For the First Time Ever, The Philadelphia Union are Going to the Champions League

Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia Union are having a great season and can claim their first trophy in franchise history with a win (or maybe a draw) on Sunday afternoon. That would guarantee them the “Supporter’s Shield,” which is awarded to the team that finishes the MLS regular season with the best record.

As an appetizer to perhaps the best-tasting course in the Union’s 11-year history, they clinched on Wednesday night a berth in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League, which means they’ll play against some of the best teams in the region in a separate continental competition that awards a separate trophy.

Jon Tannenwald at the Inquirer explains how we got to this point:

“Three of the CCL’s 16 berths traditionally go to the winners of American soccer’s top club trophies: the MLS Supporters’ Shield, the MLS Cup, and the U.S. Open Cup. The fourth traditionally goes to the regular-season winner of the conference opposite the Shield winner.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation — which technically grants the country’s CCL berths — agreed to give the MLS Is Back Tournament winner the berth that traditionally goes to the opposite conference winner. It thus went to the Portland Timbers.

A few weeks after that deal was struck, the U.S. Open Cup was canceled. There’s no word yet on where that berth will go.

There’s also one berth for the winner of the annual Canadian Championship cup tournament, long known as the Voyageurs Cup. Canadian teams aren’t allowed to claim the CCL berths granted to the Supporters’ Shield or MLS Cup winners, and if one wins either trophy, the berth defaults to the next team in the overall standings.”

The only squads remaining in contention for the Shield are Toronto and the Union, and because Toronto is a Canadian team, they can’t qualify for the Champions League by winning this trophy. Therefore, your team, your town, your Philadelphia Union get the berth no matter what happens on Sunday afternoon.

It’s a wonky and possibly ass-backwards way to qualify, but it’s still a great achievement for the Union, who have never played in the CCL before. They’ll enter a group stage in which they’ll square off against some of the best teams in the region, which could possibly see Mexican powerhouse clubs like Club America or Cruz Azul play at Subaru Park.

And don’t worry about the asterisk that comes with COVID-19. The Union played incredibly well this season and could only face the teams that were put on their schedule. They ripped off 13 wins and five draws and only lost four times, and they did it while having to travel the East Coast during a global pandemic while leaving their wives and kids at home. It’s not any less of an achievement, it’s just a different kind of achievement, and they should be commended for showing up in every game, playing their butts off, and committing to their teammates “during these uncertain times.” Nobody opted out and nobody phoned it in, which shows that this is a group of dudes who want to compete and want to win.

The Champions League spot is well deserved, and if they win their first trophy on Sunday afternoon, that, too, will be well deserved.

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