Major League Soccer may be improving, but so is Liga MX
It's a repetitive story: MLS teams can't seem to translate overall improvement on the field into CONCACAF Champions League victories over Liga MX sides.
We saw it again this week as Pachuca overcame FC Dallas and Tigres brushed past the Vancouver Whitecaps in the CCL semifinals to set up the seventh all-Mexican final in the last nine editions of CONCACAF's regional club tournament.
No, the calendar doesn't help MLS teams -- and won't even in the new format starting next year -- and the salary cap hampers the quality of squad depth. On top of that, the Mexican clubs situated at altitude present another problem, all of which has led to a record of just two wins in 48 official games for MLS sides in Mexico.
The initial suspicion from some in Mexico, perhaps, is that MLS isn't really improving and that the league's PR does a better job of driving the positive conversation surrounding MLS than the sporting side of the organization does of actually progressing things on the field.
But that wouldn't be true, as a large number of factors indicate. Anybody who has watched Atlanta United under Gerardo "Tata" Martino at the start of this season knows it's already a very competitive and exciting unit and FC Dallas' performance against Pachuca in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal gave Liga MX fans a demonstration of the fresh, modern side it has become under Oscar Pareja. And if you ask people in the Mexican game about MLS, they clearly believe the league is on the up and is a welcome rival to Liga MX.
But the gradual reeling in of Liga MX by MLS simply hasn't happened. A Liga MX team will win CONCACAF's continental club tournament for the 12th consecutive year later this month. Was FC Dallas really closer to winning the title than, say, Real Salt Lake in 2011 against Monterrey? Or was there any true sense that this would be MLS' year?
It didn't really seem like it. Granted, it may not be fair to base this rivalry exclusively on CCL action, but it's the best gauge we have and the stats don't leave much hanging in the balance -- Liga MX dominates.
But there's another element to the Liga MX vs. MLS CCL debate that doesn't get brought forward much in Spanish-language media south of the border or in the U.S. and Canada: An important factor behind MLS' failure to match Liga MX in CCL is the improvement of the Mexican league. The gradual opening up of foreigner spots and attention to youth production, combined with wealthy ownership, have propelled it forward.
The introduction of the 10/8 rule ahead of the 2016 Apertura has ramped up the internationalization of the Mexican league, enabling sides to attract more foreign talent. But it was a process that began earlier. Between 2003 and the 2014 Apertura, Liga MX teams could field five foreigners. Naturalized Mexicans had to have played five years consecutively in the country to qualify as a domestic player.
But when that was changed in 2014 to allow naturalized citizens -- many of whom could become Mexican after just two years -- to count as domestic players when they received their paperwork, the numbers began to creep up. From just over 130 foreigners registered for the 2015 Clausura, today there are over 200 foreigners in the 18-team league, with 10 non-homegrown (almost always foreign) players allowed in each matchday squad.
The highly paid mid-level Mexican (and naturalized Mexican) player has been squeezed out -- often to the second division -- as teams can simply buy in cheaper and often better foreigners, especially from South America. That helps explain why there was a total of 30 players from Liga MX called into CONMEBOL squads for World Cup qualifiers last month. To put that in perspective, at the 2006 World Cup there were only four Liga MX-based players involved for teams aside from Mexico.
And the best Mexicans -- fueled by much-improved youth systems over the past 10 years -- are still tending to stay within the league, rather than move to Europe.
The average quality of player in Liga MX has therefore increased. Carl Robinson and the Whitecaps faced two current Argentina internationals, a France Euro 2016 veteran, a Peru national team starter, a Chile regular, one Colombia international and four regular Mexico squad members in that first leg of the CCL semi in Nuevo Leon. Tigres may be an exaggerated example and arguably one of the best sides Mexico's top division has ever seen, but even smaller Liga MX clubs have purchased wisely.
From a purely Liga MX perspective, the really unfortunate thing this year is that teams aren't involved in Copa Libertadores. The suspicion is that as Mexico's wealthy clubs have become increasingly attractive and attracted to South American players, the holy grail of winning the Libertadores was inching closer.
Liga MX, however, is far from perfect in a lot of ways. The "Pacto de Caballeros" (or "gentlemen's pact" between club owners to make rules as they see fit) and the "draft" are ugly. Tthere are too many negative episodes that make world headlines and paint Liga MX in a bad light and there are teams near the bottom of the league that have next to zero credibility.
For those reasons, it would take a bold person to suggest that Liga MX will still be ahead of MLS in terms of on-field quality 20 years down the line. The northern league reeks of ambition and superior organization, while Mexico's top division is nowhere near as apt at selling itself. The long term and more centralized structure of MLS will, in all likelihood, win out over Liga MX's disjointed organization and more individualistic clubs.
But at least in the short term, Liga MX is well positioned to keep poaching South America's better talent, continuing to produce young homegrown starlets and raising the bar even higher for MLS teams hoping to conquer the CONCACAF Champions League.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.