Mind the gap: A single win doesn't put MLS on Liga MX's level
MEXICO CITY — The New York Red Bulls’ win over Club Tijuana in the CONCACAF Champions League on Tuesday night sent some shock waves throughout the region. Some of those shock waves resonated throughout the Twittersphere into the following morning.
The 2-0 first-leg win at the Estadio Caliente is significant for Red Bulls fans, who will rightfully note the team is coming off an extended preseason while Tijuana is firmly in the midst of the Clausura 2018 campaign in Liga MX. It’s also an important highlight for Major League Soccer fans as a whole, who rightfully bemoan the fact CCL’s knockout rounds come at perhaps the most inopportune time for their squads. Finally, the win was also a historic one, the Red Bulls are the first team to beat a Liga MX side in Mexico in the knockout rounds of the tournament.
But, is it a watershed moment for MLS as a whole as it relates to its regional struggle against Liga MX?
Increased competition between the top leagues in CONCACAF is palatable to just about everyone involved except, of course, the Mexican teams, who have completely dominated since the tournament’s format was retooled in 2008. For all the impact signings, the expansion and the increased amounts of money and attention spent by MLS clubs bent on improving the league and also overtaking Liga MX, there have been but isolated moments of glory. In the nine editions of the tournament under its current format, only seven MLS teams have made the semifinal stage; two have reached the final, and none have won it.
As a point of comparison, 24 teams from Mexico have reached the semifinals, 16 have reached the final, and nine clubs, including one currently in the country’s second division (Atlante), have conquered it. Simply put, the CCL has been a foregone conclusion for every team participating since 2008.
New York’s win in Tijuana will become notable in the future only if their run ends with Luis Robles hoisting the tournament’s trophy next April. Speaking of Robles, the goalkeeper’s fantastic performance (13 saves) against Xolos punctuated how improbable the victory actually seems after looking at the numbers.
The home team had 10 more shots on target than New York, held the ball for 61 percent of game time and had a controversial call go against them when referee Kimbett Ward disallowed Ignacio Rivero’s goal at a key juncture of the match.
On the other side, Bradley Wright-Phillips was his usual lights-out self, scoring twice. His first strike was basically gifted after a Xolos error, setting the stage for Tijuana’s increasing desperation as the match wore on. After the Englishman secured his brace, tensions boiled over to the edge of becoming violent, the hallmark of a team well beaten by a rival they probably underestimated.
Thus, while no joy or celebration for fans can be tempered by what is a definitive match result — regardless of the circumstances — it’s still getting ahead of ourselves to say the gap is closing after one MLS team beats one Liga MX team at home during the first leg of a quarterfinal.
If anything, New York’s victory can add a bit of motivation to MLS clubs in action Wednesday in the CCL. Seattle Sounders, last year’s MLS Cup runners-up, will host Chivas, 16th in Mexico’s top division and winners of just one out of 10 league games in the Clausura 2018. Toronto FC, the reigning MLS champions, face off against the most recent Liga MX titleholders, Tigres, in arguably the most entertaining quarterfinal tilt.
The latter clash will likely be a better barometer of where both MLS and Liga MX are in terms of their proximity to one another. Both squads are arguably the best either circuit has to offer, while Sebastian Giovinco and Andre-Pierre Gignac are far above most players in their respective leagues. If any combination of Seattle, Toronto and New York winning over Chivas, Tigres and Xolos over two legs is culminated next week after the second leg concludes, the topic can be rightfully revisited.
There is still a decent, albeit not overwhelming, chance Tijuana rises up in the second leg and eliminates the Red Bulls despite the result of the first leg. If that were to happen, Tuesday’s 2-0 conquering of the Estadio Caliente will live on only as a nice moment for fans to queue up on YouTube, or as a passing remark to argue supremacy over crosstown rivals New York City FC.
There is no denying both MLS and Liga MX feed off each other both on and off the pitch (Mexico’s recent retooling of pro/rel is a prime example), and that an equaling of forces at the club will spur the soccer rivalry for both countries in a manner not dissimilar to when both national teams square off.
However, an isolated win in hostile territory with the ultimate fate of the series still undetermined is not the king breaking moment MLS fans were waiting for. That type of narrative flip is still reserved for the final. And then another one after that. And, perhaps, a third… or a ninth consecutive win needed just to match Mexico’s previous success.
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN’s One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.