Josef Martinez - Rodolfo Pizarro - Atlanta United - Monterrey
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Wiebe: Atlanta United exit Champions League, but there's a ray of hope

There’s no shame in free space, Atlanta. Think of the disappointment you're feeling as a rite of passage. You thought you might be different. You weren’t. You had hope. It was extinguished.

Like every MLS club before you, Concacaf Champions League history will have to wait. Liga MX still reigns supreme, and only Sporting KC or CAI stand in the way of Monterrey, Tigres, Santos Laguna and an unbroken run of titles, 11 so far. That’s not disappointing. That’s not frustrating. That’s just the way it is.

This, from last week’s column, will be true every year until it isn’t.

“An MLS team has never won the Concacaf Champions League, and probably won’t this year, either. I’m a hopeful, positive person, but I’m also a realist. Liga MX are prohibitive favorites now and forever, or at least until someone else earns their way under a confetti shower.”

This isn’t another dark, down-in-the-dumps CCL column. Wednesday night went as expected from a series perspective, but there was a ray of hope amid this week’s gloom. Atlanta United won. They handed Monterrey, currently third and unbeaten in the Clausura, their first loss of 2019 in their 14th game.

Tigres (2nd in the Liga MX table) had a crack. So did Leon (1st), Pachuca (4th) and Club America (5th). They couldn't beat Los Rayados. Atlanta's Josef Martinez got the second goal anyone had scored in seven matches against Monterrey, and Atlanta could have had more. They beat as good a team as exists in our region, a team that only rotated two players from their 3-0 win in Leg 1.

Miles Robinson, who found himself buried on the bench for his first two years as a pro, was downright dominant at times. We saw flashes of the Pity Martinez that wowed at River Plate. He was inches away from something spectacular. Ezequiel Barco looked, at times, like a $15 million player. Darlington Nagbe hit the through ball of his life. Some of the pressure lifted.

It’s been a trying first couple weeks for Frank de Boer and the defending MLS Cup champions. The expectations are sky high, and understandably so. That those expectations were also applied to Champions League was a credit to Atlanta’s ambitions. That they failed to meet them ought to ultimately surprise no one.

Yes, MLS is trending up head-to-head with Liga MX – four wins and six losses in two-legged CCL ties in the past two years – but that mostly looks and feels good because the previous record (three for 28, including CONCACAF Champions Cup) was so dire.

Toronto almost won it last year, but they were just the third finalist in 10 years to hail from MLS. This year, there’s a chance the league will fail to send a team to the semifinals for the fifth time in 11 years. Only nine clubs have even gotten that far anyway, and four of those came in the past two editions of the tournament.

There’s no denying MLS is making progress in its efforts to be the best in the region, but there’s no point trying to convince ourselves that we’re close to breaking through en masse. Not yet, at least. Take this year for example.

After Sporting KC advanced past Toluca comfortably in the Round of 16, those of us who dream about MLS lifting the trophy got excited, myself included. MLS clubs had put together an 8W-4L-2D mark against their southern neighbors since the start of the 2018 tournament after just one win in 16 games in the three preceding editions. The proof was in the results.

Sporting KC played a Liga MX team off the field, home and away, and we couldn’t help but ask ourselves, “Has the league finally turned the corner?” Target Allocation Money and an explosion in transfer spending was intended to level the playing field. Maybe it had!

A single victory in six games against Liga MX (3 goals for, 12 goals against) in the quarterfinal stage proved those hopes were premature.

Sporting KC must carry the torch now. They’ll get Monterrey in the semis should they get past CAI on Thursday night. It’ll take two series wins against Liga MX to make history. Past and present suggest that’s not just improbable, it’s closer to impossible.

I’m a realist. I don’t think it’ll happen. I’ve also got #CCLFever. I hope it will.

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