By Jacob Sokol
The Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League trophy (photo courtesy of MLS)
The 2023 MLS season has begun, and with it comes a confusing slate of different competitions that Charlotte FC will be playing. I have broken down the three different competitions that Charlotte FC are in (MLS, US Open Cup, and Leagues Cup), and how they can use these competitions to qualify for CONCACAF Champions League. Hopefully this helps simplify the jam packed 2023 season and all the hopes and dreams that come with it.
Playoffs were in Charlotte FC’s sights at the end of last season, but the team ultimately fell six points short, slotting them into 9th place. When you consider the revolving door of players throughout the season, which included a head coaching change, the team’s performance was admirable.
Premier League veteran, Ashley Westwood, and Argentine Primera División standout, Enzo Copetti, will bolster a squad that was beginning to take shape at the end of last year. Nuno Santos, Adilson Malanda, and Nathan Byrne joined the squad for only a handful of games while Karol Świderski had just become comfortable in the playmaking role. With the transformation the team has had the expectations have been set at making the playoffs in 2023.
If Charlotte FC does manage to make the playoffs then the MLS Cup is a possibility. That win would give Charlotte FC an automatic berth to the CONCACAF Champions League round of 16 in the tournament’s new 27-team format in 2024.
Winning the league, while possible, is unlikely. The other four qualifying slots from MLS go to the Supporter’s Shield winner, the opposite conference winner, and the next two best clubs by points from either conference. That means Charlotte could finish as low as 3rd and still qualify if their point totals were higher than the 2nd and 3rd place Western Conference teams. While this scenario is a stretch, it is the most likely besides winning the MLS Cup.
US Open Cup
Winning the US Open Cup qualifies the team for Round one of the 27-team CONCACAF Champions League. If the winner of the US Open Cup has qualified through MLS then the Runner-Up will get a berth into the CCL. This can also trickle down a couple more spots if the Runner-Up and beyond have also qualified through MLS or Leagues Cup.
After defeating the Greenville Triumph followed by the Richmond Kickers, Charlotte FC was ultimately thwarted by the New York Red Bulls in the 2022 US Open Cup Round of 16. New York Red Bulls would go onto the semi finals where they lost to eventual champions, Orlando City SC. While Charlotte FC were a few wins short of the final, they showed they can compete and a deeper run in 2023 is not outside the realm of possibility.
Twelve different MLS teams have made it to the US Open Cup final in the last decade, showing it can be any team's tournament depending on the year. If Charlotte’s full effort is put into the tournament, it is definitely possible for them to make a run. Making it to the final would be considered an incredible feat, but it could be doable.
The newest competition in MLS involves the league merging with Liga MX for a 47 team tournament. Charlotte FC is placed with Necaxa and FC Dallas in one of 15 groups. Charlotte just needs to avoid being the worst of the 3 teams to advance to the knockout round of 32. Once there they will face fierce competition as Liga MX will take this competition very seriously. It will be viewed as more difficult than the US Open Cup and arguably on par with MLS Cup playoffs.
This competition would not be an easy route to CONCACAF Champions League qualification. If Charlotte FC does manage to win the competition it would be an automatic berth to the round of 16 in the CCL. The runner-up and third place finishers qualify for round one of the CCL.
One last competition worth mentioning consists of a single game. This game is between the winner of the MLS Cup and Liga MX. In 2022 NYCFC prevailed over Atlas 2-0. While it is a long shot, if Charlotte FC does manage to win the MLS Cup we would see them matched against teams like Club América, Monterrey, or Tigres.
At the end of the day, Charlotte FC’s primary goal is the MLS playoffs. There are possible routes to qualify for the CCL, but all avenues will be viewed as unlikely. Winning the US Open Cup won’t be viewed as a priority in comparison to the league so certain players might be rested for that tournament. The Leagues Cup creates a break in the MLS schedule when it’s played so the team should be at full force, but competition could be fiercer.
Realistically Charlotte FC could make playoffs, but qualifying for either the CCL or Campeones Cup aren’t likely to be the current expectations for a successful season. If they do manage to qualify, it would exceed the expectations of many and cause a ton of excitement for The Queen City.