I'm sure everyone has heard it by now: on Friday, the Executive Committee of CONCACAF voted to approve a slight change in Champions League qualification that MLS had proposed earlier this year. With a tallying of votes, the fourth slot for American MLS clubs went not to MLS Cup runner-up Real Salt Lake, as it would have in past seasons, but to the Portland Timbers, who finished the regular season atop the Western Conference.
This was a change that had been in the works for most of this season, and all the clubs (and many fans) knew about the prospect long before the vote was held. Still, it comes as a shock and disappointment to many in Salt Lake, who did not have the best of times last week - even before this ruling was made. The official reasoning was that it made the regular season count for more, which I can understand. But partly through having seen the Houston Dynamo qualify the last two years via the MLS Cup runner up slot, I can understand those who believe the format should have stayed as it was.
It's hard to make an argument that either club doesn't deserve to go - and not simply based on which clubs would be staying home or going to the tournament. Both the regular season and MLS Cup playoffs are strenuous in their own rights. To finish atop your conference, you have to master the marathon: 34 regular season matches over the course of eight months (without counting US Open or CCL matches). You can stumble a bit and still make it, but the room for error isn't as wide as many would think. You have to play excellent soccer for the majority of the season to even have a chance - starting or finishing slow probably won't cut it.
On the other hand, the playoffs offer their own challenge. If the regular season is a marathon, then perhaps the playoffs are a sprint - started right after you've finished the aforementioned marathon. By October and November, players are tired, rosters are thin, and your margin for error is non-existent. One injury or one suspended player is often the difference between going home or advancing, especially when every match is a must win, and the short time between matches leaves little time for rest, recuperation, and resetting your emotions. This gives momentum an important role, yes, but even the best momentum can find itself stalled in the blink of an eye. Just getting to the Cup final requires a recipe that includes skill, luck, and good breaks - and winning the Cup requires significantly larger doses of each.
There was really no wrong answer to the question that MLS put to the CONCACAF Executive Committee. Either way they ruled, a deserving club would find itself out of the tournament. That being said, the change to qualification will force clubs to change their goals, if qualification for and advancement through CCL is a priority, as it does seem to be for the Houston Dynamo.
Now gone are the days where simply going to the Cup final would get you in. You may not agree with the change, but you'll have to accept it. If you don't win the Cup, you have to win your conference in the regular season or the Open Cup (or hope for help through one club claiming multiple spots [or a Canadian club claiming a spot]), in which case, the next best regular season record would get you into the tournament.
For Dynamo fans, this means that for the men in orange, the road to the CCL will probably go through the MLS Cup. Why is that, you ask? Well, the Dynamo are typically a playoff club. They're rarely in the running for a top spot in the conference, and have made a living riding a lower seed deep into the playoffs. Also, they don't seem to place much emphasis on the US Open Cup - though in a year with no matches added because of no CCL, this may change. Knowing this, it would be logical to say that the Dynamo's best chance would be through winning the MLS Cup - something they've proven they can do before.
Put that way, I guess I can qualify my above title - it's not so much a new focus as it is a sharpening of an old one. Dynamo fans already approach each season knowing that their club has a shot at the MLS Cup. Now, however, we know that the "close, but no cigar" finishing will no longer be enough to get them through to international play.