By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Dec 19, 2019) US Soccer Players - At the international level, Mexico has yet to break through on the world's biggest stage. El Tri has done well to reach the World Cup and get out of the group stage consistently but cannot get past that phase. At the club level, Mexico has earned that reputation as well.
The latest big-stage failure came in Qatar on Wednesday. Monterrey gave Liverpool all it could handle, but the Premier League giants prevailed with a late winner. Liverpool advanced to the Club World Cup final while Monterrey's best hope is to finish 3rd.
A 3rd-place finish with a win over Al-Hilal on Saturday isn't terrible, especially in an international tournament. It's also not the ideal landing spot. 1st-place is obviously the goal, but even a 2nd-place finish would be a bit monumental. Liga MX has mirrored El Tri's rise on the global stage in terms of gaining respect and fighting tooth-and-nail. Like the national team, Liga MX is still searching for its breakthrough moment.
The latest disappointment was perhaps the best chance Liga MX has had in some time. Monterrey did not have a spectacular league season. The team sneaked into the Apertura 2019 playoffs as the 8th-seed. Once in the playoffs, Monterrey ran the table. The club upset top-seed Santos on a 6-3 aggregate score, then easily handled Necaxa by a 3-1 aggregate in the semifinals. Monterrey will finish off a hectic month with a championship series against Club America, with the two legs set for December 26 and 29.
In the midst of its postseason run, the club had to change focus and head to Qatar for the Club World Cup. Monterrey might have had a mediocre season by its standards, but that doesn't overshadow their Champions League success earlier this year. Monterrey took out then-defending MLS champions Atlanta with a 3-1 aggregate score, then demolished Sporting KC in the semifinals with a 10-2 aggregate score. Monterrey claimed the title the best way possible, defeating city rivals Tigres UANL in the finale with a 2-1 aggregate score.
Monterrey certainly earned its spot in the Club World Cup, and reaching the semifinal was also an accomplishment. The only guarantee in each Club World Cup is that the European and South American champions will get a direct spot in the semifinals. Everything else is up for grabs. Only four of the previous nine editions has a Mexican club reached the semifinal round. All four of those ended one step from the final.
Liga MX has proven it is the class of Concacaf year in and year out. Advancing to the Club World Cup is a given. For MLS, a spot in the Club World Cup would be that league's seminal moment. To have, say, Atlanta United or the Seattle Sounders participate in the Club World Cup would be exhilarating for the league and its supporters and would give other MLS teams something to strive for.
MLS and the CONCACAF Champions League is then a bit similar to Liga MX and the Club World Cup. Except that MLS needs a Champions League title more than Liga MX needs a Club World Cup. There's only one way to get games that count against the world's top teams.
2020 is the last chance for a Concacaf team to show that it can get past the semifinals. Barring a break from the norm, that means Liga MX getting one more chance. After all, a Mexican team has been champions of CONCACAF every year since 2005. For the 2020 edition, participating Liga MX teams are Tigres UANL, Club America, Leon, and Cruz Azul. It's a safe assumption that one of them will be in Qatar next December.
After that, things change. The revamped Club World Cup shifts to once every for years and moves from December to June. It also includes more teams, but we don't know what that will mean for Concacaf. The inherent problem with that format is how much clubs change over the years. Monterrey now is much different than it was even one year ago, let alone four years ago. That includes a coaching change in the last 12 months, which is common for Liga MX teams.
Success in that tournament will be a bit more difficult. The upcoming editions will feature 32 teams while this tournament has just seven. Now, Liga MX teams had to win just two games to get to the final. In 2021, more wins will be necessary to win. With it, the payoff may be greater. Success in that tournament and on that kind of stage then will go a long way toward getting Concacaf clubs even more recognition worldwide.
Right now, Monterrey is balancing 3rd-place in the Club World Cup with winning the Apertura playoffs. Reports have the club sending nine players home early to help their playoff preparations. Mexican teams have finished 3rd just three times in this event - Necaxa in 1999, Monterrey in 2012, and Pachuca in 2017. Should Monterrey do it again, they would be the first Mexican club team to finish third on two separate occasions. That would mean making its own brand of history, even without lifting a trophy.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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Logo courtesy of Monterrey