By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Feb 22, 2017) US Soccer Players – Anyone who has ever had a sibling knows what it is like to either get tormented or be the tormentor in a rivalry. The older sibling teases, incites, challenges, tussles, wrestles, and inevitably wins what was always a mismatch. Older sibling wins any time, any place.
Such is the case in CONCACAF. As the Champions League knockout rounds get underway, CONCACAF is still very much dominated by Liga MX.
It has mattered little what the format has looked like as long as it was an actual tournament format. From the Champions Cup of the middle of the last decade to the Champions League formats over the last 12 years to the model CONCACAF will turn to for 2017-18, Mexican clubs have always won out. 2005 was the last time someone else won, and it wasn’t an MLS team.
This year, there will certainly be more excitement than most. That’s because of the structure of the tournament. Only three Mexican clubs reached the knockout rounds, with Monterrey failing to advance past the group stage. Pumas and Tigres wound up facing each other while Pachuca drew Costa Rican side Deportivo Saprissa.
Two of the four semifinalists will be non-Mexican clubs. The draw for the semifinal rounds ensure that each series will feature only one Liga MX side, provided Pachuca gets past Saprissa.
Of course, the Costa Ricans let themselves down in the first leg of their series against los Tuzos, failing to take advantage of their home leg and settling for a scoreless draw. Pachuca will close their series out when Saprissa visits Estadio Hidalgo on Feb. 28. Tigres and Pumas meanwhile will be a contest. Tigres are having a bit of championship hangover, struggling in league play with just seven points from seven matches. Pumas meanwhile will look to enact some revenge. Tigres after all knocked Pumas out Apertura 2016 playoffs en route to winning the Liga MX crown in December.
The Tigres vs Pumas survivor will meet up with an MLS side, as New York and Vancouver will do battle in a quarterfinal series that begins Wednesday. MLS and Liga MX could meet up on the other side of the bracket as well. Pachuca would play the winner of the FC Dallas vs Arabe Unido series. An MLS vs Liga MX pairing there would boost the intensity level of the tournament tenfold. Pachuca vs FC Dallas would be intriguing, with former Galaxy star Omar Gonzalez participating in an MLS vs Liga MX matchup from the other side of the rivalry.
The intensity would be high, sure, but the result wouldn’t be in doubt. It never really has been. Since the tournament added the league format, only two of the eight finals have not been Mexican teams playing against one another. From 2002-2008 – when the tournament was strictly a knockout-style set of rounds – three of the seven finals had teams from outside Mexico compete and twice in 2004 and 2005 – Costa Rican teams actually won the final.
But that was a different era. While the footballing world has grown smaller in the last decade-plus, this part of it has not. MLS has grown leaps and bounds, with nearly double the amount of teams around now than there were in the mid-2000s. Money and skilled players and prospects have boomed within MLS as well. Costa Rican sides meanwhile continue to churn out talent, so much so that the national team made a run to the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup. Jamaica and Panama reached Gold Cup finals recently, further demonstrating the parody that exists in CONCACAF.
For now, that’s only on international stage. Liga MX clubs tease and incite their opponents. They challenge, then tussle and wrestle with the best of MLS, Central America, and the Caribbean but it is always a foregone conclusion, no matter where and no matter when.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
More From Luis Bueno: