MORELIA, Mexico — When Morelia's Miguel Sabah headed his team's winner against the LA Galaxy on Tuesday night, the joy among Morelia players and supporters was evident.
Sabah's celebration was enthusiastic, to say the least, as the forward celebrated by swinging his shirt around his head.
The lengthy celebration was not the norm for a home victory in the group stages of the CONCACAF Champions League — a competition not always held in the highest regard in Mexico — and it clearly meant a lot to Morelia players, fans and staff.
It may have been a disappointing night for the Galaxy and the MLS – especially considering the blown offside call that ruled out a perfectly good Robbie Keane goal moments before Sabah’s strike – but it did give more weight to the theory that the club rivalry between Mexican teams and MLS sides is heating up on both sides of the Rio Grande.
Traditionally, the CONCACAF Champions League has never attracted much attention in Mexico, at least until the latter stages of the competition. The lack of long-term rivalries, the up-and-down nature of the opposition and the siren song of the Copa Libertadores all combined to leave the CCL a distant priority.
One classic example was in 2008, when then-Pumas UNAM coach Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti had a spat with CONCACAF's general secretary, Chuck Blazer, over not playing a full-strength team in the latter stages of the competition.
The truth is that in 2008, Mexican teams didn’t really need to risk putting out first teams as they have traditionally dominated their regional opponents. Out of the 12 teams that have contested the last six finals, 10 were Mexican.
So much success had stagnated the competition, but there is mounting evidence to suggest that the seeds of a changing mentality about the CCL are starting to germinate in Mexico.
"It is changing little by little and gaining more attention,” Raúl Guzmán, soccer editor for Récord, Mexico's biggest-selling sports daily, told MLSsoccer.com by phone. "Television stations now show pretty much every game Mexican teams play [in the CONCACAF Champions League]. But that has only started recently, maybe three or four years ago.”
From a Mexican point of view, the boost in interest has partly come from the increased competition coming from MLS sides. This point was pounded home in August when FC Dallas beat Pumas 1-0 – the first-ever win by a MLS team on Mexican soil – followed by the Seattle Sounders dropping CCL champs Monterrey a week later.
"I think the growth of soccer in the United States has increased the level of competition in CONCACAF,” said Guzmán. "They have shocked a couple of Mexican teams and taken away the points. With that happening, I think Mexican teams are going to start giving it more importance.”
The recent wins, as well as performances like that of the Galaxy in Morelia and Real Salt Lake's valiant effort in the 2010-11 finals, have reopened a debate in Mexico that crops up from time to time. There’s a level of paranoia about the rising tide of MLS eventually eclipsing Mexican sides in much the same way the US national team dominated El Tri throughout most of the last decade.
"We were speaking today on a television show and saying that the Galaxy is now a team that can compete with anyone on the continent,” Morelia-based sports journalist and broadcaster Óscar Tapia told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday.
Guzmán echoed those sentiments.
"Where I work in the newspaper as well as the radio shows, the debate goes: 'Watch out, they are doing things really well in the United States, and any time soon we'll turn around and the teams from up there will be better than us,'" Guzmán said.
In terms of the CONCACAF Champions League in general, though, Tapia sees some fundamental issues that are difficult to get around.
"In the group stage, there are a lot of teams that shouldn't be there because they don't have a professional league," he said. "There is a lot of risk in a soccer game. If you are playing against Isla Guadalupe, you are going to win even with your third team.”
For Tapia, the important thing at the early stages is getting through the group, not necessarily wining all the games, or even impressing.
An example from this week is Pumas, who started with a very strong team for the first time in the competition against Toronto on Wednesday, knowing that a defeat would make qualification difficult for them.
"In the tournament, you have to use your squad,” said Tapia. "For Monarcas Morelia and the Galaxy, the important thing is to pass through the group stage. You don't necessarily have to win all the games. Then the challenges come and you have to put out your strongest team.”
Increasingly, the challenge for Mexican teams is coming from the north, which is a real boon for the competition itself.
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com