Tom Marshall: Big week for USA-Mexico club rivalry

Mexican teams still aren't taking their MLS counterparts seriously, and a win or two in the quarterfinal second legs this week could go a long way towards changing that.
The CONCACAF Champions League needs more statements like the one Cruz Azul coach Luis Fernando Tena made last Wednesday after his team fell 1-0 to Sporting Kansas City in the United States.

“MLS has obviously progressed,” said Mexico’s Olympic gold medal winning coach after the game. “Technically, the players are very gifted.”

He added: “You see the improvement to the point where I consider the MLS and Mexican teams very even. In terms of quality, it’s difficult to separate them.”

Cruz Azul players had admitted before the game that they hadn’t studied Sporting KC very much and rattled off the standard stereotypes of a “strong, physical” MLS outfit. It seemed La Maquina was slightly shocked by Sporting’s high pressing game and skill on the ball.

They were positive words from a highly regarded coach, but should Sporting KC’s performance be a cause for such surprise down in Mexico?

After all, Sporting is the MLS champion. Peter Vermes has been molding a team since 2009 and can rely on U.S. national teamers like Matt Besler and Graham Zusi.

The truth is the breadth of comments from figures in the Mexican game about MLS in general – from the Liga MX being much superior to slightly nervous comments about soccer in the U.S. (and Canada) improving rapidly – seem to point to a lack of base knowledge about what is happening north of the border.

It is perhaps natural. Mexicans have their own league to follow, watch the big European teams, and with no real big name Mexicans currently in MLS, it isn’t a priority.

But general apathy about MLS from Mexico is almost worse than spite, all of which makes the CCL the natural stage for MLS to show it can challenge the Liga MX for the title of best league in CONCACAF.

The MLS record recently is not great. Mexican teams have taken nine of the 10 finalist spots in the CCL era, and have won the last eight tournaments dating back to the previous Champions Cup format.

But in this edition of the CCL, last week’s matches have perfectly set up the quarterfinal second legs on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Sporting KC has an excellent chance if it can snatch an away goal, as do LA Galaxy against Tijuana. The San Jose Earthquakes have a substantially more difficult task after drawing the first leg against Toluca 1-1 in California.

The competition desperately needs MLS teams – and those from Central American and Caribbean nations – to succeed against Mexican sides to create the kinds of rivalries that exist at national team level.

Toluca shouldn’t feel it can rest its key players in the CCL, and Cruz Azul players claim to not know much about an opposition when they’ve known about the game for months. It is a kick in the teeth to the competition.

The CCL rivalry between the Liga MX and MLS is still in the shadows at present from the Mexican perspective. A couple of MLS wins would help bring it to the forefront, put pressure on all the Mexican participants to make it a priority and get fans more excited.

After all, Mexicans tend to not like losing to their northern neighbors, especially when it comes to soccer.