Courtesy of their 4-1 thrashing of an obviously lethargic Colorado Rapids side Saturday night at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, the San Jose Earthquakes clinched the top spot in the MLS Western Conference regular season standings. More importantly, the Earthquakes guaranteed themselves a top two finish in the Supporters Shield race and a berth in the 2013/2014 CONCACAF Champions League tournament.
The only other team that could displace San Jose atop the 2012 Supporters’ Shield standings is Sporting Kansas City, which is six points back of the Earthquakes heading into their Sunday match against the Columbus Crew. If San Jose can add the Supporters’ Shield to their Western Conference title, then they would automatically receive a CCL invite. However, even if they finish second to Sporting KC, the Earthquakes would still receive an invite to the annual Confederation club tournament since the Kansas City club has already qualified courtesy of its 2012 U.S Open Cup Championship.
U.S.-based MLS teams compete annually for four CCL berths in the following year’s event, as the MLS Cup Champion and Supporters’ Shield winner are joined by the MLS Cup runner-up and the U.S. Open Cup Champion as U.S. representatives in the 24 team tournament. In the event that a team qualifies through more than one mechanism, the overall league regular season standings are used to determine the next team to receive an invitation.
This occurrence is not rare, and it has been invoked three times in the five years the new-look CCL has been contested. In both 2007 and 2008, the Supporters’ Shield runners-up received berths to the CCL as Chivas USA and the Houston Dynamo competed in the following edition of the tournament. Last season, Real Salt Lake finished third in the Supporters’ Shield standings and was invited to the CCL by virtue of both the Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle Sounders doubling up on qualification.
If the Earthquakes finish second to Sporting Kansas City in the race for the 2012 Supporters' Shield, they will receive a second tier seeding in the CCL; however, San Jose can raise their seeding to the first tier with a Shield award of MLS Cup Final victory. The draw for the 2013/14 CONCACAF Champions League is still more than a half a year away, but one thing is certain: The San Jose Earthquakes will be playing international soccer next season.