Is this the year Major League Soccer finally ends Liga MX’s unbroken – and largely unchallenged – CONCACAF Champions League hegemony?
Perhaps no one is better equipped to answer that question than MLS’s homegrown CCL boogeyman, Herculez Gomez, a one-time Liga MX Golden Boot winner – an honor shared that season with one Javier “Chicharito’ Hernandez – with stops at Puebla, Pachuca, Tecos, Santos Laguna, Club Tijuana and Tigres.
In CCL appearances against MLS competition with Santos and Tijuana, Gomez scored nine goals in 12 appearances and never lost a knockout round series. But ahead of four MLS-Liga MX quarterfinal showdowns this week, the Toronto FC striker says the time has come for someone to knock Mexico off its perch.
“If you want to consider yourself a top league in the world, like MLS wants to, the first step is taking over your continent,” Gomez told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s just a natural progression. It starts here … I see no reason why this couldn’t be the year.”
That’s certainly music to the ears of Seattle Sounders, LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake and D.C. United fans, but Gomez readily admits MLS’s CCL ambitions and reality often diverge in a competition that tests club’s ability to cope with an unfavorable schedule, extreme conditions, grueling travel and the weight of history.
And while many are quick to blame the timing of the knockout round – the quarterfinals are often the first competitive game MLS teams play while Liga MX sides are in midseason form – Gomez says it’s not fitness or a lack of comparable top-level talent that’s held the league back.
Rather, he blamed MLS’s CCL struggles against Liga MX – Mexican clubs have won 12 of 14 knockout round series – on roster depth that MLS clubs often struggle to match.
“I’m adamant about this: Player one through 10 or 11 on rosters in MLS can compete with any players in the world,” Gomez said. “I don’t care what league you’re talking about. But when things like run of form, injuries and suspensions come in play over group play, quarters and semis, it gets very difficult.”
Difficult but not impossible, according to Gomez, who says MLS clubs also create problems for themselves by eschewing their own identities under pressure and playing into Liga MX’s hands tactically.
He pointed to Santos’ 2012 semifinal win against Toronto FC – a series that opened with a 1-1 draw in Canada before Santos blew out the Reds 6-2 in Torreon – and Club América’s final triumph against the Impact last season – 1-1 in Mexico City, 4-2 in Montreal – as prime examples. Both clubs earned first-leg results and took second-leg leads, but bowed out when they withdrew into a defensive shell and allowed their opponent to dictate the game.
“Self-awareness is a powerful thing. If you know who you are, you’re better equipped to have success in this tournament,” Gomez said. “At times, I think we get the better of ourselves. Montreal vs. Club America should have been game-set-match. America had a very good team, but you have to understand that you can’t fall into their game, their style of play. You have to impose your style.”
And that’s not just a mandate to be followed in the home leg. Though MLS’s 2-32-8 CCL mark in Mexico speaks to the difficulty of the task on the road, Gomez says pushing back can heap unexpected pressure on the hosts – and perhaps even turn their own fans against them.
“Mexican soccer is a different animal. It’s silly at times,” Gomez explained. “They’re very quick to turn on their heroes. That’s why I think MLS clubs can take care of business down in Mexico. They can use that to their advantage. You have to put them on their back foot and be proactive. Crowds are quick to turn on their team, and you can use that.”
That internal pressure is certainly magnified by the geopolitical pride – not to mention an unblemished CCL record – on the line. Gomez said that undercurrent was especially apparent in 2012 ahead of the vital semifinal second leg against TFC.
“[At Santos] we had this assistant coach who just the nicest guy – sweet, docile, low-register voice – and he would get so pumped for these pre-match pep talks. Before the match, he started in with, ‘[Screw] this. [Screw] these guys. They have football. They have baseball. They have basketball. Well, not soccer. This is ours. This is our sport.’ Everyone is going crazy, and I’m thinking, ‘Guys, it’s Canada.’ They associate MLS with America, and that pride is real for them.”
Pride, along with a Club World Cup berth, is certainly on the line this year, the first time the quarterfinals have pitted MLS against Liga MX across the board.
Gomez gives D.C. United a good shot of advancing against Queretaro, along with Seattle, who he said will face an America team under crushing pressure. If LA’s veterans are sharp, he believes the Galaxy are more than capable of knocking off Santos, while RSL face a tall task against deep and talented Tigres.
Translation: This could be the year, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy.
In his day, Gomez relished his role in Liga MX’s domination and the doors the competition opened for him – a Club World Cup with Pachuca and back-to-back CCL final losses with Santos – but these days he’d like nothing more than a clean MLS sweep over the next week.
“I would have loved to see MLS win when I was on the other side, but it would have meant I wouldn’t get to participate in the finals,” Gomez said. “Now, I’m a fan just like everyone else. I hope they smash them all.”