By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Sep 15, 2021) US Soccer Players – The US National Team and Mexico met up twice in a pair of high-stakes title games over the summer with the Americans winning both. The victories showed that the USA returned to the same level as Mexico, arguably taking a step past them. After all, the USMNT played with two different rosters, in two different largely pro-Mexico venues. Meanwhile, Mexico used very similar rosters in both matches.
At that level, the United States and Mexico have fluctuated around one another for most of this century. The US had the upper hand for most of the 2000s, while Mexico came on stronger over the last 5-plus years. The pendulum now swings north. At the club level, though, things are not quite the same despite some positive results.
Seattle beat Santos Laguna on Tuesday to reach the Leagues Cup final. On Wednesday, Philadelphia can reach the Concacaf Champions League final, but it will take coming back from two goals down against Club America. Despite the USMNT’s success against Mexico, there’s work to be done for anybody wanting to argue the same about MLS and Liga MX.
For MLS observers, part of the spoils of success against Liga MX clubs is not just the immediacy of the results. Advancing in a tournament or gaining an edge in an aggregate-score series builds the argument that MLS is competitive with Liga MX. It’s justification that MLS is heading in the right direction. Liga MX today, Europe tomorrow.
Maybe one day, MLS will be one of the world’s top leagues. Right now, how they get to that may or may not pass through Liga MX, but it’s certainly the easiest comparison.
Will a Union win over Club America change things? No, but that would be part of helping MLS gain stature in its attempt to try and reach Liga MX’s level. If MLS and Liga MX truly are equals, the bare minimum would be for an MLS team to win a Concacaf Champions League final.
MLS teams have, of course, reached the Champions League final. LAFC was in the final of this tournament just one year ago, although that was a much different version given the Covid-19 pandemic. LAFC did not have to get past Cruz Azul in the semifinals playing in a two-leg home-and-away series. Instead, they had to beat La Maquina Celeste in a neutral-site stadium with no fans. LAFC led Tigres in the second-half of the final before succumbing, but again it was under COVID protocols in an Orlando bubble.
Philadelphia did have to face adversity on the road and was unable to overcome it. In the first-leg of its series against Club America, Philadelphia lost 2-0 at Estadio Azteca and set itself up for a monstrous challenge at home.
A win and the Union would take a massive but not unprecedented step. Before LAFC, Toronto FC reached the final against Chivas in the 2017-2018 edition of the tournament. Toronto FC nearly pulled off the victory but fell in the final on penalty kicks. Toronto FC is a Canadian-based MLS club that represented Canada in the final, but that wouldn’t have tempered a win.
Dropping down to the Leagues Cup, an American-based MLS club reached the final of a tournament at the expense of a Liga MX side. Seattle beat Santos Laguna 1-0 on a goal at the death by Raul Ruidiaz. The tournament was similar to the Champions League in that Seattle was the only non-Liga MX club in the semifinals. Now Seattle will face a Liga MX club in the final, the winner of Wednesday’s Pumas-Leon match. It’s the same scenario in the Champions League, with one MLS team making the semifinals alongside three Liga MX clubs.
What a Seattle victory in the final might mean is up for interpretation. This revamp of the SuperLiga carries with it the same problems. Commitment from the clubs involved is high on that list. Seattle deserves credit for treating the games on its schedule seriously, but there are limits to competitive ambition. It’s the strength of squads and the reasonable availability of players as well as the toughness of the opponent.
Santos edged Orlando City 1-0. Pumas got past NYCFC on penalties after finishing 1-1. Leon embarrassed Sporting KC 6-1. Every match played out on American soil. That includes Pumas vs Leon in Houston and the neutral site final in Las Vegas on September 22.
When it comes to home field advantage, the Champions League is the only outlet for road games in Mexico. Stadiums like Chivas’ Estadio Akron, Monterrey’s Estadio BBVA, or Pachuca’s Estadio Hidalgo would force MLS teams to grow up quickly. Playing in these tough environments in competitive matches on a regular basis would only strengthen the visiting teams. That, in turn, would boost MLS.
That would require regular opportunities in games that count. While that idea seems intriguing, it was essentially shot down around the MLS All-Star Game when officials from both leagues downplayed the idea that such a format was in the works.
For now, it’s MLS hoping on the Philadelphia Union making up goals at home. History is on Club America’s side.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
More From Luis Bueno:
- Playing past distractions, RSL stays in contention
- MLS Power Rankings: Staying put at the top
- MLS moves past injuries with the latest version of the MLS All-Star Game
- LA’s competitive imbalance in the 2021 MLS season
Photo by MLS