Friday’s soccer news starts with Major League Soccer’s great white whale, aka the Concacaf Champions League. While it might be worth arguing over the importance of the regional tournament, there’s no doubt it’s a priority for the league. Their attempt to end run it with the Leagues Cup and the Campeones Cup only shows how important competing with Liga MX is to MLS. It doesn’t matter which MLS club is doing that competing. Right now, it’s showing that any of their entrants can successfully navigate the Champions League.
We’re a month out from the round of 16 and the debuts of the MLS and Liga MX teams. The biggest game on the schedule is Club Leon vs LAFC, the only Liga MX vs MLS game in the opening round. Leon finished 2nd in the 2019 Apertura, exiting the playoffs in the first round to Morelia. Leon vs LAFC is not a 2nd vs 7th match-up. LAFC’s run during the MLS regular season and their lack of roster turnover makes them arguably the strongest of the MLS clubs. That’s not enough to make them clear favorites in the Champions League, but it certainly puts them in position to make an early statement on behalf of MLS.
Regardless of what happens over those two legs, the point of this tournament is to produce MLS vs Liga MX games that count. Right now, it’s the only tournament capable of this and eventually that’s going to be the problem for an MLS team to solve. The draw stacked one side of the bracket with Liga MX teams. The likeliest outcome is that three of the four quarterfinal games will have a Mexican team. Tigres is the only Liga MX club in the top half of the bracket that also includes Montreal, Seattle, and NYCFC. Should both NYCFC and Tigres advance, they would meet in the quarterfinals. It’s that familiar Liga MX roadblock scenario for MLS. If this tournament plays out like all of the rest, eventually Liga MX clubs will knockout MLS clubs.
How much pressure that puts on the MLS clubs in the 2020 Champions League is an open question. Toronto FC provided the excuse for not going all in on this tournament. The risk on disrupting the regular season schedule looms large, even if some might argue the Champions League is already the bigger prize. Given the early start to the Champions League and the long haul of games it takes to win MLS Cup, favoring the league makes sense. That’s still true even with MLS adding the Leagues Cup as another way to show that their teams can give Liga MX clubs a game. At home, on MLS terms, and with a vague rumor of further integration of their schedules.
It’s an interesting time in the North American zone. The idea that their could be one league across Canada, the USA, and Mexico is getting more discussion that anybody would expect. In the era of rapid MLS expansion, their may be an even bigger future. That would suggest MLS competing at the same level as Liga MX, something that still requires proof of concept.
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