Closing the gap.
That phrase and various variations on it have become something of a mantra for MLS teams in the Concacaf Champions League.
The region’s best, and Mexican clubs in particular, enjoyed a massive head start – chronological, financial, cultural – on the young North American league that began in 1996. So cross-border faceoffs in early CCL and its predecessor, the Concacaf Champions Cup, all too often ended up as humbling routs, reminders of the mountain that had to be climbed in order to become a serious player on the continent.
Grinding, hustling, laboring to run down that lead became an obsession, at least in certain quarters, of MLS: the first and foremost international measuring stick for an ambitious, upwardly mobile competition with its sights set on not merely reaching respectability, but eventually mastery, in comparison with Liga MX.
Mission: Not complete
Last year the Seattle Sounders showed what was possible when they outpaced Club León in the quarterfinals, then Pumas UNAM in the 2022 CCL Final to hoist the continent’s top club honor, breaking a streak of futility that dated back to the turn of the century. The gap, it seemed, had been tamed. Parity with the rivals to the south was at hand. A FIFA Club World Cup spot awaited.
Yet it’s just not that simple, as LAFC painfully discovered in their gut-wrenching loss to León on Sunday night, falling short in their mission to match and perhaps eventually eclipse Seattle’s breakthrough a year ago.
“We got beat by a very good team,” said Black & Gold head coach Steve Cherundolo after the 1-0 loss at BMO Stadium sealed a 3-1 aggregate triumph for La Fiera. “I think if you look at the 180 minutes we played, they deserved to win. And so hats off to them and congratulations. They had the right answers over two matches, and we came up short.
“But I don't think this will knock us down," continued Cherundolo as MLS clubs have now lost five of six modern-day CCL finals to Liga MX opponents. "We're obviously disappointed and it hurts, as it should. But we now know where the level is, where we need to get to, and we'll do everything in our power to get there.”
The problem with the whole ‘closing the gap’ metaphor is that MLS has been chasing a moving target – a neighboring league with its own hopes and dreams, evolving almost as quickly as MLS has. Ask any racer: reeling in a competitor’s lead is only the first step in defeating them, not the last.
Even if you believe Seattle’s achievement meant MLS teams can now stand toe to toe with their Liga MX counterparts with no excuses for failure, that’s just a long way of saying it’s closer to a fair fight, one that both sides have a chance to win.
In this year’s final, the underdogs – at least on paper – came out on top. But those ‘underdogs’ can call on decades of history and institutional knowledge, with their own narrative of past CCL failure powering a very impressive run under wunderkind manager Nicolas Larcamon. LAFC, on the other hand, made their debut barely five years ago (2018), the reincarnated phoenix of an infamously unsuccessful club called Chivas USA.
“It is a great, great team that has been doing things very well,” said Larcamon in Spanish of the Angelenos. “For a couple of years now, they have maintained hegemony in the domain of the league … Today they were one game away from becoming the Concacaf champion.”
As LAFC dominated the league last year en route to a Supporters’ Shield-MLS Cup double, they were widely perceived as having some kind of cheat code, blessed with an aggressive ownership group and the priceless advantage of a sunny, glamorous home city footballers around the world, along with millions of other humans, dream of living in.
Yet as adeptly as Cherundolo, co-president/general manager John Thorrington & Co. have operated the complex levers of MLS roster-building, they continue to insist they were shorn of a key degree of their roster depth after last season, that Mexican opponents like León benefit from a far simpler (less convoluted) system by which they can build and maintain their squads.
“The fact that we have to face, as an MLS team in tournaments like this, if you want to consistently compete in finals and win these, you're going to have to rethink your roster rules and regulations,” asserted Cherundolo Sunday night. “You're at a big disadvantage. There's a little more money on their side of the table. And money in this game buys quality players.”
It’s easy to point to Seattle’s ‘22 achievement and say the US men’s national team icon is just wrong, or tasting sour grapes in the aftermath of a stinging setback. But those decades of Liga MX superiority were not a fluke, nor a house of cards.
“We have a good enough team to win this tournament,” said Cherundolo, now in his second year leading a club that lost the 2020 CCL Final to Liga MX's Tigres UANL.
“But I think with our scheduling and all the competitions this year, we had a lot going on, and we ended up in the final not at our best moment. Roster building is about that, and having deeper rosters and more players – quality players on your team will allow you to extend those periods of play, and every MLS team is at a disadvantage there.”
Leagues Cup awaits
Whether you agree with Cherundolo or not, the looming debut of the newly expanded Leagues Cup in less than two months offers another timely set of data points on this debate. Are Liga MX clubs still a pace ahead across the board? Does the picture change when including the entirety of both leagues’ memberships, as opposed to only the upper crust who get to vie for CCL glory?
Perhaps Leagues Cup can arm MLSers with a more detailed blueprint for how Mexico churns out such strong contenders year after year, even when the so-called ‘gigantes’ don’t qualify.
“We're making progress, right, from the outside. But nobody's going believe it ‘til you win it twice. Then it's not a fluke,” was how Garth Lagerwey, the architect of CCL finalists at Real Salt Lake and Seattle who is now president/CEO of Atlanta United, put it to MLSsoccer.com recently.
“Then say, back to back, and by the way, different clubs. So it's not like there's just this one outlier club aberration. It's, the league's getting better. So I think it's a really important milestone to win it twice.”
That milestone remains tantalizingly out of reach, ready to be snatched and surpassed like the Sounders did 12 months ago. And that arrives at another asymmetry rued by Cherundolo: while León now get to go on vacation and savor their victory until returning to action in the aforementioned Leagues Cup, LAFC must get on with the daily grind and try to regain the MLS summit, which requires sidestepping the dreaded CCL hangover that’s afflicted their predecessors.
Because merely attaining entry to CCL is itself a massive undertaking.
“We spend a lot of mental energy on the Concacaf Champions League,” said veteran defender Giorgio Chiellini, "but now we have to be focused and we have to try to use all our energy ... in order to continue to continue our journey and reach another time the next year of Concacaf Champions League.”
León 3-1 LAFC
Seattle 5-2 Pumas
Tigres 2-1 LAFC
Chivas 3-3 Toronto (PKs)
América 5-3 Montréal
Monterrey 3-2 Salt Lake