2018 was a great year for MLS teams participating in CONCACAF Champions League. New York Red Bulls defeated CD Olimpia and Club Tijuana before losing to eventual Champions Chivas de Guadalajara in the semifinals. Defending MLS Cup winners Toronto FC scored huge upsets over Liga MX powerhouses UANL Tigres then Club America, and was a Michael Bradley penalty kick away from defeating Guadalajara in the Finals. After the tournament, there was a growing sentiment amongst fans that MLS had “closed the gap” between them and their archrivals to the south.
Fast forward to Tuesday and Wednesday nights where MLS teams went 0 for 4 and lost by a combined score of 9-1; proving that the “gap” between U.S. soccer and Latin America is wider than the Grand Canyon. Now all four clubs – Sporting KC to a lesser extent – face uphill battles in the second leg of their respective matches.
The CCL Gods were unnecessarily cruel on New York Red Bulls, Houston Dynamo and Atlanta United. All three clubs were shutout by Mexican opposition, effectively ending their CONCACAF Champions League title hopes. Now, that may be a bit premature considering there’s still another leg in these quarterfinals. But let’s be honest; MLS teams do not have the best track record vs. Liga MX. Red Bulls and Houston both lost 2-0 at home and will need to score three goals on the road at Santos Laguna and UANL Tigres to advance. MLS Cup winners Atlanta United were crushed (literally and figuratively) 3-0 in Monterrey by Los Rayados.
Sporting KC is the only MLS team with a glimmer of hope; losing 2-1 to Independiente in Panama after fielding a mostly reserve squad. SKC coach Peter Vermes elected to rest 8 of 11 starters from their historic Round of 16 victory over Toluca, becoming the first MLS team in tournament history to win by two or more goals on Mexican soil.
Think about that for a second. ONE TEAM in 57 years has done what New York and Houston need to do just to tie on aggregate. Atlanta will need to blank Monterrey and score four goals at Mercedes Benz Stadium to advance into the semifinals. Good Luck.
Since the tournaments inception in 1962, there have been 54 CONCACAF Champions League title holders; 34 of those champions reside in Mexico. Costa Rican teams have lifted the trophy three times and El Salvador is next with three titles. MLS clubs have won CCL twice – D.C. United (1998) and LA Galaxy (2000) – tied with countries like Guatemala, Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti and the Republic of Suriname. Since the current format was adopted in 2008, MLS clubs are an underwhelming 21-48-21 when facing Liga MX opposition.
Latin America gave U.S. soccer a reality check this week, which may be a hard pill to swallow, but a necessary one for MLS fans across the country (and twitter). In all fairness, the league is only 23 years old and its growth potential is endless. The quality of play in MLS is on the rise largely due to the influx of Central and South Americans. MLS has also become a player on the international transfer market and is now seen as a “stepping stone” league for talented young footballers with dreams of European glory.
With that said, the league’s success in 2018 CCL seems more like an anomaly than the new norm. It’s clear now, more than ever; that there’s still a lot of work to be done if we truly want to close the gap between MLS and Liga MX.