Anyone that follows D.C. United knows that the focus during the club's unexpected late-season surge has been getting into the playoffs. Injured superstar and captain? Unfamiliar back four? Journeyman-quality players in starting roles? Irrelevant! This team had a goal in mind, and wasn't taking no for an answer.
However, United didn't just squeak into the playoffs; the Black-and-Red took 19 of 21 possible points in the final seven games of the season, going from the fringe of the playoff chase all the way to 2nd place in the Eastern Conference. Now, thanks to Real Salt Lake's 0-0 home draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps and the LA Galaxy's 1-0 win over the Seattle Sounders, United has ended the 2012 season with MLS's third-best record.
That comes with some big-time benefits. For one, if United can win the Eastern Conference final, we will host the 2012 MLS Cup provided anyone other than the San Jose Earthquakes ends up as the Western Conference champion. Given United's home record as compared to our lack of success on the road, this is enormous.
Going a bit under the radar, however, is that United's finish has also opened up multiple avenues for a return to the CONCACAF Champions League. The normal ways to get into that tournament are as follows:
- MLS Cup Winner
- Supporters Shield Winner
- MLS Cup Runner-up
- US Open Cup Winner
In most seasons, United's only path to the CCL would be to get to MLS Cup. Obviously that's the way we want to get in anyway, since getting to MLS Cup means you're just 90 minutes from putting another star on your jersey.
However, the success of other teams could mean getting in on someone's coattails. The San Jose Earthquakes and Sporting Kansas City - as the Supporters Shield winner and Open Cup winner, respectively - have already clinched two of those spots. If the Quakes or Sporks get to MLS Cup, they will hold two different slots into the CCL. In either case, they would obviously take the higher seeded slot (the MLS Cup champ and Shield winner both get the top seed in a CCL group, whereas the USOC winner and MLS Cup runner-up end up as #2 seeds).
US Soccer, in an effort to add emphasis to the regular season, has maintained a policy that our country's fourth bid will go to the best regular-season team to not get into the CCL in some other way. Thanks to our hot streak and some luck elsewhere, that team would be DC.
There is a very recent precedent for this. Real Salt Lake got into the current edition of the CCL thanks to the Galaxy being both MLS Cup and Supporters Shield winners in 2011.
If all of this is a bit convoluted, just think about it this way: If San Jose wins the West, we're in the CCL. If KC wins the East, we're in the CCL. In fact, if us and KC advance past the first hurdle of the MLS playoffs, we will be in the CCL no matter what happens in the Eastern Conference final or out west.
1. DC gets into the CCL if we win the Eastern Conference.
2. DC gets into the CCL if KC wins the Eastern Conference.
3. DC gets into the CCL if San Jose wins the Western Conference.
Is this a big deal? It is in my book. No MLS team has won a continental competition for 12 years now - LA, Seattle, and Houston will get a shot at breaking that streak next spring - and United is one of two teams to ever do so from the United States. Since the format change from the smaller Champions Cup (eight entrants, home-and-away knockout games only) to the Champions League (twenty-four teams playing round-robin groups), only one MLS team has gotten to the CCL final.
An MLS win in the CCL would be the single biggest on-field triumph in American club soccer history. It would also give United entry into the 2014 World Club Cup, which would potentially mean seeing your beloved Black-and-Red taking the field against a giant from Europe or South America, a scenario previously only seen on your video game console of choice.