By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Dec 19, 2018) US Soccer Players - Chivas Guadalajara claimed the Concacaf Champions League with a thrilling victory over Toronto FC in April, a fitting triumph given the club’s recent successes. Chivas had won Copa MX and Liga MX titles in 2017 and was passing through a period of stability. The club was not exactly a model franchise, but it was close.
Chivas appeared every bit a worthy representative of Concacaf at the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup. It was fair to think that a strong showing by the Liga MX club would follow. Instead, Chivas proved otherwise.
If there is an unofficial list of global league rankings, then Liga MX took a hit. If the FIFA Club World Cup is any indicator of confederation’s strength, so too did Concacaf. Chivas did not put up much resistance over two games, dropped both results and went home with a whimper.
On this side of the world, the Concacaf Champions League is a reflection of league’s strengths within the confederation. Notably, MLS supporters using those results as a litmus test of where the league stands with respect to Liga MX. Meanwhile, Liga MX supporters are quick to point to those same results as proof of MLS’s supposed inferiority.
If that holds true on this part of the planet, then it holds true globally. By playing poorly and having nothing to show after two games’ worth of work, Chivas let down all of Concacaf.
Liga MX supporters fancy their league as the Western Hemisphere’s best and one of the world’s underrated leagues. It's certainly the best in Concacaf. The distance between Liga MX and Concacaf’s number two - Major League Soccer - is not a gap but rather a gulf. This is the supposed pecking order anyway.
So there was Chivas Guadalajara up against the ropes against Japanese side Kashima Antlers. Chivas opened the scoring but fell behind 3-1. Only a late penalty kick goal made the score appear as if it were a respectable match.
Kashima Antlers advanced to face Spanish giants Real Madrid in the FIFA Club World Cup semifinals. Chivas likely was not going to topple Real Madrid. Mexican clubs have tried and failed to get past this same rival in this same stage of this very tournament. Most recently Club America lost to Real Madrid in the 2016 semifinals while Cruz Azul fell to Real Madrid in the 2014 semifinals.
Playing Real Madrid was the expectation for Chivas. It should have been the logical conclusion. After all, if Liga MX is better than Japan’s J-League, then Chivas should have polished off Kashima, no problem.
By losing though, Chivas did not even get the chance to bow out against Europe’s best side. Losing to Real Madrid would have been no great dishonor. Sure it would have stung. Still, playing against one of the world’s grandest sides in a meaningful game is not something Liga MX clubs have the chance to do very often. When it does happen, it's great exposure for Liga MX and this side of the world even if the result is usually the way it is supposed to go.
Chivas failed in not getting to the semifinals. The club went even deeper than that by losing to Tunisian side Esperance in the 5th-place match. For that game, Chivas tried to apparently summon the strength of the Mexican national team by donning green outfits for the match instead of the odd red-blue-and-white thin striped shirt the club debuted against the Japanese outfit.
Perhaps summoning some of the tactics the national team has been known to use, Chivas-Esperance turned quite physical, so much so that the Tunisian side finished with nine men. While one of those came late in stoppage time, the first send-off came with more than 10 minutes remaining. None of it mattered as Chivas were no match for the Tunisians. The teams tied 1-1, went straight to penalties, and bowed out after each side had taken eight kicks.
If this tournament shows the best of each confederation, then Concacaf didn't look strong. Concacaf’s best side fell against both Asia’s and Africa’s top clubs. Over two games, Chivas scored three goals but only one came in the run of play. The other two came from the penalty spot.
Chivas earned the trip to the United Arab Emirates by beating Toronto FC 4-2 on penalties. Toronto reached the final after a memorable victory over Tigres UANL in the semifinals and looked poised to become MLS’s first team to win the Concacaf Champions League. Toronto FC battled in the final, winning the return leg by 2-1 in Guadalajara to force penalties.
While Mexican clubs have fallen in their first matches at the FIFA Club World Cup before, these losses were particularly dire. Chivas’ 6th-place finish is the worst over the last 13 editions of the tournament. Mexican clubs have been the CONCACAF’s sole representative over that stretch. Costa Rica’s Saprissa was the last non-Mexican club to represent CONCACAF at the tournament.
MLS fans were probably left wondering what could have been. Toronto FC easily could have bested Chivas in the shootout back in April. Penalties are a crapshoot in most instances and do not necessarily reflect teams’ strengths. Had the ball sailed truer for Toronto FC’s players during that shootout, they might have made history.
Ironically, both Chivas and Toronto had similar years following the final. Chivas finished in 17th-place (out of 18) in the Clausura 2018 season, perhaps in part because the club had focused on the Champions League instead of the regular season. They sacked coach Matias Almeyda over the summer and did not fare much better in the Apertura 2018 season, finishing in 11th-place with just five wins in 17 games.
Toronto FC meanwhile never recovered from the effort the club put out during its Champions League run. Toronto FC finished 10-18-6 and counted among its highlights a season-ending 4-1 win over Atlanta that cost the second-year club the Supporters’ Shield. However, that accomplishment was tainted a bit since Atlanta went on to win MLS Cup. It's an open question if they could've bested Chivas's showing in the UAE.
In the end, though, Liga MX clubs have to do better than what Chivas did over the last week. A strong showing may not catapult Concacaf’s standing over, say, CONMEBOL’s. A weak one just makes this region look terrible.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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Logo courtesy of Chivas