Guest Column

MLS set to face toughest rivals: LIGA MX in CONCACAF Champion’s League

Photo: Daniel Studio

The 23rd MLS season kicked off this weekend and the league is abuzz with loads of new, young South and Central American Talent. Even though big-ticket teams like Atlanta, Seattle and Toronto all failed to score goals in their debuts, it was a nice start to the season, capped off best, perhaps, by Diego Rossi’s finish of a nice Carlos Vela through ball to win LAFC’s first ever match, 1 -0

That players like Rossi and Vela are playing in MLS is an important development in the building of the league into what commissioner Don Garber likes to call a “league of choice.” Arthur Blank, despite his team getting a hyding in Houston, was quite bullish on the league in the glow of its debut weekend.

“When we first started looking at MLS, it was ranked No. 22 or 21 in leagues throughout the world,” he told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “Now it’s ranked, depending upon who you talk to, seventh in the world. They are doing a lot of things right.”

But just as clubs in the league can justifiably pat themselves on the back for a job well-done for shiny new teams and promising young players, the next step in the arrival of MLS as a serious league remains on the table: A credible push into the CONCACAF Champion’s League, the quarterfinals of which begin this week.

Five MLS teams entered the competition this year – Colorado, Toronto, Dallas, NY Red Bull and Seattle. Early on it looked grim. Colorado went out easily to Toronto after which the Colorado coach dismissed the entire competition as “pre-season.” And then Dallas was eliminated by FC Tauro, a Panamanian team in 8th place in its 10-team league

The handwringing began in earnest that night.

But the following day of competition improved MLS’s fortunes with Red Bull and Seattle dispatching their lesser Central American rivals and joining Toronto in the Quarter Finals. Each will face a club in Liga MX.

For MLS, Liga MX clubs in CCL have been the white whale. CONCACAF’s former competition, the Champion’s Cup dates back to 1962. It was a simpler, 8-team knockout competition and U.S. clubs won it twice: D.C. United in 1998 and L.A. Galaxy in 2000.

Since it expanded in 2008 into the Champion’s League format, complete with group stages, no club outside of Mexico has won. Real Salt Lake and Montreal Impact made the finals in 2011 and 2016 respectively, but each was dispatched by a Liga MX club.

Many agree Toronto has the best chance of any MLS club to win. But to get through, Toronto must face perhaps the best club in the competition: Liga MX’s Tigres of Monterrey, winner of the 207 Apertura and runners up of the last two CCLs (losing to Club America and Pachuca in 2016 and 2017).

If Toronto manages to beat Pachuca, they are likely to face the competition’s other top contender in Club America, unbeaten so far in this season of league play and heavy favorites to dispatch Tauro.

Will an MLS club win CCL? It’s possible. New York Red Bulls already shut out Tijuana for a win away. Toronto are good enough on paper to take on Liga MX’s best. But it’s a tall order. If Toronto, Seattle and Red Bull are all thumped out of the quarter finals, the calls to address MLS schedule, or for MLS to press for a schedule more favorable to MLS clubs, will likely intensify. For now, it’s not a competition that gets a lot attention, but for all of the owners and fans of MLS who like to fancy their league among the best in the world, a CCL title is the next step and its one the league has yet to take.

CCL Schedule, Remaining Quarterfinals, Leg 1:

Wednesday, March 7:
Toronto FC – Tigres, 8 p.m.
Seattle – Guadalajara, 10 p.m.

 

 

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