TORONTO – “Insulting and unacceptable.”
That’s how Mexican daily sports newspaper Récord described the performances of Liga MX sides against Major League Soccer clubs in last week’s CONCACAF Champions quarter-finals.
Teams from Mexico’s first division went 0-for-3 against MLS opposition in their first-leg matches: Toronto FC earned a 2-1 home win over Tigres, New York Red Bulls beat Club Tijuana 2-0 in Mexico, and the Seattle Sounders bested visiting Club Deportivo Guadalajara 1-0.
— DIARIO RÉCORD (@record_mexico) March 8, 2018
As a result, Tigres (the reigning Mexican league champions), Club Tijuana and Guadalajara are on the brink of what would be a historical exit from the Champions League should MLS complete its clean sweep of Liga MX.
Naturally, this isn’t sitting too well with the Mexican media, and from a historical perspective you can understand why Récord thought why last week’s trio of losses to MLS was “insulting and unacceptable.” Before last week, MLS teams won just 12 of 74 CONCACAF Champions League matches against Liga MX opponents – and only two of those victories came on Mexican soil.
Mexican clubs have won every single Champions League since the inaugural tournament in 2009, and seven of the nine finals have been all-Liga MX affairs (Real Salt Lake reached the finals in 2011, and the Montreal Impact finished runners-up in 2015). Only two MLS teams — Seattle in 2013 and Montreal in 2015 — have ever eliminated a Liga MX opponent in the knockout stage of the continental competition.
Major League Soccer has been taking it on the chin from Liga MX for years in CONCACAF, so it’s not so surprising that Toronto FC is fighting for itself and the pride of MLS in its quarter-final against Tigres, which concludes with Tuesday’s second leg in Monterrey.
“The opportunity to prove ourselves to a few people who don’t think we’re as good or the quality of the league is as good, we take that responsibility very seriously,” TFC captain Michael Bradley said.
Veteran Toronto defender Drew Moor concurs.
“Since I’ve been in [MLS], the Champions League has become more and more important, [and] it’s hard not to support MLS sides, even teams that you learn not to like,” Moor admitted. “While we feel we represent TFC and that’s the most important thing, we also want to make a statement on this continent.”
Why did MLS teams enjoy such great success against Liga MX in the first legs of the quarterfinals? Certainly, the injection of millions of dollars in new Targeted Allocation Money helped teams such as Toronto improve its roster by making it easier for them to go out and sign international players of repute.
The most significant factor, though, could be that MLS teams have evolved in terms of their tactics over the years.
“It wasn’t that long ago that MLS was a very improvisational league, and lot of teams were just off the cuff playing, and you had good players, and their either made plays or they didn’t. Now tactics are more sophisticated in the league … and teams have clearer [tactical] identities, and I think that’s helping,” TFC coach Greg Vanney offered.
But before anybody suggests that MLS has finally pulled even with Liga MX in the Champions League, keep in mind that three MLS teams went 2-0-1 against Liga MX opponents in the first legs of their quarterfinal series in 2014. All three MLS clubs were eliminated after the return matches.
Still, last week’s results are an indication of the great strides MLS has made over the years, both domestically and internationally. The gap is still there, but it’s narrowing.
“Regardless of results, I think there’s no question that MLS continues to grow and improve in big, big ways. In terms of these [Champions League quarter-finals], we’re halfway through, so we’ll talk after 90 more minutes,” Bradley stated.
The scenario vs. Tigres
Toronto can advance to the semifinals with a win or draw on Tuesday night. The Mexicans would move on to the next round with a 1-0 win.
Don’t expect TFC to be cautious in their approach in Mexico, or Vanney to set his team up in a manner to play for the draw.
“We’re going there to play. We’re going there to be aggressive. We’re going there to not be afraid, to not sit back. That’s not who we are, that’s not what we want to do, that’s not what gives us the best chance,” Bradley stated.
“We’re going to be smart, we’re going to be mindful of the position we’re in. But we’re going there to give it a real go, and make sure that they understand from the beginning the game is not going to be played on their terms the whole time.”
The winner of the TFC-Tigres series will meet the winner of Club America (Mexico) vs. Tauro (Panama) in the semifinals. Club America won the opening leg of its quarter-final 4-0 at home.