Mexico may still hold the advantage when it comes to regional play, but is MLS getting closer to its southern colleague?Mexican teams took the honors in all three of the Liga MX versus Major League Soccer clashes this week in the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) quarterfinals, with Cruz Azul, Toluca and Tijuana all advancing to the semis. It will now be up to one of Panama’s Arabe Unido or Costa Rica’s Alajuelense to stop Mexico winning its ninth consecutive CONCACAF club title and a spot at next December’s Club World Cup.
Here are five things we learned:
There isn’t much of a quality gap
Every year there is the same debate about the quality of MLS compared to the Liga MX, as viewed through the prism of the CCL. This time the 3-0 win for Liga MX teams over those of MLS in the quarters paints a picture of dominance.
But the margins were closer than 3-0 would lead you to believe
Un-fancied and unfashionable San Jose Earthquakes lost to high-flying Toluca on penalties, and the 'Quakes were close to a famous victory in a stadium known as “El Infierno.” To put that in perspective, Toluca hadn’t conceded in its last four home games and is undefeated in the Estadio Nemesio Diez since last September.
LA can only blame itself – as mentioned below – but was only one goal away from putting out Tijuana, while Sporting Kansas City impressed in the first leg, winning against the Liga MX’s best team this season. At halftime in the return game, Sporting KC was still winning the series, before capitulating in the second 45.
Mexican home advantage isn’t going anywhere
MLS teams not coming into the CCL quarterfinals with at least a handful of league games under their belt is undoubtedly a hindrance. Sporting Kansas City struggled in the second half against Cruz Azul on Wednesday and the LA Galaxy tailed off late on in both legs against Club Tijuana.
But while a change of calendar would aid MLS teams, the majority of Mexican teams will always have more of an advantage than, say, a normal away game in the UEFA Champions League, simply because of the country’s geography. Twelve of 18 Liga MX stadiums are situated at over 1,000 meters (3280 ft) above sea level on the Central Mexican Plateau. That’s not going to change, even if the MLS schedule possibly could.
The difficulties of climate, altitude and atmosphere for MLS teams in Mexico are comparable to playing in the Copa Libertadores – where there have been just seven road wins in 61 games this season.
The Galaxy blew it
The argument about MLS teams being weakened because they come in from preseason has less validity when their Mexican opposition is a two-hour bus-ride away and at sea level.
The Xolos-Galaxy second leg (which finished 4-2 to Xolos) went exactly as expected, with Tijuana flying out the blocks and Galaxy gradually getting a grip on the game after the initial storm.
Anybody who had watched Tijuana’s defense recently – especially since Pablo Aguilar left to America – could predict the Galaxy would get chances if it was patient.
In that sense, there were no surprises in the second leg, except woeful defending from LA – admittedly caused partially by Tijuana’s intensity - that contributed to the MLS side being 3-0 down within 30 minutes.
It was a massive opportunity for MLS’ flagship club to make both history and a statement to increasingly noisy upstarts from just south of the border.
Group stage important
Liga MX teams finished in the top three places in the group stage general table, meaning they played their second legs at home. There is no travel for the deciding game and it is in front of your home fans. It was another small edge.
Games the CCL needs
The more rivalry, edge and excitement there is in the CCL, the better it is for the tournament.
Over the six games involving Liga MX and MLS sides, 18 goals were scored, two went down to the wire and the other was only decided in the last 45 minutes of the second leg.
More of these kinds of matches are required.