Performances from MLS sides in CCL demand respect of Liga MX
MEXICO CITY -- Earlier this year, Club America manager Miguel Herrera famously posted a video of himself dining at a steakhouse with famed Turkish chef Nusret Gokce, known to the masses as "Salt Bae". In the clip, Gokce shows off his knife skills by separating cuts of steak for Herrera and his entourage, and ends with his trademarked dousing of salt before serving the tasty, sodium-filled entrees.
On Tuesday night in Toronto, however, Herrera displayed more saltiness than even Gokce could serve up in good conscience.
"What really upsets me, and what the CONCACAF people saw and I hope they report, is that the police were hitting my players," Herrera said in the post-game news conference, in reference to a halftime scuffle in the BMO Field tunnel. "I want to see it reported."
The accusation was just one in a string of outlandish claims after his team fell 3-1 to Toronto FC in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals. Herrera also stated that his opposition "attacked three times" and scored on every occasion. The former Mexico manager also said the game's officials treated his team unfairly, an accusation supported by Club America's president, Santiago Banos, who made mention of the referee's nationality.
"Those things teach you that the officials weren't coming in to officiate fairly. When you see that the officials are from Costa Rica, there isn't a good vibe," he told Mexican website Medio Tiempo.
The claims scream dissatisfaction from a team fully expecting to stroll in and win against the reigning MLS Cup champion. Before the game, Herrera brushed off media comparisons of MLS to Liga MX by saying his league compared itself "to European leagues", while MLS was struggling to chase the Mexicans.
In Toronto, however, the Reds were far superior, and opened the door to comparisons between the leagues once more, as representatives from both circuits clash directly once more in the final stages of the continental competition. Meanwhile, Club America's fiercest rival, Chivas, struggled to beat the New York Red Bulls at the Estadio Akron in Guadalajara on Wednesday.
A 1-0 win with a goal scored by U.S.-born Isaac Brizuela was enough for the Mexicans to travel to New Jersey in search of their passage to the tournament final. "Minimum advantage for [Chivas] over New York," read the headline of Mexican newspaper ESTO after the win.
After Brizuela scored in the first half, the Red Bulls narrowed the gap and put the Liga MX side in dire straits defensively, including coaxing a key save from goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota who denied New York striker Bradley Wright-Phillips in the 79th minute.
The narrowest of margins from one of Mexico's biggest teams, and a decisive loss from the other Liga MX giant has created further discussion after Toronto and the Red Bulls eliminated Tigres and Tijuana, respectively, in the quarterfinals. While Herrera disparaged any notion of superiority from his rivals, Chivas manager Matias Almeyda was reverential despite the positive result.
"It would be a mistake for us to feel like we're in the final," Almeyda said on Wednesday night after the win. "I think our worst enemy would be to feel overconfident, but that's not typical of us."
The reality is, whether media, fans and even some coaches and players previously refused to admit it, MLS has definitely made strides, to the point that it seems inevitable that a team from the league will end up winning the CONCACAF Champions League sooner rather than later.
"There are several things to learn from [Toronto's 3-1 win over Club America]," said ESPN's Ricardo Puig after the win. "The first thing is Mexican soccer needs to stop diminishing the level of MLS, per se. They are growing and they're working on getting closer to the Mexican league."
Although a twist in the tale between Toronto and Club America might still produce an all-Liga MX final, long gone are the days in which all four Mexican teams would dominate and roll into the semifinals of the tournament. Or worse yet, when clubs like Chivas, Club America, Cruz Azul and others would play their bench against MLS sides and pull out victories as they did in prior editions of the tournament.
Take, for instance, the 2009-10 CONCACAF Champions League. The tournament's top scorer was Pachuca striker Ulises Mendivil, with nine goals in a handful of matches. Mendivil's best Liga MX season, for comparison, was six goals, and he scored all of 26 times in the league from 2004 to 2011.
That tournament ended with all four Mexican teams making the semifinals (Pachuca won the title), and just one MLS side, Columbus Crew, made it out of the group stage before being defeated by Toluca in the quarterfinals.
In less than a decade, it is safe to say the situation is far different, even if Herrera wants to blame referees and policemen instead of Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco for a tough loss.
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.