The first of those results did more than just eliminate the Crew from contention. It guaranteed the Union their first ever berth in the Concacaf Champions League, this continent’s most prestigious club soccer tournament. The Union will play in the 2021 edition, assuming it happens, even if they don’t win the Shield on Sunday.
“For us to clinch that prior to going into the last game of the season is something that’s very big for the club,” said Union manager Jim Curtin, who played in the Champions League in 2008 with Chivas USA. “It puts us on the international stage, which is going to be a great experience for our players.”
Here’s the explanation of how the berth was secured:
Three of the CCL’s 16 berths traditionally go to the winners of American soccer’s top club trophies: the MLS Supporters' Shield, the MLS Cup, and the U.S. Open Cup. The fourth traditionally goes to the regular-season winner of the conference opposite the Shield winner.
» READ MORE: What the Union need to do to win the MLS Cup
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation – which technically grants the country’s CCL berths – agreed to give the MLS Is Back Tournament winner the berth that traditionally goes to the opposite conference winner. It thus went to the Portland Timbers.
A few weeks after that deal was struck, the U.S. Open Cup was canceled. There’s no word yet on where that berth will go.
There’s also one berth for the winner of the annual Canadian Championship cup tournament, long known as the Voyageurs Cup. Canadian teams aren’t allowed to claim the CCL berths granted to the Supporters' Shield or MLS Cup winners, and if one wins either trophy, the berth defaults to the next team in the overall standings.
That’s how the Union come into play.
The only teams left in contention for the Shield are the Union and Toronto FC. Being a Canadian team, Toronto can’t qualify for the Champions League via the Shield. If they win it, the berth defaults to the Union, which means the Union are in the field no matter what.
Sunday’s games will determine the Shield Winner. The Union host New England (6ABC, ESPN Deportes), and Toronto visits the New York Red Bulls (ESPN+), both kicking off just after 3:30 p.m. All of Sunday’s Eastern Conference games will be played at that time, and the Western Conference games will kick off just after 6:30 p.m.
The Union and Toronto have identical 13-4-5 records, so whichever team gets the better result Sunday wins the Shield. If they both get the same result, the Union will prevail thanks to the second tiebreaker, goal difference.
Toronto might end up in the CCL anyway, because they’re in this year’s Voyageurs Cup final. Their opponent will be the Canadian Premier League’s Forge FC of Hamilton, Ont., which won the CPL’s summer tournament that replaced the regular season. The game will be played later this year, on a date still to be determined.
The schedule for the 2021 CCL is far from set thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but we know some of the teams in the field. The qualified teams so far are the Timbers, Mexico’s Monterrey, Cruz Azul, Club América, and León; and the Dominican Republic’s Atlético Pantoja.
The remaining teams will come from MLS, the Voyageurs Cup, and the Concacaf League, the confederation’s second-tier club tournament. This year’s edition is ongoing. Six of the eight quarterfinalists will reach the big stage, representing nations from across Central America and the Caribbean.
“There’s a whole next level to showing up in Guatemala and playing on a field that literally has a moat surrounding it, and barbed wire, and armed guards, and getting bags of urine thrown at you,” Curtin said. “That’s something that you can’t prepare players for, how hostile sometimes it is [in] Mexico, to go there and play and get results. What it’s like to go challenge down in Costa Rica when it’s 90 degrees, and you’re playing against really talented players.”
What happens to the U.S. berth that would have gone to the Open Cup winner? MLS and U.S. Soccer haven’t said. The Western Conference regular-season champion would be a sensible choice unless the Timbers win it, which they are in contention to do. In that case, it could go to the next-best team on points per game leaguewide. Coincidentally, that team could be Orlando City, which the Timbers beat in the summer tournament final.
Only two MLS teams have ever won Concacaf’s top club championship, D.C. United in 1998 and the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2000. Since the tournament became the Champions League in 2008, Mexican team have won every edition. The only MLS teams that have made the final are Real Salt Lake in 2011, the Montreal Impact in 2015, and Toronto in 2018.
Four MLS teams are still alive in this year’s competition, which was halted in March due to the coronavirus pandemic: LAFC, New York City FC, Atlanta United and the Montreal Impact. The tournament will resume on Dec. 15, with all games left – four quarterfinal series in progress, then one-game semifinals, and the final – to be played at a neutral site in the U.S. The venue has not yet been announced.