Johan Cruyff once said that “every disadvantage has its advantage,” and this particular nugget from the Dutch legend came to mind after a historic Tuesday evening of CONCACAF Champions League action in Harrison, New Jersey and San Nicolas de los Garza, Nuevo Leon.
It was quite a night for MLS in CCL, a tournament that has routinely bedeviled even some of the league’s best-ever teams, usually at the hands of Liga MX opposition.
Tuesday’s quarterfinal victories for the New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC over Club Tijuana and Tigres UANL, respectively, are not only impressive triumphs in their own right. Because in the span of a few hours, they managed to double the league’s number of all-time victories over Mexican opponents in CCL knockout series, from two to four.
If you’ve paid any attention to both present and past editions of CCL, you’ve probably heard a lot about “the gap,” the shorthand for the divide in quality and results between MLS and Liga MX, and the various perspectives on its width, depth and status. Are the noisy neighbors to the north closing in on Mexico’s best? Or are the southerners’ advantages in culture, infrastructure and spending destined to keep them in the role of Lucy from “Peanuts,” forever yanking the ball out from under Charlie Brown’s toes?
After years of false dawns and crushing defeats, it appears that the gap is indeed closing, inch by agonizing inch.
Tijuana are one of world soccer’s most ambitious projects of the past decade, bankrolled into existence and then propelled up the Mexican soccer totem pole by the wealth and personality of controversial owner Jorge Hank Rhon. Tigres are owned by construction titan CEMEX and managed by wizened managerial genius Tuca Ferretti, a winning combination which has overseen the construction of arguably the most expensive and talented squad in the Western Hemisphere. Both have won Liga MX and chased other, wider achievements with real intent.
It’s a tall order for even the flashiest, spendiest teams in MLS to stand toe to toe with these heavyweights. But over the past several years the league’s pacesetters and innovators – starting with these Reds and Red Bulls – have gradually, systematically opened up the throttle, seeking to overcome the Mexicans’ built-in advantages with a multi-pronged effort to improve their own quality, depth and resilience.
On Tuesday, it came good. New York and Toronto got their goals, assists and other decisive contributions from Designated Players, TAM signings, Homegrowns, draft picks and USL projects. Both squads adhere to clear tactical identities. Both faced up to the weight of MLS’ checkered history in CCL and committed themselves to changing it. And with everything on the line, both found the reserves of bravery, composure and class needed to haul themselves over the tipping point.
Yes, it’s only two games. And both the Red Bulls and Reds had to ride their luck at key stretches in these two matchups, especially when their Liga MX adversaries turned up the heat on their home turf.
But results are results. RBNY were better than Tijuana over 180 minutes, simple and plain. From the veteran class of Bradley Wright-Phillips and Luis Robles to the youthful relentlessness of Tyler Adams, there was a steely focus and purpose to the Red Bulls. Later TFC soaked up waves of Tigres pressure, then made the most of Sebastian Giovinco's moments of magic, showing both skill and grit under trying circumstances.
Both MLS sides performed admirable acts of mental jiu-jitsu, turning their league’s long, painful run of heartbreak on Mexican soil into motivational fuel.
“There is a resiliency within this group and there’s a very deep belief that we can accomplish big things,” Robles said postgame.
Added his teenage teammate Adams: “We weren’t going to come out there and play scared … for us personally, moving on and being the first MLS team to advance – beating a Mexican team – feels pretty special. We know we have something special brewing in the locker room but we also know we have a lot to improve on.”
On Tuesday, that was enough. And it might just be enough to finally end MLS’ infuriating CCL trophy drought, too.