Forget the Campeones Cup: Can MLS conquer its Champions League demons right now?
Tuesday was a big news day for Major League Soccer – and a long one. It started around 8 a.m. in New York with the announcement of a new competitive partnership with Liga MX, but the league’s more important developments occurred deep into the night.
That evening, across the Hudson River, the New York Red Bulls defeated Club Tijuana to advance to the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League. Reigning MLS champion Toronto FC followed suit, holding off Mexican champion Tigres at the Estadio Universitario in what appears to be a long-awaited change of fortune for MLS teams against Mexico’s best.
That is, of course, if Toronto -- or New York, or Seattle, should the Sounders hold off Chivas on Wednesday -- can finish the job. No MLS team has won the competition in the Champions League era (2008-present) and those titles claimed by D.C. United in 1998 and the LA Galaxy in 2000 feel like ancient history. Even with the Toronto and New York victories, MLS is still a paltry five-for-32 against Mexican teams in home-and-home Concacaf series.
So yes, Tuesday’s victories were essential to Major League Soccer tangibly proving it has improved its product at the top end -- much more so than the announcement earlier in the day that the champions from each league will meet in an annual one-off competition. MLS commissioner and Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla spoke glowingly of how the new initiative will only enhance the profile of the Concacaf Champions League. In truth, the Campeones Cup will be a one-off event that will draw commercial interest and provide a monetary reward -- a minimalist version of the old SuperLiga, which lasted only four seasons. Winning the Campeones Cup won’t mean that much. Who won the UEFA Champions League last year? That’s easy for plenty of fans to answer. Now, who won the UEFA Super Cup? You have a 50-50 shot of getting that right if you know the answer to the first question, but the bigger question is: Who the heck cares?
Bragging rights are claimed in meaningful competitions, and Toronto holding on over two legs to eliminate Tigres was a clash of champions more meaningful than any glorified friendly will be. Seattle advancing would give MLS three of the four semifinalists for the first time, likely alongside Club America. That would be unprecedented, but it would mean nothing if one of the MLS sides doesn’t lift the trophy in April . The semifinal stage remains a stumbling block; Vancouver and Dallas both bowed out to Mexican competition in last year’s final four.
MLS teams are synonymous with failure in the Concacaf Champions League. They have, through the years, mastered the art of heartbreaking late collapses, including a pair of teasing appearances in the final. It’s why, more than anything, Tuesday’s results felt like relief for U.S. and Canadian fans. Even as Sebastian Giovinco converted another important free kick which ensured that Tigres would need three goals in the final 20 minutes to advance, there was a feeling of, ‘DON’T JINX THIS.’ That the Mexican champions got two-thirds of the way to that goal and were eliminated on away goals at least partially justifies that feeling.
But Toronto, in particular, feels different from those past failures which haunt Don Garber’s league at large. The Reds are capable of being the best team in the region, an objective they have openly discussed as the next step after arguably the best season in MLS history. They will know as well as anyone that such claims cannot be made without the silverware to back them up.
So while the new cross-border initiatives from MLS and Liga MX foster competition in future one-off champions cups and a possible all-star game, MLS’ most important development on Tuesday came in a competition which truly matters right now.
Selfishly, some of the apathy toward Concacaf Champions League in the U.S. and Canada has been due to MLS teams’ failures to be competitive. Liga MX has long been the better league, a fact that Garber had to admit in recent years amid further disappointment in the competition.
That may well still be true, but MLS teams showing themselves capable of actually being North America’s best team -- rather than the hopeful idea of wanting to be that, without the results to back it up -- is as important a boon for the league as any interleague commercial venture.