No MLS club has won the CONCACAF Champions League in its current format, and until recently, no team had ever come close. Yet this season is giving American soccer fans more reason than ever to be hopeful that drought will end sooner rather than later.
The continuous rise of MLS in the CONCACAF region is undeniable and has been established in the league’s consistent improvement in Champions League results each year over the past several seasons. Though perhaps aided a bit by additional format adjustments, getting out of the group stages is no longer an accomplishment for MLS teams and beating Mexican sides over two-legs is no longer an impossibility.
All of this comes despite MLS teams having an inherent disadvantage when it comes to the knock-out stages. While the merits of MLS adopting the winter schedule followed by top European clubs is often debated—and would be a disastrous idea in places like New England—the current schedule has undoubtedly had its effect on the ability of the league’s clubs to compete at their best in the Champions League. Most of the region’s clubs, including Mexican and Costa Rican sides, are in midseason form come the knockout stages, but MLS teams are just finishing their preseason or have just one league game under their belts.
Yet that didn’t stop the San Jose Earthquakes from fighting for 90+ minutes against Toluca on Wednesday and grabbing a well-deserved 95th minute equalizer in a 1-1 draw in what was San Jose’s first competitive match of the year. Nor did it stop the Los Angeles Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City from taking 1-0 wins in the first legs of their series with Club Tijuana and Cruz Azul, respectively, in what was both MLS clubs’ second competitive match of the year.
Sure, all three MLS clubs started their series at home and face very difficult return legs in Mexico next week, but the aura of invincibility Mexican teams once had at home has been severely dented over the past few seasons. And, regardless of the second leg results, MLS clubs have already shown they can compete with the best Mexico has to offer and their Mexican counterparts have started to take notice.
“The MLS has obviously progressed. Technically, the players are very gifted,” Cruz Azul coach Luis Fernando told the Kansas City Star through a translator after his club’s 1-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City on Thursday. “They’re as athletically and strong as we’ve always known them to be, (but) now you see very technically-gifted players as well in the MLS. You see the improvement to the point where (I) consider the MLS and Mexican teams very even. In terms of quality, it’s difficult to separate them.”
But it’s not just this year’s results that should have Mexican teams starting to worry their perch at the top of CONCACAF is under threat. Last year the Seattle Sounders defeated Tigres UANL, 3-2, over two legs in the Champions League semifinals before falling in a close contest 2-1 to Santos Laguna in the Semifinals. The year before, FC Dallas got an impressive win over Tigres in Mexico City, while the Sounders won away at Monterrey, seemingly putting an end to the supposed curse teams from the United States have in getting results in Mexico.
And, of course, in 2011, Real Salt Lake advanced all the way till the final—though they didn’t face any Mexican sides in the knockout rounds until the Championship—and got an impressive 2-2 draw at Monterrey before a disappointing 1-0 loss at home kept them from being crowned champions of North and Central America.
So while MLS teams still have to overcome that final hurdle and to claim a CONCACAF Champions League title*, they’ve already made great strides with their first two wins in Mexico in the competition two years ago, and their first two-leg series win over a Mexican team, since Kansas City in 2002 in a different format, last year.
This year MLS now has three clubs who have put themselves in position to advance to the semifinals with positive results in Mexico. Now it seems just a matter of when, not if, an MLS team crosses that final hurdle and is crowned Champions of CONCACAF for the first time in the modern era.
*The Los Angeles Galaxy (2000) and D.C. United (1998) each won the CONCACAF Champions Cup when it was in a different format and both clubs hosted the entirety of the tournament. When D.C. won, the cup was held in August giving D.C. the advantage of midseason form, while Mexican clubs were in preseason.