Jeff Bradley: Time is now for MLS to prove its mettle on CONCACAF Champions League stage
Forgive me, but I’m about to commit a major journalistic error. I’m about to refer to Major League Soccer as “we.” For the next 700 words or so, I’m about to become a homer.
Because, we really need to close out one or two these CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals this week in Mexico. We simply cannot go 0-for-3 on Mexican soil.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting there will be lingering effects if the LA Galaxy (up 1-0 heading into Tuesday night's game at Tijuana), or Sporting KC (up 1-0 heading into Wednesday night’s game at Cruz Azul) or the San Jose Earthquakes (tied 1-1 heading into Wednesday night’s game at Toluca) cannot advance to the semifinals.
But we really don’t want that to happen, do we?
The task of closing out these home-and-aways against Mexican teams has never been easy for us. The numbers are downright ugly. MLS historian and statistician Rick Lawes tells me we are 3-28-5 all-time in Mexico. Ouch.
He also tells me that we 2-26-5 all-time in Champions League (and formerly Champions' Cup) clashes south of the border, and have been outscored 89-29 in those games. Double and triple ouch. The last time we won a game in Mexico was in 2011 when the Seattle Sounders won at Monterrey, but that was in group play. Since the competition went to its current format in 2009, we are 0-7-2 in knockout matches in Mexico.
This hurts us.
No, it doesn’t hurt MLS, because no matter what anyone wants to say, the CCL is not the most important thing on any team’s goals list (sorry Real Salt Lake). What it is, however, is cool.
It’s cool, because here we are, on a Tuesday in March, and we get to watch American club teams travel to Mexico to play games that matter. I remember many years ago, watching the US national team play Italy on ESPN in the middle of the week and thinking, “It would be cool if we got more games like this to watch, to see where we stand as a national team.”
My thinking right now is similar. Just as I wanted to see back then how our national team looked against a team like Italy, I want to see how our best teams – this is especially true of our defending champs from Kansas City and our Super Club from LA – look against the best Mexican clubs. For the most part, we took care of business last week at home. Sure, it would have been nice for SKC and LA to tack on another goal, but that’s life. San Jose was unlucky to have not tied that game up earlier, so I don’t look at a 95th-minute equalizer as fortuitous.
I think we’ve made progress. There was a time when Mexican teams treated this competition like a reserve competition. They surely knew our teams didn’t have the depth or the youth systems to advance through what’s a poorly situated competition for MLS sides. But based on what we saw last week, it appears the best of Liga MX realize there’s some fight here.
In last week’s games, Tijuana and Cruz Azul went full-bore. Toluca rested a few regulars, but not so many that it showed a lack of respect. No, they realize this is a real fight.
So, just like all those Champions League battles we love so much from some other continent, tonight and tomorrow night we should enjoy the drama of watching our teams try to finish the job on foreign soil. One-goal advantages for SKC and LA are, basically, tie games going in. A 1-1 scoreline for San Jose is really more like being down a goal. This won’t be easy.
But we need to enjoy challenges like this. Our national teams have forged an epic rivalry over the last 20 years, so it should follow that our leagues should form a similar rivalry. It may not be a perfect competition at this point, but it starts to get better when the stakes are raised.
Beginning Tuesday night, we can raise the stakes by advancing past two or three Mexican teams, on their turf. We do that and this thing is going to start to get really fun.