qualify for CCL. (A purely hypothetical circumstance exists where two Canadian teams meet in the finals and finish with records among the top 4 that would allow a U.S.-based team to finish as low as sixth and still qualify, but that's not going to happen.)
A quick glance at the overall table, though, reveals the Sounders are currently in fifth. They are one point behind the New York Red Bulls, two behind the Chicago Fire and three in back of Sporting KC. For better or worse, the Sounders don't play any of those three teams again this year, so they'll need at least a little bit of outside help to catch them. The silver-lining in this is that the three teams ahead of the Sounders play one another quite a bit down the stretch.
Assuming the Sounders can catch these teams, the one they'll least want to end the season tied with is the Red Bulls. As you hopefully know by now, the first tiebreaker is now goals scored. The Sounders have a nine-goal lead on KC and a four-goal lead on the Fire, leads that seem reasonably safe if they were to come into play. But the Red Bulls currently hold a five-goal lead on the Sounders, which seems a big deficit to make up in just six games.
Here's a look at each of those teams' remaining schedules:
Red Bulls: vs. Sporting KC; @ Revolution; vs. Toronto FC; vs. Fire; vs. Sporting KC; @ Union.