By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Mar 9, 2018) US Soccer Players - “ES INSOLTING & UNACCEPTABOL” the headline of Mexico’s sport daily Record screamed on Thursday morning. That's the response when Liga MX teams lose against MLS sides in the first-legs of the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals. The words are a reference to a politician’s speech about the infamous border wall idea, turned for use in this ongoing soccer rivalry that exists between the United States and Mexico.
Toronto is not in the United States, but as MLS is largely American and many of the players suiting up for TFC are American, the rivalry still applies. After years of dominating the continental championship, this week represented a crack in Mexico’s presumed superiority over MLS teams.
Record played up the 3-0 MLS week to sell more newspapers and get more clicks. Still, it’s worth wondering if fear is rising south of the border that the Champions League title will soon no longer be solely the province of Mexican clubs. We just went through an offseason of wild spending by MLS standards. The addition of $2.4 million of discretionary TAM available to teams this season triggered moves. With them is the reasonable expectation that MLS teams would improve in quality and depth. That might begin to close the gap on their Mexican competition.
Three games are hardly enough of a sample to draw any conclusions over whether MLS closed that gap. It would be disingenuous to point to the MLS victories in the first-legs of the quarterfinal series as evidence of anything without also mentioning that two of the three MLS clubs played at home, or that the one road winner was outshot 30 to 11. Seattle’s opponent, Chivas, has one win in the Clausura after 10 matches. Club Tijuana is a 6th-place team. A unique set of circumstances led to the good run for MLS this week. It will take a herculean effort in the return legs for any of it to matter.
All three MLS teams could close out their series and advance to the semifinals. Liga MX would still loom thanks to Club America, already 4-0 up in their quarterfinal series with Tauro. It still won’t be clear if anything about the Champions League has changed. For the sake of the tournament, MLS needs to put better showings in each and every season. For the sake of the tournament, an MLS actually needs to win.
Traditionally, MLS clubs have managed not to embarrass themselves in home legs, only to fall apart when proceedings move to Mexico. Establishing a lead at home is the bare minimum requirement, one both TFC and the Sounders met. The Sounders secured a slightly better position because they kept a clean sheet and avoided giving Chivas an away goal.
Toronto’s comeback came in a match it mostly controlled, accounting for the poor field conditions and Tigres’ clear discomfort with the freezing temperatures. The Reds were better than Tigres for most of the match, meaning that anything short of a victory would have been a massive disappointment. After sitting in and waiting to hit the Mexicans on the counter in the first-half, TFC grabbed the game in the last 45 and made their home advantage count.
New York was the lone MLS side to win on the road. It's easy to point to the stats. There was a wide disparity in shots favoring Tijuana along with a 60-40 advantage in possession. However, Jesse Marsch’s team is not the first club in a two-legged tie on the road to set up with players behind the ball and an eye toward making a few good chances count. Luis Robles’s remarkable performance wasn't a given going into the game, but Marsch likely felt more comfortable with his tactics because he does have an excellent goalkeeper.
Stats are often a function of the scoreline and how teams play the home-away dynamic. They’re not necessarily illustrative of differences in quality. On paper, a game can look one-sided but not tell the whole story. The Red Bulls won the game, but the numbers say they weren’t necessarily the better team.
Fair or not, we judge MLS teams on squishy notions of the balance of play, even when they win. Both Seattle and Toronto held their own and matched their Mexican opponents in home matches. The real test of MLS quality relative to Liga MX comes next week when those teams travel to Mexico. The history of MLS teams there is atrocious. New York’s win in Tijuana was just the third in history for an MLS team in Mexico and the first in a knockout round series. Even one club advancing from the pair would be enough to merit celebration.
MLS can’t do much about the sample size problem in the short term. Even if all three MLS teams still in the competition prevail and reach the semifinals, it won’t mean MLS has passed Liga MX in terms of quality. This tournament just happened to involve two of the league’s best teams based on 2016 results as Seattle and Toronto carried over their success into 2017 and a competent Red Bulls team that benefited from a kind draw. It will take a few seasons, and a few MLS champions before the notion that MLS has caught up with Liga MX is viable.
Progress is progress. Three wins in a single round against Mexican clubs had never happened before this week. Next week might bring more pain for MLS fans, or perhaps the breakthrough will continue. The test of TAM is well underway, and so far, the results aren’t bad at all. If MLS success in the Champions League encourages the league to give its clubs even more resources, then everybody wins.
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- Shining the spotlight on four MLS players in 2018
(Photo by Mike Lawrence - ISIPhotos.com)