2018 CCL - Sebastian Giovinco - Toronto FC - Tigres
USA Today Sports

Baer: No victory lap yet but MLS teams have already taken big leap in CCL

We all know the history when MLS faces off against Liga MX in the Concacaf Champions League. The two leagues faced off 20 times in the Knockout Rounds of the tournament since 2009-10, and the Liga MX team has won the series 18 times.

You can check out Tutul Rahman’s story at ProSoccerUSA.com from last month if you want some more in-depth analysis of how bad it’s been for MLS in CCL, but the bottom line has been that it’s been depressing for fans of MLS teams over the past decade.

The low point may have come two years ago when there were four matchups between MLS and Liga MX teams in the quarterfinals and all four Liga MX teams advanced, with the aggregate score coming to 15-5. FC Dallas almost advanced past Pachuca in the semifinals last year but were undone by a 92nd-minute winner from Chucky Lozano.

As an outside observer, what you most noticed when MLS teams played against Mexican teams was the unease you witnessed, especially when the games were played in Mexico. The most emblematic examples came from 2014.

A Sporting Kansas City team coming off an MLS Cup win, and a stout defense, conceded five to Cruz Azul in Mexico City in the second leg after winning 1-0 at Children’s Mercy Park the week prior.

The day before, an LA Galaxy team that would go on to win MLS Cup in impressive fashion conceded two at a strong Tijuana squad within nine minutes after also posting a 1-0 win the week prior. The Galaxy would mount a comeback behind Robbie Keane, but they were never able to recover after getting blitzed at the start of the match.

Those two teams had championship pedigrees, and looked utterly incapable of putting their foot on the ball and slowing the game down when they needed to.

A couple of years prior, one team demolished two MLS teams in consecutive rounds. Santos Laguna, who were led by Oribe Peralta, Darwin Quintero and Herculez Gomez, beat the Seattle Sounders 6-1 in a home second leg after going down 2-1 in the first leg. In the semifinals against Toronto FC, they drilled the Canadian side 6-2 in Torreon after a 1-1 first leg.

What we saw last week were three teams — the New York Red Bulls, Toronto and Seattle — that did not show that unease in their Leg 1 matchups.

Some have pointed out that the Red Bulls match against Club Tijuana looked like many previous MLS vs. Liga MX matches, with the an MLS 'keeper getting peppered with shots. But when you dig down into the numbers, you can see that Xolos had few quality chances (having Luis Robles helped too).

The Red Bulls didn’t control possession but when they were on the ball, they were quick and decisive. They had few turnovers in the midfield, which have historically been the downfall for MLS teams. The fact that they scored so early was also a major factor in the way the rest of the match played out and the 2-0 win meant they became the first MLS team to win a CCL match in Mexico by multiple goals.

Toronto went up against a Tigres side that have won the last three Aperturas and have appeared in the last two CCL finals. They are on one of the best runs in Liga MX history by almost any measurement. TFC, an all-time great team themselves, conceded almost nothing to them.

The expected goals difference was notable, with Toronto ending with an advantage of 1.68-.20. That means TFC would be expected to score 1.48 more goals than Tigres on average based on their quality of chances. Their eight-shot advantage over Tigres was the most for any MLS team over a Liga MX team since at least 2015. They did not wilt after seeing Eduardo Vargas finish Tigres’ only quality chance of the night. The only team to make a notable comeback like that against a Mexican team were the 2012 Sounders, who also notched a home win against Tuca Ferretti’s team.

The expected goals in Seattle were much closer, with the Sounders holding a slight advantage (1.33-1.27) over a Chivas team that currently sits near the bottom of the Liga MX table. Stefan Frei came up big a couple times, once after Roman Torres was consumed by the turf monster. In truth this match could have easily ended 2-2, with Clint Dempsey missing a couple chances in addition to his goal.

It was the least impressive of the three wins, but the fact that Brian Schmetzer’s team was able to pull it off gives them a greater chance to advance than many other MLS teams in the past.

Heading into Leg 2, only the Red Bulls should be favored to advance to the semifinals. After all, Tigres need only a 1-0 result in their daunting home venue to put themselves ahead. And a one-goal edge might not prove enough for Seattle against a prideful Chivas side. Nevertheless, the Leg 2 results should not obscure the fact that the level of play exhibited by the MLS sides in the opening leg illustrated a step forward tactically and mentally.

Flaws were present, of course, but overall there was a sense of something different. There wasn’t the fear when you saw Cristian Roldan got closed down, or when Jozy Altidore had to hold up the ball against Hugo Ayala. Instead, there was the fight and confidence not often seen by MLS players in these matches. Even if New York, Toronto and Seattle fail to succeed on Tuesday and Wednesday, there was a palpable change in this continental rivalry.