The latest edition of the CONCACAF Champions League kicks off again on Tuesday with the round of 16 stage headlined by a showdown between Liga MX’s Club Leon and MLS side LAFC.
It’s a tournament that has served as an annual disappointment for MLS clubs in the modern era: Liga MX clubs have won CONCACAF’s continental club tournament the past 14 times and, as a result, there’s generally a degree of lethargy around the competition in Mexico for that reason. Imagine a UEFA Champions League in which teams from just one country won every year? After a while, the monotony becomes difficult to hype.
And yet, this year’s competition feels different, specifically in terms of the Liga MX-MLS rivalry and how it’s viewed in Mexico. With a number of strong sides involved this season, can LAFC, Atlanta United, Montreal Impact, Seattle Sounders or NYCFC finally break the curse?
The player movement north from Liga MX to MLS (including ex-Monterrey star Rodolfo Pizarro to Inter Miami), as well as the headline-grabbing signing of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez by LA Galaxy, has fueled a heated debate. Is MLS catching up in terms of quality? Why are Mexican players being attracted to MLS? How many more players will follow?
Despite any recent transfer trends, fans of Liga MX can readily point to the leagues’ head-to-head record as evidence that the gap between them is still significant. MLS knows very well that unless it can topple Liga MX in the CCL, talk of becoming a global power can never truly get off the ground. While the law of averages suggest they’ll eventually win, Mexican teams still hold the advantage given their deeper pockets, spending freedom and more evenly spread squads. They come into this tournament in rhythm and midway through their Clausura campaign, unlike the MLS clubs still in preseason, but there are reasons for MLS fans to believe that this could be their year.
1. The Vela factor
If there’s one player who can turn a game on its head in this competition, it is Carlos Vela. Tigres forward Andre-Pierre Gignac needs teammates to actually provide him chances, but LAFC’s Vela, on the other hand, can wreak his own brand of havoc on the opposition defense almost singlehandedly.
LAFC will need Vela’s virtuosic skills as it has arguably the hardest challenge of any MLS team in the competition. First up is a trip to high-flying Leon in the round of 16, followed potentially by Cruz Azul, Club America or Tigres. Vela, 31, will be playing his first-ever club games in his home country and will surely be fired up to make a statement, even if he may well be booed in Mexico. After a 2019 season that included 34 goals and 15 assists in 31 MLS games, Vela proved himself to be the best player in North America and can be a difference-maker in this CONCACAF Champions League.
2. MLS are getting used to playing in Mexico
There have been some notable victories and an uptick in MLS sides’ performances against Mexican opposition in recent years. The evidence points to MLS clubs being much smarter in terms of game plans and preparation when they head south, while the decreasing wage gap between leagues will equate to closer competition moving forward even if Liga MX does still hold a significant edge.
Since the competition changed its format in 2018, Liga MX clubs have won 10 times against MLS clubs, drawn two games and lost eight. It’s not by any means the dominance that a statistic like Liga MX clubs having won this tournament 14 consecutive times indicates. And let’s not forget that in 2018, Toronto FC was one Marky Delgadoo finish short of snatching the trophy away from Chivas after the Canadian side had dispatched Club America and Tigres on the way to the final.
3. Atlanta’s front three are a serious threat
Arguably the best front three in MLS on paper is Atlanta United’s South American trio of Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez, Ezequiel Barco and Josef Martinez. If Frank de Boer’s possession-oriented team can keep things tight against Mexican teams at the back, his potent and versatile front line will cause problems at the other end of the field.
Last season’s Campeones Cup victory against Club America was an example that Atlanta can go toe-to-toe with a Liga MX side and come out on top, and if that forward line finds early-season form, The Five Stripes can find success.
4. Seattle, Montreal facing no Liga MX resistance until semifinal
By a twist of fate in the draw, Seattle Sounders and Montreal Impact can get to the semifinal of the CONCACAF Champions League without even facing a Mexican team. With full respect to the Caribbean and Central American teams involved, that is (on paper at least) a major advantage.
Of the two, reigning MLS champions the Sounders (vs. Honduran side Olimpia) are much better placed than Thierry Henry’s Montreal Impact, who take on 2019’s CONCACAF League champions Saprissa of Costa Rica. Should both get through their last-16 series, the Sounders are the better bet to keep going. The team from Seattle is one of the most consistent in MLS over recent years and, crucially, now has years of experience in this competition. From there, it’s much better for a MLS team like the Sounders to take on a Liga MX team at the semifinal stage when their players have more competitive games under their belts.
The Sounders also boast a striker in Raul Ruidiaz who knows all about scoring against Liga MX sides following his productive time in Morelia.
De Boer (Atlanta), Henry (Montreal), Ronny Deila (NYCFC), Bob Bradley (LAFC) and Brian Schmetzer (Seattle Sounders) will all try to capture the CONCACAF title for MLS for the first time in 20 years, ending a drought that began following LA Galaxy’s win in 2000. Except for Schmetzer, all the head coaches have experience in European leagues, compared to zero on the Mexican side. Miguel Herrera (Club America), Ignacio “Nacho” Ambriz (Leon), Ricardo Ferretti (Tigres) and Roberto Siboldi (Cruz Azul) have never been head coaches outside of Mexico, although Ambriz has experience in Spain as Javier Aguirre’s assistant. Two of the MLS teams also have Mexican assistant coaches: NYCFC’s Efrain Juarez and Seattle Sounders’ Gonzalo Pineda.
This may not be a decisive factor when up against big-spending Liga MX powerhouses like Club America, Cruz Azul, Tigres and Leon, but there’s little doubt that in terms of global coaching experience, the advantage is with MLS.