The New York Red Bulls qualified for the 2017-18 CONCACAF Champions League by winning the 2016 MLS Eastern Conference regular-season title. It is not really a "title": no team really celebrates winning its Conference in MLS beyond the fact that it brings preferential seeding in the playoffs (which doesn't necessarily amount to much, as RBNY can attest) and qualification for CCL.
By the time RBNY actually kicks off its next CCL campaign, winning the East in 2016 will have been long forgotten, not least because RBNY won't kick off its next CCL campaign until 2018. That is because the 2017-18 edition of the region's Champions League will be the first played in a new format. CONCACAF likes to tinker with its regional club championship, and its latest innovation is to split the tournament into two parts.
There will be 31 teams in the 2017-18 CCL (up from 24 in the 2016-17 edition), but 16 will enter the first phase - to be played in the latter part of 2017 - while 15 go straight into the second phase, which will be played in early 2018.
The Red Bulls, along with all the US, Canadian, and Mexican qualifiers (nine teams in all), head straight to the second part of the tournament. So too will one club from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, and the Caribbean's qualifying competition. The winner of the first phase will round out the second-phase field to an even 16 teams.
So there isn't much for RBNY fans to consider about CCL until 2018. Or maybe there is: consider for a moment lending support to the cause of Puerto Rico FC.
The Caribbean club plays in NASL in the second tier of America's pro soccer leagues, but it is also the Puerto Rican qualifier for the Caribbean Football Union's 2017 Club Championship - which is the CFU's qualifying tournament for CCL 2017-18.
The CFU Club Championship is currently approaching the end of its Group Stage. Twenty qualified teams were split into five groups, with the winner of each group advancing to a final round to be played in Trinidad some time later this year (but before CCL 2017-18 kicks off). The defending CFU Club Champion, Trinidad and Tobago's Central FC, is the nominal host of the six-team final round of this year's Championship. The Group Stage selected the five teams that will join Central for the decisive stage of the tournament.
Four of those five qualified teams from the Group Stage are already known: Haiti's Racing des Gonaives, Cibao from the Dominican Republic, Antiguan club Grenades FC, and San Juan Jabloteh of the TT Pro League. Those four plus Central FC will compete for spots in CCL 2017-18 with the team that wins out of the last CFU group to be decided: the one that includes Puerto Rico FC.
PRFC is hosting its group, so is the favorite on the grounds that it is the home team. The rest of the group is comprised of Suriname's Transvaal, Scholars International from the Cayman Islands, and Portmore United from Jamaica. The Jamaican side is the most obvious challenger to PRFC - and the two teams will face off in the final game of the group on March 18.
Ultimately, four of the six Caribbean clubs who advance to the final round of the CFU Championship will qualify for CCL. The winner of the tournament wins straight through the second phase of the 2017-18 CCL; the other three qualifiers will enter the first phase (with the winner of that part of the tournament also entering the second phase in 2018).
Why should RBNY fans care about PRFC? No great reason other than generating a mild rooting interest in the early stage of the next edition of CCL, if the Puerto Rican team gets that far. The presence of a NASL team in CCL will be an interesting talking point if it happens. And there is a New York connection: PRFC is owned by Brooklyn-born basketballer Carmelo Anthony.
Anthony's backing for PRFC seems as likely to repel as attract New York sports fans, but he's a homegrown New York soccer benefactor - even if the soccer he's currently supporting most visibly is being played in Puerto Rico.
So lend PRFC a moment of your time and consideration, RBNY fans. The Red Bulls' next CCL outing is a long way off, but maybe, just maybe, there will be a Caribbean qualifier with a New York connection to cheer for during the tournament's 2017 activity.