Herculez Gomez remembers the fear.
It didn’t always appear at the same time, but it invariably seeped in. That moment when an MLS team turned from viable opponent to freaked-out CONCACAF Champions League cannon fodder for Gomez and his various Liga MX squads.
Those moments happened a lot over the last decade. Apart from a few series in which they put up a real fight, MLS teams – none of whom have ever won the CCL – have mostly been run over by Liga MX clubs in the the tournament. MLS sides have won just two of 20 CCL knockout round series against Liga MX teams since the tournament entered its modern era in 2008 and have been outscored by a whopping 37 goals (78-41) in those matchups.
Gomez was a big part of several of those contests, one of which – Santos Laguna’s win against Toronto FC in the semifinals of the 2011-12 competition – still stands out in his memory. TFC drew Santos 1-1 in the opening leg at BMO Field and twice took the aggregate lead in Leg 2 in Torreon, only for Gomez to equalize twice before Santos put up four in the second half to win the series 7-3.
“You could literally see the deer-in-the-headlights looks from some of those players,” said the ESPN analyst, who scored nine goals in seven CCL games with Santos against MLS teams in 2011-12 and 2012-13. “They hadn’t been in those situations before. They hadn’t been in those do-or-die moments, they hadn’t been in those hostile environments.”
No more. Since Gomez and Santos whomped TFC six years ago, MLS has taken incremental measures that slowly closed the gap with Liga MX. This winter, the league made a big leap forward. The infusion of $2.8 million in discretionary Targeted Allocation Money gave teams a total of $4 million to spend via TAM. That effectively doubled the salary cap, and it’s changed the type of player teams have targeted this offseason.
Few teams have taken advantage of the new TAM more than Toronto, who will begin their Round of 16 series against the Colorado Rapids on Tuesday before possibly meeting Liga MX power Tigres in the quarters. The defending MLS Cup champs used some of the new money to ink Dutch defender Gregory van der Wiel and appear to be on the verge of dipping into it again to add 24-year-old Spanish attacking midfielder Ager Aketxe from Athletic Bilbao. If signed, Aketxe would join Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Victor Vazquez in Toronto’s formidable attack.
TFC’s winter is indicative of a broader trend in MLS. The new money has allowed teams all over the league to improve the top half of their rosters while maintaining their key pieces from past seasons. That increases their overall depth, an area where MLS teams have long struggled to keep up with their Liga MX counterparts.
“I used to say that MLS teams had anywhere between seven, eight, nine players that on any given day could compete with Liga MX,” said Gomez, now an ESPN analyst. “But if any one of those players had an illness, a suspension, an injury, a poor run of form, whatever it may be over the course of two legs, that’s when they would be tested and that’s where they would fall short. Now that’s closing.”
Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo and Seattle GM Garth Lagerwey, whose teams will open their CCL Round of 16 matchups next week, also think TAM is helping close the gap between MLS and Liga MX, though both cautioned that MLS teams still have plenty to do to truly catch their southern rivals.
“It’s not there yet, there’s still a gap,” said Clavijo, whose FCD team will take on Panamanian side FC Tauro in the Round of 16 before a potential quarterfinal date with Mexican power Club America. “But still, if you look at even our competing with Pachuca [in last year’s CCL semifinals], it’s improving. I do talk to a lot of people in Mexico and they are aware of the gap is getting closer and closer.”
“We’ll see how it plays out,” added Lagerwey, whose Sounders will take on Salvadoran club Santa Tecla in the Round of 16 and could potentially face Liga MX giants Chivas in the quarters. “I think the best barometer will be a year from now when you’ve had a year to scout and allocate the new TAM as efficiently as possible, but, put it this way, it’s incumbent upon the GMs to close the gap given that we’re spending more money.”
The new money is by far the main driver of MLS closing the gap with Liga MX, but a few other factors are helping, too. Clavijo and Lagerwey both said that more MLS teams are taking the tournament seriously than ever before, and both said that increased familiarity with CCL opponents and the pedigree of the five MLS teams in the 2018 competition – the past two MLS Cup champs and past five Supporters’ Shield winners are represented – could be a positive as an MLS team looks make history this spring.
TFC and the New York Red Bulls, who are matched up with Honduran side Olimpia in the Round of 16 and could face Tijuana in the quarters, have perhaps done the most intense prep work this preseason.
The Red Bulls hit the ground running this winter after bowing out against the Vancouver Whitecaps in the CCL quarters last year, knowing that they needed to be fitter to avoid crashing out to Olimpia. Goalkeeper Luis Robles led a group of 12-15 players in offseason training sessions prior to the official start of camp, and New York have played their starters significant minutes in their preseason friendlies, with most of the first team expected to go the full 90 on Wednesday against Sporting KC.
Toronto have also been busy, playing three friendlies against Liga MX teams and recently completing a nine-day camp at altitude in Mexico City. Giovinco and Altidore already appear to be in top form, combining for nine goals in TFC’s matches against Liga MX’s Tijuana, Club America and Cruz Azul.
Liga MX may still have a leg up, but MLS teams are beginning to close the gap thanks to that new TAM and a confluence of other factors. We’ll see if it translates to success in the upcoming CCL, but, with more work and more money, it should pay off for the league at large at some point down the road.
“When you look around with the new TAM, the budgets being built up a little bit for us to be able to move and get better, I think that it’s helping,” said Clavijo. “I think we’re more prepared now for CONCACAF than ever before. It’s becoming a priority. We’ve landed short, but we’re going to keep trying and keep working on it.”