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Why is CONCACAF Champions League qualifying so dang complicated this year?

Or why the New York Red Bulls are relying on Atlanta United to get them into CCL 2019.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at New York Red Bulls Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The recently-concluded 2019 CONCACAF Champions League draw was a little more complicated than is perhaps usual for a soccer tournament. There is still one slot open in the 16-team field: a slot that will ultimately be filled by either Portland Timbers or New York Red Bulls.

If Portland wins the 2018 MLS Cup, Portland plays CCL 2019; if Portland does not win MLS Cup this year, RBNY takes the open slot by virtue of having the best aggregate points record in MLS over the past two seasons of any otherwise not-CCL-qualified American club.

Atlanta United has the best points record in the league over 2017 and 2018, and thereby has already qualified for CCL 2019, but if it wins MLS Cup this year it would be twice qualified, so the open slot would fall to RBNY.

If this seems confusing, it’s because it is. So much so that CONCACAF’s publication of the results of its own drawn was at odds with its description of how the draw was supposed to play out.

Spot the mistake? CONCACAF has RBNY or Portland down to play Atletico Pantoja, but that isn’t quite right, per CONCACAF’s own account of the structure of the draw. It is true that RBNY and Portland are competing for the same berth in CCL, but their method of qualification and therefore their place in the draw, is different.

If Portland qualifies, it qualifies as the MLS Cup winner, and that is a title it is contesting with Atlanta United. In the CCL 2019 draw, the slot awarded to the 2018 MLS Cup winner was matched with Costa Rican club Herediano - so that is the slot Portland should take if it beats Atlanta in MLS Cup on December 8. In that scenario, Atlanta claims its “best aggregate points record in MLS” slot and plays Atletico Pantoja.

If RBNY qualifies, it is because Atlanta won MLS Cup, in which case the Red Bulls play Atletico Pantoja and the Five Stripes get Herediano.

CONCACAF either forgot this detail or changed its mind about the structure of the draw without telling anyone. Either is possible, neither would be necessary if the qualifying routes for this edition of the tournament were a little more straightforward.

Why so complicated? Didn’t the MLS Supporters’ Shield winner in any given year used to automatically qualify for CCL - and wouldn’t that be RBNY this year? Good questions, strawman who just popped into my head agitating for a blog post; good questions. Here is a modest attempt to explain why the draw for CCL 2019 is so seemingly muddled this year.

The only constant is change, or CONCACAF loves to tinker with CCL

The first and simplest answer to the question of why CCL qualification has got a little murkier than usual this year is that CONCACAF loves to tinker with the format of its regional club championship.

CONCACAF started organizing a regional club championship back in 1962 and has since experimented with just about every conceivable format (including no championship at all from 1964 to 1966). We are currently in the “Champions League” era of the championship, a name-change that accompanied a format switch back in 2008.

In March and April 2008, CONCACAF held a Champions’ Cup contested by eight teams and won by Pachuca. In August 2008, CONCACAF kicked off its inaugural Champions League, losing an apostrophe in exchange for a lot more teams. The new format for the regional club championship saw 24 teams enter a tournament that comprised three distinct phases: a 16-team preliminary stage; a 16-team group stage; an eight-team knockout stage.

It was not the last modification CONCACAF would make to the tournament but the “Champions League” moniker has stuck, even though the relentless tinkering with the competition has now come full circle and the present CCL is basically an expanded version of the “Champions’ Cup” format that was abandoned in 2008.

CONCACAF is not unique in its habit of constantly tweaking and modifying its tournaments. It is the preferred past-time of most administrators of soccer’s federations, associations and leagues around the world.. Still, if you’re ever wondering why some aspect of CCL has changed, the answer is almost always fundamentally because changing aspects of CCL - or whatever name has been given to the regional club championship - is what CONCACAF likes to do.

Careful what you wish for, or MLS kinda asked for this

The specific change CONCACAF engineered in its latest round of changes to CCL was a sort of administrative sleight of hand: make the tournament bigger and smaller at the same time.

Back in 2008, when Champions’ Cup flipped into Champions League, the most visible consequence of the format change was the competition got a lot longer: teams now had to make room for games in the summer that would lead to knockout rounds in the spring.

In MLS at least - and quite possibly elsewhere around the region - this change quickly gave rise to a new tradition: year-long complaining about CCL fixtures. The format shifted a little over the years, but it mostly stuck with the idea that teams would play a few games in the summer and then those that qualified for the knockout rounds would play a few more in the spring.

MLS clubs promptly started a semi-annual tradition of complaining about the CCL schedule: in the summer, the tournament was accused of intruding upon the culmination of the MLS regular season; in the spring, it was argued the competition started up too early and caught MLS teams unawares and unprepared, since they were mostly just emerging from preseason when the CCL knockout rounds began.

Contrary to the opinion of some, CONCACAF is not a cabal dedicated to the ruination of American soccer. The USA is a member of CONCACAF and a very significant one at that: the federation is headquartered in the USA and schedules as many of its tournaments as it can in the home of the world’s favorite hard currency.

The arguments against the CCL format were heard, the CCL format was changed. The USA can’t just have the region’s club championship rigged in its favor (though CONCACAF has experimented with that idea too: from 1997 to 2000, the latter stages of Champions’ Cup were single-elimination rounds staged mostly in a single US city - MLS clubs won two of the four tournaments in that stretch), so the format didn’t get switched to something perfectly aligned with whatever MLS teams thought they might want - but a change was made nonetheless.

The nettlesome summer rounds of CCL were eliminated, sparing the region’s bigger clubs what had become a somewhat self-defeating exercise anyway. Liga MX and MLS teams in particular had fallen into the habit of fielding mostly reserve sides during the CCL Group Stage, a habit that provided some upsets to enliven the competition but did little to enhance the tournament’s overall reputation.

MLS teams in particular also had third - perhaps more valid - complaint: they effectively contested every CCL over three different years with three different squads. The tournament straddled summer and spring because that is the way most soccer seasons around the world are structured. But MLS runs from early March to early December (for now). And MLS teams can and do change their rosters quite significantly from season to season.

This meant an American team in the quarterfinals of CCL could be on its third distinct squad since starting the cycle for a particular tournament.

Take RBNY’s 2016-17 CCL bid, for example. The Red Bulls qualified for that tournament as the 2015 Supporter’s Shield winner, a title clinched in October, 2015: squad one.

They started playing the Group Stage of the 2016-17 CCL in August, 2016, by which time the roster was missing notable contributors from the year before like Matt Miazga and Lloyd Sam: squad two.

By February, 2017, when the team kicked off the quarterfinals of CCL 2016-17 against Vancouver Whitecaps, the roster had changed further - no more Dax McCarty, most notably: squad three.

The difference between squad one and squad three in this sequence for RBNY? The 2015 team was top of the league; the 2017 squad finished sixth in the Eastern Conference.

So CONCACAF took the Group Stage away. The split-year format was abandoned after the 2016-17 edition. There would be a new format that simultaneously expanded the competition and contracted it. In the summer of 2017, CONCACAF League would see 16 teams compete for a single berth in a new, stand-alone 16-team CONCACAF Champions League that would run in the spring of 2018. The larger associations in the region - Mexico, the USA, and Canada - kept their allocations of teams to the tournament (four each for Mexico and the USA; one for Canada) and were spared the summer competition - they would be parachuted straight into the CCL-proper spring championship.

There were now technically a total of 31 teams in CCL (if you include those in the summer CONCACAF League tournament) - up from 24. But also the CCL part of CCL - the bit contested by “Champions” as opposed to the also-rans invited to the summer competition - was reduced to a 16-team spring sprint for a regional title.

The change didn’t address all of the complaints of MLS clubs: they’d still have to prepare for a major tournament that started in their preseason. But it did eliminate two of the three main sources of discontent for American teams: no longer would they be competing in 2017 for a trophy they earned the right to chase back in 2015; no more need to send weakened teams to El Salvador in September to risk an early exit from the competition.

Two out of three ain’t bad; MLS complaints might be quietened for a while. Except...

Change in format = change in qualifying procedures = short-term pain

The present CCL format was announced more than a year in advance of its implementation. We knew in January 2017 that there would be no CCL for American teams until early 2018. The problem, however, was that teams coming off the 2016 MLS season were effectively already qualified for CCL.

CONCACAF leaves the question of how to qualify teams for CCL up to the respective national and regional (the Caribbean handles CCL qualification as a bloc) associations. In the case of teams filling the four spots reserved for the USA, that qualification process had settled on a familiar format: MLS Cup winner, US Open Cup winner, Supporters’ Shield winner, and the regular-season winner of whichever MLS Conference didn’t produce the holder of the Shield.

To be fair to US Soccer, it is a pretty balanced qualification formula. You won’t find any other domestic Cup champions in CCL, but US Soccer has long favored reserving a spot for the US Open Cup winner - which also creates a hypothetical route to CCL for teams not in MLS. The four teams are also split between knockout-competition champions (MLS Cup and USOC) and top performers in the league (Shield and Conference winners). Mexico, by contrast, gets four spots and gives them all to the finalists of the two play-off tournaments Liga MX gets through every year.

So in January 2017, US Soccer already had its four qualified teams for the 2017-18 CONCACAF Champions League: Seattle Sounders had won 2016 MLS Cup; FC Dallas had won the 2016 Shield and USOC; RBNY was the non-Shield winning regular-season Eastern Conference champ; and Colorado Rapids qualified as the runner-up in the Shield race because FCD had won two CCL berths but only needed one.

What to do? Tell these teams they missed out on CCL because it wasn’t happening until 2018? US Soccer could have gone that route, but didn’t. Instead, all four advanced to the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League. That left the question of what to do with two seasons - 2017 and 2018 - that could potentially qualify teams for the 2019 CONCACAF Champions League.

The decision was taken to combine 2017 and 2018 into one single qualifying period for 2019 CCL. This would mean that by 2019, US teams would be back to qualifying four teams from that year for CCL the next: 2020 CCL is expected to receive the usual four American candidates for the competition - the 2019 MLS Cup and USOC winners; the 2019 Shield winner; the regular-season winner of whichever Conference didn’t produce the Shield winner.

Once it was decided not to disappoint the teams that already thought they’d qualified for CCL in 2016, the task was to work out a way of sending four American teams from the combined outcomes of the 2017 and 2018 seasons to CCL 2019.

The formula that was chosen was to simply send the two MLS Cup winners and the two USOC winners from those years to CCL. That broke with a longstanding tradition of the Supporters’ Shield winner getting a CCL berth, but it also preserved the CCL spot linked to US Open Cup. And it would only be necessary for a couple of seasons, and the everything could go back to “normal” - at least until the next CCL format change.

A wrinkle came in the form of Toronto FC winning the 2017 MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield. TFC is a Canadian team; Canadian teams have their own route to CCL.

So it was decided that the American CCL spot otherwise due the 2017 MLS Cup winner would be awarded to the American team with the best aggregate points record in the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Atlanta United claimed that prize, but remains in the running for the 2018 MLS Cup.

If Atlanta wins the 2018 MLS Cup, it will be twice-qualified for CCL 2019 - in which case the team with the second-best aggregate MLS points record over the last two years gets the last spot for an American team: RBNY.