Close call doesn't change Champions League reality: MLS still chasing Liga MX
It felt so different, and yet it was all the same.
When Hirving Lozano’s cross curled past its intended target and bounced inside the back post in the dying seconds of Tuesday’s CONCACAF Champions League semifinal, it was history repeating itself. Pachuca 3, FC Dallas 1. Another Liga MX team was through; another MLS team was going home.
In some ways, however, it wasn’t the same old story.
The performance of this Dallas team felt different than others we have watched in the past. The Oscar Pareja-coached team went to Pachuca and tried to dictate the game, and for long stretches, it succeeded. Poor finishing doomed that proactive play, however. Even though a late goal seemed to salvage an opportunity, the chance at history had been washed out with the missed opportunities – Cristian Colman’s breakaway in the first half and Michael Barrios’ whiffed attempt in the 62nd minute being the most egregious.
It always felt like a letdown moment was coming, because that’s how the story has played out so many times before. Think Dos A Cero, multiply it by 20 and add a talent gap: That’s the MLS CONCACAF Champions League formula.
This FC Dallas team seemed so close. The talent disparity between Liga MX and MLS still very much exists, but it felt a bit smaller because the Hoops had so much confidence. Their own youngster, 21-year-old Kellyn Acosta, may not be Lozano, but he was one of the best players on the field. FC Dallas doesn’t spend near the amount of Pachuca, but it still has quality players all over the field. Offseason preparations in Argentina helped put this Dallas team in the best-possible position to succeed, and an altered league schedule gave them even more of a boost.
The commitment has been there from this franchise, and Dallas proved why it has to be considered one of the league-leaders in roster development.
But Dallas still fell short, and that should tell the story.
FC Dallas is the closest MLS has ever gotten to being an equal to Liga MX. Yes, two MLS teams have previously made the Champions League final, but both Real Salt Lake in 2011 and the Montreal Impact in 2015 avoided Mexican opposition in the semifinals before losing to a Liga MX team in the final.
FC Dallas actually looked like it belonged. It was the better team in Mexico for parts of the game, which is no easy feat. That shouldn’t erase the fact that: 1) Dallas still came up on the losing end and, 2) There is still a long way to go before MLS gets to a place where it can consider itself equal to its neighbor to the south.
The numbers don’t lie. MLS teams have traveled to Mexico for official competition 48 times. They have won just twice and drawn only eight times. There are so many factors in play, but the biggest is that MLS needs to continue to push its spending upwards in order to close the talent gap.
“Look, people talk in pop culture a lot more about the EPL and some of the European leagues,” Seattle Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey told FourFourTwo earlier this year. “But the reality is we're going to spend more time playing teams in our region, and becoming the best in CONCACAF has to be the first step to the growth of the league.”
Targeted Allocation Money was introduced to specifically address that problem. Has it helped? Of course. No longer does the break in talent happen after the top three Designated Player spots. Now it happens after the fifth, sixth or seventh player. You could argue for Dallas the drop happens somewhere after that.
For most MLS teams, however, the drop-off occurs too close to the top of the roster and it’s too much to overcome. MLS can’t expect to shortcut its way past a talent problem. The only way to be the best league in North America is to have a majority of the best players, and the only way to get there is to loosen the financial restrictions currently in place. Targeted spending solves some of that, but definitely not all of it. A commitment to Homegrown Players may help in the long-term, but Liga MX is developing homegrown talent, too, and they’re years ahead of MLS. Just look at Pachuca’s academy.
If things stay as they are now, and with the help of the scheduling change in the CONCACAF Champions League, we may see some teams make a run like Real Salt Lake and Montreal have before. But if MLS wants to change the long-term narrative and pull level with Liga MX in the long-term, there is still a lot of work to do on a pure talent level.
FC Dallas was close, but MLS as a whole isn’t close enough.
Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.