When will Major League Soccer catch up to Liga MX? That has been a question haunting MLS for years, lingering every spring when the last MLS team would be eliminated from the CONCACAF Champions League, often by Mexican teams and often in lopsided fashion.
Tuesday's CCL semifinals offered the best argument yet for the answer to that question finally being "this year".
Toronto FC eliminated Club American, one of the biggest clubs in Liga MX, in convincing fashion, this after having beaten defending champions Tigres in the quarterfinals. Those two teams were the favorites to win the CCL when the knockout rounds began, but TFC beat them both, becoming just the third MLS team to reach the CCL final in the modern era and the first to beat two Mexican teams along the way.
The New York Red Bulls fell short in their quest to join TFC and set up the first all-MLS final in CCL history, but they did do enough to help bolster the notion that MLS has closed the gap on Liga MX. After dismantling Club Tijuana in the quarterfinals, the Red Bulls outplayed Chivas Guadalajara over two legs, dominating the second leg, but failing to find a goal in a 1-0 aggregate defeat.
It was the latest in a long line of big-game disappointments for the Red Bulls, which made any talk of moral victories ring hollow, but they did earn plenty of respect for how they played and how they took the game to Chivas. They didn't just bunker in and hope to nick a goal on the way to a narrow victory. No, the Red Bulls threw numbers at Chivas over two legs, created significantly more chances and anyone watching the series would have come away feeling the two sides were evenly matched.
Can we take the two CCL runs by TFC and the Red Bulls and really use it as a referendum on how MLS and Liga MX match up as leagues? It has always felt like a bit of a misleading measure, but the sizable disparity between the league's top teams in CCL play generally made the argument a moot one. There was no debate to have when Mexican teams were thoroughly dominant against their MLS counterparts.
What we can say is MLS has given its teams the resources to close the gap, and as things stand, TFC is the first MLS team to take all the resources at its disposal (designated player slots, targeted allocation money, draft picks and homegrown player signings) and construct a roster capable of beating any team in the region. TFC not only beat two of the teams regarded as Mexico's best, they did so while surviving a rash of injuries that tested their depth, missing top starters Victor Vazquez, Justin Morrow and Chris Mavinga (with Jozy Altidore forced out of Tuesday's second leg after just six minutes). TFC has laid out a blueprint that shows that every team in MLS willing to spend to build a strong roster now has the mechanisms to do so in a way that past teams in the league simply couldn't.
TFC has made the most of those resources and, with head coach Greg Vanney establishing himself as one of the very best in the region, has built a team that has erased all doubt about its claim to the title of best team in MLS history. TFC wasn't the first MLS team to reach a CONCACAF final in the CCL era, but the run has been exponentially more impressive than those of Real Salt Lake and Montreal, two teams who had a fraction of the financial resources TFC has, and two teams who faced much easier roads to the final.
Is one special team enough to really build a case around in the argument that MLS has closed the gap on Liga MX? That still feels a bit premature. It will take seeing other MLS teams make runs to really show the league's improved strength. Liga MX has had several teams show well in CCL. Club America, Monterrey, Cruz Azul, Atlante and Pachuca have all won CONCACAF titles in the Champions League era (2008 to the present) while Tigres had reached two straight CCL finals before this year's loss to TFC.
MLS needs its new burgeoning powers, like New York City FC and Atlanta United, as well as big-market clubs like the Red Bulls, Seattle Sounders and the LA Galaxy, to start reaching CCL and making deep runs. Once that becomes the norm rather than the exception, there will no longer be a question of whether MLS has closed the gap. At that point, the question will change to whether MLS has surpassed Liga MX.
We are still a few years away from that, but what we saw on Tuesday was clear evidence that the gap between MLS and Liga MX has narrowed. It still exists, but it is shrinking. What TFC and the Red Bulls did this tournament was show Mexican teams that they will need to take MLS teams more seriously going forward — and you could definitely argue that Club America didn't take TFC seriously in the CCL semifinals and paid the price.
TFC has already set a new bar for MLS teams, and the fact the MLS champions are considered the favorite in the final against Chivas shows just how much respect they have earned on this run. Both for themselves, and for the league they represent.