By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Mar 15, 2017) US Soccer Players - It’s not often that soccer serves up a historic, life-altering, history-making and possibly changing matchup. While soccer still has not served that one up quite yet in CONCACAF Champions League play, there may be just such a matchup waiting around the corner.
FC Dallas and Tigres UANL are one step away from playing in what would be a historic Champions League final. It's the kind of final any tournament wants. Two clubs representing the best of what their respective leagues have to offer while also serving up a regional rivalry. This could mean a mouth-watering series the ramifications of which could reverberate for years.
To get there, though, both teams would have to advance. For FC Dallas, this is a much more daunting challenge than for their Mexican counterparts.
Soccer has not served up those life-altering matchups simply because the way of things dictates otherwise, at least in this part of the world. But that dream matchup between FC Dallas and Tigres could potentially change that. How things go in North America could change over the next month.
The millions of dollars spent on player salaries and transfer fees, player development initiatives, soccer-specific stadiums, on expanding MLS, and strengthening the product at some point must pay dividends. All of those investments must bear fruit in the form of true international success.
There is no better way to measure that success than to do so against the best in the region. Since MLS’s inception, that measuring stick tilts toward Liga MX, and for good reason. Mexican clubs have been around for decades. FC Dallas’ semifinal opponent has an amazing history. English miners helped found the club in 1901. In 1907 that the team formalized itself as one of the founding members of the Mexican first division. By contrast, FC Dallas began as the Dallas Burn in 1996. They ditched the American-style nickname in favor of a more soccer-friendly version ahead of the 2005 season.
The histories do not compare and neither has the quality between the two sides. FC Dallas has taken many steps forward and represents the best of MLS and a possible blueprint for sustained excellence. The coach is an MLS-bred product. Oscar Pareja spent eight seasons with the club, eventually becoming an assistant coach. He spent time with the US Under-17 national team before returning to Dallas, then left for Colorado before returning as coach in 2014.
Pareja's roster has homegrown players such as Kellyn Acosta, Victor Ulloa, Coy Craft, and Jesse Gonzalez as well as young American talent like Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman. South Americans play prominent roles, such as Carlos Gruezo and Anibal Chala of Ecuador, Argentines Mauro Diaz, and Maxi Urruti. The club plays an exciting and entertaining brand of soccer and has now for some time.
The makeup of this team is similar to some other MLS clubs, notably the Portland Timbers and newcomers Atlanta United. It is a possible way forward for clubs in MLS. Stockpile rosters with homegrown players, strong Americans, and the right mix of foreigners while playing a more open and entertaining brand of the beautiful game.
Clubs like the Galaxy and NYCFC, who can’t seem to get past signing big-name over-aged European talent, may have found success and may continue to succeed. However, it's FC Dallas’s approach that makes the most sense. It's the best way for teams in this league to build.
Still, for all of its positives, FC Dallas has a monumental challenge ahead. Liga MX has not just been dominant the way stifling heat and blazing sunshine dominates the summer, but in the way the sun’s overpowering force dominates the solar system.
Knocking of Pachuca alone would be a bit transcendental. Los Tuzos did fall to Montreal in Champions League play two years ago, so that alone would not be groundbreaking for MLS. That was in a quarterfinal with los Tuzos on the downslide a bit. This season, Pachuca sits atop the league table, tied with Guadalajara on 17 points through nine matches.
Leading los Tuzos’ backline is former MLS standout Omar Gonzalez. He's from Dallas, giving this series personal meaning. Overall the club is on the upswing. They won the 2016 Apertura title. They made the playoffs in last year's Clausura. They're fighting for the top spot this season. This Tuzos side is no pushover and certainly stronger than the team that went to Montreal and fell by the wayside in 2015.
If things have not changed, then Liga MX will dominate the final once more. Just two MLS clubs have reached the final since the tournament revamp more than a decade ago. Reaching the final is a major accomplishment for MLS clubs.
For Tigres, that appears to be on the horizon. They handled Vancouver in the first leg of their series this week, winning 2-0 in rather effortless fashion. That triumph was the Liga MX vs MLS rivalry played out over 90 minutes. Vancouver was a bit naive in the approach, not pushing forward nearly enough, and giving an own goal and conceding late to dig the hole just a little deeper.
It’s a story we've seen over and over again. Yet there seems to be hope. It's not necessarily Dallas as anybody's favorite. Instead, it's a bigger statement about the near future of soccer in both leagues. That's what we need from the Champions League, an FC Dallas vs Tigres final.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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