ORANGEBURG, N.Y. — As a fan of the sport he plays for a living, Sean Johnson has watched a lot of Concacaf Champions League matches. The New York City FC goalkeeper saw the rival New York Red Bulls make a run to the semifinals and Toronto FC fall on penalty kicks in the final two years ago.
He saw Sporting Kansas City reach the semifinal in April, only to lose to eventual champion Monterrey.
While watching other MLS teams compete from the comfort of his home, Johnson firmly believed NYCFC belonged in the competition.
And now they are.
Courtesy of finishing atop the Eastern Conference at the end of the regular season, NYCFC clinched one of four spots allotted to American-based Major League Soccer teams. They join U.S. Open Cup champions Atlanta United and Supporters’ Shield winners LAFC. The other berth is reserved for the MLS Cup champion.
The Montreal impact booked their ticket after winning the Canadian Championship as that county’s lone representative.
“Understanding the magnitude of a competition like Champions League and playing against the top opponents in Concacaf is huge,” Johnson told Pro Soccer USA. “It’s a really big accomplishment for the club. It’s where this club should be year after year. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be in that competition every year.”
Johnson said it was a stated goal this season, discussed during the run to the Open Cup quarterfinals where they were ousted on penalty kicks to Orland City SC.
“The expectation is always going to be there to to achieve the highest possible goals and for us, MLS Cup, always finishing top in the East, the Concacaf Champions League, Open Cup, Supporters’ Shield, all of those are realistic goals for this club,” Johnson said. “We can check those off one by one because we need to start filling the trophy cabinet.”
Although the focus is squarely on winning the club’s first MLS Cup this fall, NYCFC reaching the Concacaf Champions League in the club’s fifth year of existence did not go overlooked.
“For the club, it’s a huge step and we’ve been in the playoffs for many years now, but now we’re taking another step to clinch our Champions League spot,” Anton Tinnerholm said. “I think it’s a big step for the club and we’re gonna do what we can do to win that.”
It’s a competition dominated annually by Liga MX squads. Real Salt Lake, the Montreal Impact and Toronto FC have all reached the final, only to fall to Mexican opposition.
“It’s the next step for MLS, it’s the next step for us, for the American players as well,” NYCFC coach Dome Torrent said. “But especially for our club because it’s the first time we will play this important competition.”
Of course, there are challenges that come with competing in the Champions League. Although it hasn’t been announced yet, the tournament, which kicks off in the Round of 16, has started in February in each of the last two years.
That means an earlier start to preseason and playing knockout games before the MLS opener. A deep run requires a deep roster to compete in dual competitions. Of the three MLS teams to reach the semifinal round of the last two tournaments, only the Red Bulls made the MLS Cup playoffs later that season.
And then there is the travel, competing in hostile venues, the unpredictability of Concacaf officials.
All of which are welcomed by Johnson and NYCFC.
“The only way to get better as a club is to play increasingly good opponents and tough places to play. And that’s how you measure how good of a team you are,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to play against the best to be the best. And I think we’re up to the challenge. And we definitely want to be considered one of the best, if not the best in Concacaf.”
While Maxi Moralez is now part of the core that features Johnson, Alex Callens, Maxime Chanot, Tinnerholm and Alex Ring to sign multi-year deals, the midfielder emphasized the uncertainly of the club’s roster in a few months.
However, the playmaker believes NYCFC can be the next MLS team to make a significant run and perhaps make history.
“We will try and win and that will be our main focus, but there’s a possibility for new players and if some players leave so we’ll have to adapt,” Moralez said. “It’s very important for the club to play in an international competition for the first time. Hopefully we’ll be able to play well and get to the final.”
“It’s the first time and it’s our ambition as a club and for us as a team to play there,” Ring added. “It’s not the Champions League I watched when I grew up, but it’s Champions League and I’ll take it.”
Besides, NYCFC’s fair-skinned, Finnish-born captain thinks there could be added personal benefit to life on the road in the CCL.
“I’ll probably get a nice tan,” he joked.