In the leadup to Wednesday's Concacaf Champions League clash with Atlanta United, Club America boss Miguel Herrera issued a warning.
"They are facing the most powerful club in the Americas," Herrera said. "We are the best team. We compete with Boca [Juniors] and River [Plate] to be the greatest on the continent."
Boca and River may have something to say about that, as would a number of teams in the Copa Libertadores. Some of America's Liga MX competitors may take offense to Herrera's boasting as well. Others would rightfully point to Herrera's miscalculation of geography while lumping two continents together.
But, on Wednesday night, America certainly played like a team that wants to be considered most powerful club in the region. Herrera's warning, for all of its bluster, wasn't hyperbole; it was foreshadowing.
Atlanta United were absolutely dismantled by Herrera's side on Wednesday night as the MLS contenders ran into an absolute buzzsaw. The Estadio Azteca, often heralded as one of the most intimidating atmospheres in this sport, quickly turned into a crime scene. This wasn't just a 3-0 loss; this was a beatdown of epic proportions.
And it began well before the match even started. There was Herrera's statement, which would have been perfect bulletin board material to reference if Atlanta had actually showed up. There was also his decision to announce his lineup a day in advance, showing complete and utter confidence in his team no matter what Atlanta could throw at them.
One reason a move like that could work? The absence of Josef Martinez. Much has been made of the forward's injury, and rightfully so. The Venezuelan is one of the biggest stars playing in the western hemisphere and his ACL issue will likely derail Atlanta United's season. It's not a situation Frank de Boer anticipated or prepared for, as Atlanta face a new reality this season.
But even Martinez would have done little to stop Club America's tidal wave. It started in the 11th minute on a Leonardo Suarez goal, a curling effort past a diving Brad Guzan. It continued just two minutes later as Henry Martin doubled the lead. By the 36th minute, it was 3-0 with Bruno Valdez ensuring there would be no way back for Atlanta, at least not on this night.
The performance was the polar opposite of the lethargic and lackadaisical effort that nearly doomed America in the opening round. The Mexican giants were forced into a shootout against relative minnows Communicaciones, only to survive by the skin of their teeth. It was a tie that should have been straight-forward, but turned out to be anything but.
That makes Wednesday the perfect response. Atlanta United's run is all but done. Without Martinez, a three-goal comeback is difficult. Against this Club America team on this form? Almost impossible.
While Club America's romp was a statement, Atlanta United's defeat sealed what was a frustrating night for MLS. In the evening's other match, New York City FC held firm against Tigres, another team in that "best in the region" discussion. But, with time winding down and plenty of dark arts on display, NYCFC folded by conceding a 92nd minute winner to Eduardo Vargas in their home leg.
That leaves LAFC as MLS' best hope, as both Atlanta United and NYCFC will face massive challenges in the second leg. Atlanta will need at least three goals at home without their transcendent striker. NYCFC will need to head to El Volcan and take down a Tigres team that has won plenty of trophies in recent years. The Montreal Impact, meanwhile, are also up against it, having lost 1-0 to Olimpia on Tuesday night.
Herrera and Club America still have plenty to prove, as do the rest of the teams still in this competition. The title of best in North America? That will be decided over the coming weeks as this competition continues.
But Herrera's team certainly backed up their manager's claim on Wednesday night with a statement of their own. The title is officially up for grabs.