After a nearly four-month break, the CONCACAF Champions League came back in full force this week. Four quarterfinal series kicked off with games held in Canada, the United States, Puerto Rico and Mexico with return legs slated for Mexico and Honduras next week.
While it is still too early to tell which of the remaining eight teams stands as the favorite to represent CONCACAF in the FIFA Club World Cup, we are left with some general impressions as the tournament nears the semifinal round.
Mexico is still king
Two Mexican teams traveled outside the country and returned home with a combined one point while another lost on Mexican soil, but the Mexican league still sets the standard in CONCACAF.
Montreal slammed Santos 2-0 while Atlante and Houston tied 1-1, but neither Montreal nor Houston will be favored to pull out a win in their respective return trips to Mexico. For Montreal, their victory was historic as a record-crowd of 55,571 packed Olympic Stadium to cheer on their Impact. Santos could not deal with the artificial turf and their own shoddy defending and they lost. The result was one of the biggest victories in United Soccer League history, but it isn’t one that is insurmountable.
Already Montreal has learned how difficult it is to beat a Mexican team in Mexico. The Impact lost to Atlante 1-0 in Cancun during the group stage. Montreal pulled out wins in Honduras and Trinidad & Tobago en route to winning their group, but a victory in Mexico is another monster altogether.
Santos turned two road losses into home wins as setbacks in Puerto Rico and Panama were righted in Torreon.
Atlante also gave the appearance of a feeble side entering their game in Houston. Los Potros Hierros are mired at the bottom of the Mexican league table and had just one win to show for seven league games before playing against Houston.
But Atlante did all that needed to be done by scoring a late goal. Needing only a 0-0 draw to advance to the second round, and given MLS’ history in Mexico, the prospects of Atlante in the semifinals are strong.
Until foreign clubs regularly leave Mexico with victories, the Mexican league is still superior in the region.
Major League Soccer’s stumbles continue
Since CONCACAF switched the Champions Cup format to home-and-away series in the knockout rounds, MLS has been overmatched. At home, MLS teams have held their own, but on the road — and particularly in Mexico — they’ve fallen flat on their faces.
Houston will likely be the next team to flop in Mexico. The defending MLS Western Conference champions are up against a team that is among the worst in Mexico this season, but that detail won’t matter. Houston has had some opportunities to pull out victories in Mexico in recent years and hasn’t done much. They tied Pumas 4-4 in Mexico City in this tournament’s group stage, but also have a heartbreaking loss in Pachuca to show for their Champions Cup efforts.
MLS teams have traditionally done terribly in Mexico. Since 2002, when the CONCACAF Champions Cup switched to a home-and-away series, only Kansas City has won a series against a Mexican team, and the Wizards still lost their match in Mexico. In fact, Mexican teams have been outscored 41-10 in meaningful matches by their Mexican counterparts on Mexican soil.
Houston’s chances of reaching the semifinals are minuscule, no matter how bad Atlante are in league.
A new pecking order?
When MLS teams do well against Mexican teams in SuperLiga, MLS fans bring up the MLS-is-better-than-the-Mexican-league debate. But when USL pulls off such an upset, few claim that the American second division is truly the better league.
MLS and USL teams trade jabs during the US Open Cup, although MLS teams regularly walk away with the championship. But the USL has a chance to make more noise internationally than MLS, which would be a slap in the face to the supposed American top flight.
MLS had five teams alive in the CONCACAF Champions League. Neither Chivas USA nor New England got past their play-in opponents — supposedly lesser competition from Panama and Trinidad & Tobago. Toronto FC were paired with Montreal and Vancouver in a Canadian play-in group, but the Impact went through at Toronto’s expense.
DC United were an embarrassment during the group stage, having no wins, five losses and a tournament-low one point to show for their efforts. Fans will point to a difficult travel itinerary and injuries as reasons for DC’s poor output, but history does not care about that. History shows a 20 percent success rate for MLS in terms of simply getting to the knockout rounds.
For the USL, that success rate is 100 percent. Montreal and Puerto Rico each survived their groups, and even flourished, finding themselves in the knockout rounds. Through the quarterfinal’s first legs, both the Impact and the Islanders hold advantages. Like Montreal, Puerto Rico won their home leg, beating Marathon 2-1.
MLS features deeper rosters, play at a supposedly higher level with stronger competition, and million-dollar players in multimillion-dollar facilities, but it is the lesser-regarded USL that is making all the noise in the CONCACAF Champions League. For those in Mexico and Central America, it may be difficult to tell which is the top-flight league in the United States.