Champions League final not about MLS vs. Mexico for TFC

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco (10) gets a shot off at goal under pressure from Guadalajara's Michael Perez. (Chris Young/CP)

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – MLS is desperate to have one of its teams to win the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time. Mexico’s Liga MX is desperate to continue its complete domination of the tournament.

Something will have to give on Wednesday night when Toronto FC take on Chivas Guadalajara in the second leg of the finals at Estadio Akron.

Liga MX teams have won every CONCACAF Champions League since the inaugural tournament in 2008-09. All but two of the previous finals have been all-Mexican affairs: Real Salt Lake (2011) and the Montreal Impact (2015) made it to the final before TFC joined the exclusive club this year.

The Reds booked their spot in the championship series by beating Tigres and Club America, two of the best teams from Mexico, in the previous rounds. Now they have to beat a third Liga MX side in order to become the first non-Mexican outfit and the first MLS club to win this competition.

This two-legged final, which began last week when Chivas earned a 2-1 win at BMO Field in the first leg, is being touted by some in the media as a battle of MLS vs. Liga MX, as a test of how much MLS has closed the gap on the Mexican first division, considered the top league in North American soccer.

But Toronto captain Michael Bradley doesn’t view it that way. Asked by a Mexican reporter during a Tuesday press conference if Liga MX is still superior despite TFC’s amazing run to the final, Bradley downplayed the idea that this series will ultimately determine where MLS stands in relation to Mexico’s top league.

“I don’t know. I’ve never played in Liga MX,” Bradley stated.

“In the end, this tournament for us has never been about trying to determine which league is better. …. [For us] this tournament has been about the opportunity to win a very important, a very prestigious trophy. Nothing more.”

When pressed about it later on, Bradley reaffirmed that he’s not the least bit interested in such debates.

“We have a very good team, and MLS is a very good league. People sometimes get so caught up in this discussion, and the insecurity of how good the league is, or people trying to compare it with other leagues around the world. It’s a useless discussion,” Bradley said.

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There’s no doubt that MLS teams have done very well in this year’s Champions League. The Seattle Sounders made it to the quarter-finals, while the New York Red Bulls bowed out in the semifinals, losing to Chivas.

Toronto has already taken on and defeated two of the big heavyweights from Liga MX, and yet reporters still ask questions about how MLS ranks against the Mexican league. That rather misses the point of MLS teams’ strong showing in this year’s competition.

“This is exactly what this tournament has needed: genuine competition. Mexican clubs have dominated, which has led to the Champions League becoming a bit boring. Not this year, though. Even going into the second leg of the final, I don’t think anybody is writing off Toronto. They can score two goals in a game, and that’s what makes this so exciting,” said Tom Marshall, a Guadalajara-based reporter for ESPN.com.

“This is being billed as the ultimate litmus test as to where MLS is. I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. What this competition has needed for a long time has been genuine competition and intrigue. You’ve had these two-legged series this season that have been very difficult to predict. This season with the MLS vs. Liga MX matchups, that’s what we’ve got.”

He later added: “Maybe Toronto won’t win [the Champions League] this year, but it certainly looks like they’re going to win it in the very near future.”

Marshall argues that TFC’s impressive run to the final has earned the respect of the Mexican press, but that shouldn’t be misinterpreted as a general respect of MLS.

“Toronto is the team in this tournament that has stood out, and shown such authority. There’s no escaping how over the last few years that Tigres and Club America have been the most successful teams in Mexico, and Toronto knocked both of them out. And they’ve knocked both of them out playing the second leg in Mexico – that’s a massive achievement. Something like that doesn’t go unnoticed in the Mexican press. So, there’s a general respect for Toronto FC,” Marshall explained.

Respect for MLS will come from Liga MX, but that will take more time.

“A lot of this dialogue is about extremes. You have people at one end of the spectrum that say MLS is a long way behind, that it’s not a good league. And then you have people at the other end who say that MLS is right behind Liga MX, and that it’s only a matter of a couple of years before they overtake Liga MX. The reality is somewhere in the middle,” Marshall opined.

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