CONCACAF Champions League will benefit from MLS wins over Liga MX
GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- Heading into Chivas' game against Seattle Sounders on Wednesday night, it looked like Club America would be the only Liga MX side in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals. You could already envisage the scandalous headlines in Mexico as MLS made it 3-0 against Liga MX in the quarterfinals.
But at the end of what was very nearly a perfect week for MLS sides in the CCL, Chivas defeated the Sounders 3-0 in a display that was similar to so many Mexico-hosted CCL games against MLS sides over the years. Seattle sat back and looked to hold onto a 1-0 lead from the first leg but when Chivas found a way to open the scoring early in the second half, the floodgates opened.
That result meant Liga MX will have exactly the same number of teams represented in the semifinals as MLS, with Chivas set to face off against New York Red Bulls and Club America to play Toronto FC. A Clasico Nacional final between Club America and Chivas remains a possibility.
So has MLS really closed the gap on Liga MX? It's the question that's been at the heart of the enhanced media coverage on both sides of the border.
"Certainly, if you're judging New York Red Bulls [against Tijuana] and Toronto's results [against Tigres], you'd say they are positive results for the league," said Seattle Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer after Wednesday's defeat. "Our result in Seattle was indicative that we can play. The Mexican teams are still very, very good, but I think the gap is shrinking a little bit."
"I think with the increase in TAM [Targeted Allocation Money] and the development of young American players, we're putting a lot of money into our academy systems," argued Schmetzer later in the same news conference. "I think those two things are pushing the level and the quality of our teams higher. It make take us a few years but I think you saw again based on the results that we're getting a little bit closer."
If the Chivas game against the Sounders on Wednesday was taken in isolation, you'd be hard pressed to come to the conclusion that MLS has closed the gap. But Tuesday offered a different perspective.
New York Red Bulls recorded a 5-1 aggregate victory over Club Tijuana, while Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney guided his side to a historic series win over Tigres. The Toronto-Tigres series was full of intrigue as the champions of the two leagues clashed and the result was one of the best series ever seen in the tournament, especially when you factor in the quality of each team. It represented a snap-shot of what the CCL could potentially become.
"People always want to make a lot of the results in this tournament, specifically the head-to-head match-ups between Liga MX and MLS, and we took the responsibility to represent ourselves and the league very seriously," said Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley. "Regardless, it's clear that MLS continues to grow. I think Liga MX continues to grow. I think overall football in this region is exciting and full of quality."
Vanney said he thinks MLS "is evolving and evolving pretty quickly," pointing out that TAM has had a positive effect on rounding out rosters while teams have developed in a tactical sense as well.
"The identity is starting to come around for some of the clubs. I wouldn't necessarily say it's all the clubs that have matured that much," said Vanney on Tuesday. "When you have identity and good players making plays and you respect both sides of the game, then you have the ability to get results."
The perception is that MLS is improving, making the CONCACAF Champions League such a vital barometer to measure where the league is compared to Liga MX. MLS seeks external validation and needs Liga MX to do so.
The beneficiary of that state of affairs is the tournament itself. There's been debate on social media, on TV shows and in the Mexico press this week where once there was derision. MLS teams often didn't take the tournament so seriously, didn't do well and then complained on cue about the scheduling. On the other side, Liga MX teams won with such regularity that they'd often field weakened teams, further tainting the competition's reputation.
None of those things happened this week. The new structure of MLS and Liga MX clubs entering the tournament in the Round of 16 stage and the slight alteration in scheduling has worked. And if the quarterfinals are anything to go by, the CCL appears poised to occupy an increasingly important pedestal in club soccer in the region.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.