Atlanta United FC’s season is off to a good start with the team sitting at 2-0-1 after back-to-back blowout wins over Minnesota United FC and the Chicago Fire. While the end goal would seem to be holding up MLS Cup in December, it’s actually just one of five pieces of hardware they can win.
Like the NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball, MLS clubs participate in a playoff to determine the overall champion. Unlike the four other major sports leagues, they also compete to win four domestic and continental competitions: the Supporters’ Shield, U.S. Open Cup (think the FA Cup in England), CONCACAF Champions League (our version of the UEFA Champions League in North America), and the FIFA Club World Cup. While all U.S. based MLS clubs are automatically entered into the U.S. Open Cup, only four can qualify for the CCL based on their finish in league play. The three Canadian-based MLS teams have a different way of qualifying - more on that later.
Here’s a closer look:
The Supporters’ Shield is given to the MLS club with the top overall regular-season record; the winner automatically qualifies for the CONCACAF Champions League (unless they’re a Canadian side...more on that below). Winning the Supporters’ Shield hardly means automatic success in the MLS Cup Playoffs, though: D.C. United in 1997 and 1999, the Kansas City Wizards/Sporting Kansas City in 2000, Columbus Crew in 2008, and LA Galaxy in 2002 and 2011 are the only teams to win both the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup in the same season. The Chicago Fire (2003) are the only other Supporters’ Shield winner to advance to the MLS Cup final; they lost to the old San Jose Earthquakes.
MLS Cup Playoffs: October-December
Unlike the Premier League, where the top finisher wins the league, MLS has a playoff system to determine its league champion. The top six teams in the Western and Eastern Conference qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs, with the bottom four seeds in each conference (3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5) playing a knockout round to advance to the two-legged conference semifinals where they would play the first and second seeds, respectively (with away goals the tiebreaker on aggregate). The conference semifinal winners advance to a two-legged conference final, with those winners moving onto the MLS Cup knockout final hosted by the club with the best finish in the regular season. The MLS Cup winner automatically gains a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League (again, unless they’re a Canadian side...more on that is below).
U.S. Open Cup: May-September (U.S. based MLS teams begin in June)
The U.S. Open Cup is the oldest and largest soccer tournament in the country, and this year will see 99 teams involved. Unlike the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup (which are limited to MLS), this is open to basically any sanctioned amateur or pro team in the country on the American soccer pyramid. Amateur teams qualify based on regulations set by their respective leagues, with local qualifiers and third division sides (PDL/NPSL) then participating in the first round, second division (USL and NASL teams not majority owned by a major outdoor soccer team, essentially meaning MLS in this case) coming on board in round two and all U.S. based MLS teams joining in round four. For Atlanta United and the rest of MLS’s purposes, the fourth round draw of the remaining teams will be held in May, with the winners (in June) playing knockout soccer (grouped geographically) until there is one winner remaining. Note: Toronto FC, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps FC do not participate in this competition...it is the US Open Cup, after all. MLS has won the US Open Cup in every year of its existence except 1999, when the Rochester Rhinos of the old A-League took the title.
CONCACAF Champions League: August-May
The 2017-18 edition will be a little different in that 31 teams will be participating instead of the 24 that were in it last season, and, unlike previous competitions, there will be no group stage. Sixteen teams will participate in the two-legged first phase (think of it as a play-in round); the winner will become the 16th team in the second phase. MLS’s representatives will start in Phase II, by the way. The exact way the draw will be conducted and how play will proceed in each stage will be revealed in May.
I mentioned that the Supporters’ Shield, MLS Cup and US Open Cup winners gain entry into the Champions League, which sounds cut and dry except for a few caveats. Since CONCACAF rules state that the U.S. gets four teams in and Canada only gets one entrant, things get a little sticky if a) a club qualifies via multiple berths (i.e. FC Dallas as Supporters’ Shield Winners and US Open Cup winners last year) and/or if b) one of the Canadian teams fills a spot that would otherwise go to an American-based MLS side. In that case, the highest-finishing U.S. team in the table that would not have qualified otherwise gets in. The Colorado Rapids gained that honor by virtue of their second-place overall finish in MLS last year.
Now, remember when I said that Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal don’t automatically gain entry into the CCL if they win the Supporters’ Shield or MLS Cup? That’s because Canada’s berth is determined by the winner of the Canadian Championship, which includes Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps FC, Montreal Impact, FC Edmonton (NASL) and Ottawa Fury (USL); however (more confusion!), due to the changes above, 2017’s winner will take on Toronto in a playoff in August (unless Toronto repeats) to determine Canada’s representative. By the way, Canada will get a berth in Phase II. It’s entirely possible that no Canadian MLS teams get into CCL, but it’s not happened yet.
Only two MLS teams have won CCL and its predecessor competition, the Champions’ Cup: D.C. United in 1998 and L.A. Galaxy in 2000.
FIFA Club World Cup: December
The CCL winner gains the federation’s berth into the FIFA Club World Cup, where they will go up against the qualifiers of each FIFA region (UEFA, CONMEBOL, AFC, CAF, OFC) as well as the host country’s domestic champion. In either its previous (2000) or current format (launched in 2005), the highest-ever finish by a CONCACAF team has been third. It’s a high prize to shoot for, and the first CONCACAF club to win it, let alone the first MLS club, will set a mark not reached by any soccer team on this continent.
You can see where the schedule gets a bit grueling late in the season, especially for teams like FC Dallas last year who had to play their MLS schedule on top of CONCACAF Champions League and US Open Cup competition. Last August, trips to Real Salt Lake on the 20th and Houston on the 27th sandwiched the away leg of a CCL group stage qualifier in Nicaragua against Real Estelí on the 24th. That was along with a US Open Cup semifinal at LA Galaxy on the 10th and the home leg of their CCL group stage qualifier on the 4th. With fatigue a big factor, managers are tasked with developing proper lineups that are as effective as possible without compromising fitness. They’ll also need to determine which matches take higher priority, especially if they’re in good shape in more than one competition. You can see the intricacies involved and the proverbial juggling act that presents itself after a while. (A commenter - thanks Chris! - reminded me that MLS teams will play CCL matches from February to May to avoid clashing with the latter part of the league season, so that helps.)
So there you have it: a look at every domestic and continental soccer competition involving Atlanta United and the rest of MLS. While some of it is a bit to digest (especially the CONCACAF Champions League qualifying), it becomes clear as time goes on. Here’s hoping that the Five Stripes bring home a piece of hardware sooner rather than later.