By Charles Cuttone
The CONCACAF Champions League resumed play on Tuesday night, with five teams from Major League Soccer among the eight groups of three teams. The Los Angeles Galaxy and Houston Dynamo qualified as champion and runner up of MLS, Sporting Kansas City qualified as the U.S. Open Cup winner, San Jose as the Supporters Shield winners, and the Montreal Impact qualified as winners of Canada's Amway Canadian Championship.
But what about the possibility of an NASL team taking part in the CCL? Some around the league would like to see it happen, and there are currently two paths to that end, a team either winning the Lamar Hunt Open Cup, or winning the Canadian Championship.
The Carolina RailHawks advanced as far as the quarterfinals of the Open Cup this year, and FC Edmonton played in the semi-finals of the Canadian Cup, falling in a two-game set to Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
RailHawks coach Colin Clarke would like to see an NASL qualify via another route.
"I think the NASL champion should qualify," said Clarke. "The standards and the quality of some of the teams from some of the smaller countries are certainly not up to the standards of NASL."
The odds of a Canadian NASL team advancing will go up next year when the Ottawa Fury join the league, meaning two of the five teams will come from the NASL, but the odds of winning the Open Cup are still long, according to Clarke.
"I think it's very, very tough right now," Clarke said of a lower division team hoisting the Cup. "The last team to win it was Rochester, that was quite a while ago. It was the early years of MLS, maybe it was a little bit easier than what it is now.
"Now, with the rewards of winning the Open Cup, it’s a contest that certainly MLS teams take more seriously than what maybe they did in the past."
Clarke is right about his history. The Rhinos won the Cup in 1999, since then only one non-MLS team has even made it to the final, something that is difficult to do given the way the draw for the Open Cup is set.
"I also wouldn't mind seeing it be a true Open Cup with an open draw," said Clarke. "Where it’s not seeded, where MLS teams enter maybe in a slightly later round. Let's put everybody in a hat and draw, and wherever you land, that's where you land and not have it regionalized or anything like that. Maybe you do get to the point where four teams are left and maybe two of them are NASL. Maybe you get a chance to draw each other in the semifinal. Right now it's pretty much slanted MLS' way."
In its current format, every U.S.-based MLS team is seeded into the third round to play against the 16 teams remaining from the earlier rounds.
Over the last couple of years, Clarke's team has fared the best against MLS competition, knocking out the LA Galaxy in successive competitions, and this year also knocking off Chivas USA to make it to the quarterfinals.
"The LA team, we played them twice," said Clarke." Maybe not last year, but this year for the most part it was a younger group. Players that have obviously played in MLS, but the year before it was a lot more of their regulars, that had a lot more experience in MLS. That Chivas team was pretty much their first team. "
Clarke says the upsets do happen, but the road to the final is a difficult one.
"That's one, that's two, but you've got to do it four, maybe five times to win the Cup and that's a lot to ask for. But it is possible.
"But right now the Cup is very heavily in favor of MLS teams, so it's not really an Open Cup. FA Cup, which they all talk about and compare it to in England…Premier League teams enter at a certain round, but that's all they get. Everything else is drawn out of a hat and you could be drawn against Man U, Man City in that next round. Here that will never happen. It’s MLS against the lower-tier teams, which doesn't make it an Open Cup. "
Charles Cuttone is Executive Editor of Soccer News Net, whose web sites include www.bigapplesoccer.com, www.dcsoccernews.com, www.DCSoccerNews.com and www.SunshineSoccerNews.com. Follow him on twitter @ccsports
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