Analysis

Despite Toronto's heartbreak, a fearless approach sees MLS face Liga MX as an equal

ISI Photos-Andy Mead

TFC fell to Chivas in PKs, but the palpable change in how MLS teams approached the Champions League in 2018 is a turning point.

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Chivas Guadalajara has won the Concacaf Champions League, and according to all the existing myths of North American club soccer, everything is as it should be — the fourth best Mexican team in this tournament just beat the greatest Major League Soccer team ever.

But when you consider the fate of the three stronger Mexican teams in the tournament — and consider that it is a fate that came close to happening to Chivas as well — another theme emerges, and it’s one that could mark an inflection point in the history of the Champions League: MLS teams are no longer afraid of Mexican opposition.

Whether it’s Toronto FC beating Tigres and Club America, or winning over 90 minutes in Guadalajara, or the New York Red Bulls winning both legs against Tijuana and battering Chivas with 20 shots in the home leg of the semifinal, the business end of this year’s tournament has featured numerous games that have transformed expectations around MLS sides in regional competition.

Of course, in the end, Toronto came up short in the cruelest fashion possible, falling in penalty kicks. But while the record will show that the Mexican winning streak in the modern Champions League remains intact, the more significant legacy of this year’s tournament may be that the aura around Mexican teams may never be the same again.

Look back at the MLS teams which reached the same stage of this competition in its modern form, and the story of those campaigns seemed to be about remarkable singularities. Real Salt Lake and Montreal had great hot streaks, and RSL in particular was very close to sealing the title on its home field in 2011. The common characteristic, however, was that they felt like ‘cup runs,’ with all the attendant luck, fortitude, and extraordinary circumstance that’s loaded with that idea, rather than parts of a discernible trend. If RSL had got over the line at home, or Montreal had not crumbled in the road leg of its 2015 final, then the glass ceiling would have been broken earlier, but it would really have represented an unlikely, romantic tale for the individual organization rather than a rebalancing of power.

Ironically, given Chivas’ league struggles and the rearguard defenses that they often had to mount on the way to the title, you could make the argument that this year’s winners also had one of those blessed cup runs rather than being a dominant example of Mexican hegemony. But credit to Chivas and their idiosyncratic tactical approach — their man-for-man marking and curious concession of midfield posed questions no opponent was able to decisively solve. They deserved their success.

But so did the MLS teams, and Toronto in particular. These were proactive performances that frequently put their opponents on their heels, rather than the weary, hope-to-hold-out sieges that have seen historical incarnations of MLS sides struggling for early-season form against mid-season Mexican opposition.

Some credit for that goes to the increasing commitment teams have made towards the CCL knockout rounds. Toronto in particular structured preseason training with one goal in mind, and given how credibly the Reds performed, it was a justified gamble. The trouble for them now might be that the single-minded pursuit has come at a cost. Injuries have ravaged the squad, and with all focus and personnel decisions geared to the CCL, they sit bottom of the league through two months. They now have to pick up a bruised and disappointed side for the grind of the MLS summer months.

So why take the risk? Well, because the pieces are in place for the goal to be not only attainable but sustainable. The increased finances permitted to clubs for young DPs, and discreet allocation spending have altered the complexion of MLS first XIs to the point where the first seven names on the team sheet can comfortably stand comparison with Mexican counterparts (with the top three potentially being a cut above). Compare that to the first flush of the Designated Player era and the lopsided teams that resulted — which were often prone to lopsided defeats in Mexico.

The knock-on effect is deeper MLS rosters, of the sort you need to compete in the later stages of knockout tournaments. And there’s a steeper sense of expectation that’s stronger than the cultural cringe MLS sides have traditionally displayed in Concacaf competition.

Young U.S. players also have a familiarity with these competitive environments, fueled by early exposure to regional competition through the growing MLS academy system and tournaments like the Generation Adidas Cup.

They’ve played with a fearlessness that’s been infectious — and that bodes well for future editions of the competition. The CCL has struggled to capture the imagination due to the procession of Mexican dominance. But if it can evolve into a true referendum on credibly competing leagues, then everyone’s a winner.

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