Liga MX dominates MLS in CONCACAF Champions League
The all Liga MX vs. MLS CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals over the last two weeks fell emphatically on the side of Mexico's first division: 4-0.
All the Liga MX sides advanced and, with the notable exception of Tigres against Real Salt Lake, it was quite comfortable. MLS teams didn't win any of the eight games, setting up Santos Laguna versus Club America and Queretaro against Tigres in the semifinals.
In MLS circles, the complaints about the calendar working against the league -- CCL quarterfinals are played during MLS preseason -- will sound louder than ever. They clearly are legitimate. But regardless of that, the losses are a poor advert for the league ahead of the 2016 season openers this weekend. For those looking for a positive gauge of where MLS is at present, the results against Mexican sides are a kick in the teeth.
And if the shoe was on other foot and Mexican clubs had lost all four of these semifinals, the reaction would've been apocalyptic south of the border. An internal debate on losing out to MLS would be lengthy and fierce.
Nowhere was the divide between the leagues more evident than in Santos Laguna's 4-0 win against L.A. Galaxy on Tuesday. A young Santos team led by 35-year-old coach Luis Zubeldia thrashed one of MLS' flagship franchises. Considering the amount of investment that has gone into bringing players of the caliber of Giovani dos Santos, Steven Gerrard and Nigel de Jong to L.A., losing against a side from the small and unfashionable northern Mexican city of Torreon should set alarm bells ringing. Much better return on that investment and experience should be demanded, even if it is preseason and some of the players are still getting to know each other.
It was only a 180 minute snippet, but the trend of over-paying for world stars seemed to stand to stark contrast to the well-planned and executed Santos policy of bringing in younger and undervalued players that the club can improve and add value to. For example, not one Santos player who featured against the Galaxy was over 30, while six of the MLS club's starters in the first leg were above that age.
The Galaxy's performance seemed to feed into all the negative stereotypes of MLS as being a league for older players on the brink of retirement. That window of opportunity to impress Mexico, as well as Liga MX fans in the United States, was wasted. The side from California may come good in two or three months, but it'll take longer than that to shake off the impression they left in Torreon.
The positive for MLS was undoubtedly Real Salt Lake, who pushed Liga MX champion Tigres hard and with better finishing in the first leg could've gone though. Tigres played poorly in both legs, but credit has to go to Real Salt Lake for disrupting their rhythm, something Liga MX teams have struggled to do. There are no star names at RSL, just a good, hard-working, tactically progressive team with plenty of technical ability.
For Liga MX, the results reasserted its authority in CONCACAF, with Santos and Queretaro actually advancing with more ease than the more fancied Tigres and Club America.
The depth in squads and quality of foreign imports helped reinforce its superiority over MLS. Galaxy striker Robbie Keane was correct to stress how MLS has improved and the trouble its sides have with the CCL schedule, but he overlooked improvements in Liga MX teams, which are attracting better quality foreign players and producing better quality domestic ones to increase competition each year.
There will be a few smug directors in Liga MX and certainly fans of the Mexican first division will enjoy the bragging rights and poking fun at MLS sides, but no one truly wins from four Mexican teams competing in the semifinals. You could even make the argument that Liga MX would actually benefit from losing a few games to MLS teams, giving the league the incentive to push and improve in the areas where it is behind the northern league.
The interest now in the CCL will be highly concentrated in Mexico, although the semifinals may be overshadowed by important Liga MX games happening on either side of the two legs. It is now a domestic and not a continental affair. By the time this season's CCL ends, 14 of the 16 finalists since the competition was restructured in 2008 will have been Mexican. Stats like that don't exactly breed excitement.
The competition as a whole badly needs the MLS vs. Liga MX rivalry to set it alight, but that requires a degree of parity that is still missing on the evidence of the last couple of weeks. In the end, these results may be enough to give CONCACAF a final push to look at the scheduling to give MLS a helping hand. Certainly, the group stage garners very little attention in its current format.
For now though, the Liga MX can bask in the glory of confirming its undisputed top-dog status in CONCACAF and representing the confederation at the Club World Cup later this year, while MLS is left to lick its wounds.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.