Most soccer fans know what it means when someone says “Champions League.” Hell, for most fans that barely know soccer they know what it is. The problem is that they're always thinking about Europe and not about the competition based here in North America. For those that don’t know, the Concacaf Champions League is a yearly competition where MLS competes against champions from Liga MX (Mexico), Central America, and the Caribbean in a similar competition format.
At this moment, there are two MLS teams in the semifinals: Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls. The second leg of each contest takes place tomorrow night as both teams look to secure a spot in the finals — something an MLS squad hasn't seen since 2014. Toronto sits in a nice position with a 3-1 aggregate as it visits Club América. New York has some work to do at home as the Red Bulls are down 1-0 to Chivas de Guadalajara.
Notoriously, MLS teams have not done very well in this competition. No team has ever won the competition and only two — Montreal in 2014 and Real Salt Lake in 2010 — have ever been in the final. But both teams were embarrassingly laughed off the pitch with poor performances.
There are a few reasons why MLS has struggled. The first is that it doesn’t play on the same calendar as Liga MX. This means when the knockout rounds begin, MLS sides are in preseason while the Mexican teams are in form. This can lead to teams that lack fitness, early injuries from coming back from break, and just an overall lack in performance as teams typically have multiple new players trying to jell.
The second quite simply is Liga MX at its best is a better league than MLS. The quality is growing for the young league but its southern counterparts are more technical and creative vs. the very physical, straightforward nature of MLS. Former Mexican National Team Manager Miguel Herrera noted after his Club América lost to Toronto that he still believes Liga MX is the superior league.
He’s not wrong. You can’t take transfer market values too strongly, but as you can see via this list, the top clubs in Mexico are valued on the pitch at a much higher rate than their U.S. counterparts:
Club Squad Value (in millions of pounds)
- UANL Tigres – 62.4
- Guadalajara – 36.1
- Club America – 35.3
- Tijuana – 34.6
- Toronto FC – 24.7
- Seattle Sounders – 18.3
- New York Red Bulls – 17.7
- FC Dallas – 14.7
- Colorado Rapids – 14.4
But now with two teams close to the finals, MLS has the chance to do what it’s been needing for awhile: a champion. It doesn't matter whether that is Toronto or NYRB, it just needs to be one of them.
I do want to add that the impact won't be as great if it’s an all-MLS final. Even though you would think shutting out Liga MX from a chance would be better, I would argue that for the impact to be at its largest an MLS team needs to take down a LIGA MX side. Why? Because of viewership.
MLS just embarked on a new partnership with Liga MX, which I pointed out as a very shrewd move for MLS in particular, and this would be a great lead in to this. Having a Liga MX team in the final brings Hispanic viewers into the match whereas an all-MLS final wouldn’t have the same panache. Not to mention that the game would be more exciting than two MLS teams playing each other.
If it’s Chivas vs. Toronto FC and the Canadians can take down a Mexican giant, oh man that would be huge. For MLS to be taken seriously by other fans, it has to beat the best of Liga MX and Chivas is certainly one of the best.
The league is primed for new fans as it continues to grow in quality — both on the pitch and in business. An MLS champion would bring new light to the league that it definitely needs. The league needs every claim of legitimacy it can get. It’s always a battle to talk MLS and the quality of teams, especially when teams are still making moves for a 36-year-old European player that just came off knee surgery and shows he can crush the competition.
Winning the Concacaf Champions League for the first time would be a great power move to gain some new found respect from Liga MX and MLS fans alike. The time is now and everything is set up to make it happen. Now it’s just up to the teams.