Every year, MLS clubs come up against Liga MX competition in the CONCACAF Champions League and almost every time, they come up short. In 30 series against MLS opposition, Liga MX sides have emerged victorious 27 times, signaling their dominance over the region on the club level.
That dominance was shown once again this week as Pachuca and Tigres took care of FC Dallas and the Vancouver Whitecaps to seal yet another all Liga MX final. The two series were a sign of just how big the gap is between the two leagues, but they also showed just how much that gap is closing year by year.
Let’s get the facts out of the way. Liga MX is the dominant league in North America and it has been for quite some time. On the field, Liga MX takes care of business time and time again, winning all eight, and soon to be nine, CONCACAF Champions League crowns since the tournament was reintroduced in 2008-09. Even going back to the Champions Cup era, Mexican clubs have won 32 of 51 CONCACAF crowns with a whopping 12 Mexican clubs earning honors as the region’s top team at one point or another.
Off the field, there’s more money, more exposure in the Mexican league. There are better youth programs, more prospects coming through the ranks. Even when it comes to television, Liga MX remains the preferred North American league by American audiences.
That gap is certainly closing. One can’t deny the progress made by MLS and its clubs in recent years, starting with the focus on youth development. Teams are getting younger thanks to the increase in academy investment. The introduction of TAM has seen rosters fill out with more talent, but there’s still work to be done across the board. The Montreal Impact got close a few years ago, but it’s clear that MLS clubs are lagging behind their southern competitors.
This week’s matches were perfect demonstrations of the progress made and to be made in the future. FC Dallas and the Vancouver Whitecaps showed that MLS clubs are more than capable of playing with and competing with Mexican clubs, but the maturity and makeup just isn’t quite there.
Let’s start with FC Dallas, who fell to Pachuca on a stunning last second goal. Entering with a lead following a home win, FC Dallas went down to Mexico and battled through a physical match. Down late, Cristian Colman’s equalizer had FCD just moments away from extra time before Hirving Lozano took advantage of a defensive blunder to score a stoppage time equalizer. The 180 minutes were undone in a split second, ending FC Dallas’ hopes.
In many ways, FC Dallas is the best of MLS and where the league is going. They recruit top South American prospects and turn them into stars. They invest heavily in their youth like Kellyn Acosta, who was probably the second best player on the field on Tuesday. Even without their best player, Mauro Diaz, FC Dallas went toe-to-toe with Pachuca, falling in the final seconds.
The Whitecaps, meanwhile, are a bit further down the pecking order. They missed the postseason in 2016 and have begun 2017 with a less-than-ideal start. Still, facing a team that is likely the best in the region in Tigres, the Whitecaps were one goal away until Andre Pierre-Gignac scored a superstar goal. The Whitecaps weren’t overmatched in some indefensible way; they just lost to a team that should beat most in North America.
That begs the question: how does MLS develop a Tigres? How does an MLS team reach that level? In many ways, its difficult. Parity remains the formula in MLS, making it difficult for any team to recruit a roster as deep, talented and balanced as Tigres. MLS can get the Gignac’s of the world, but it’s hard to supplement them with proper depth. TAM continues to help, especially as teams figure out new ways to take advantage of the systems in place, but it’s still not quite there.
So what can MLS teams do? Pretty much keep chugging along. The MLS-Liga MX debates remain one for the hardcores, as evidenced by the crowds for several matches throughout the tournament. MLS, in many ways, should just keep focusing from within, developing and adding pieces. There’s competition, naturally, but the league’s focus should be on developing from within, not keeping up with Liga MX.
While MLS continues to grow, Liga MX does too. The recruitment of players like Gignac and Eduardo Vargas give the league top-level players, while Mexican prospects like Lozano continue to come through the pipeline towards Europe. Liga MX isn’t standing still, much like MLS, as both leagues continue to evolve and develop in the ever-changing soccer landscape.
Eventually, the day will come when an MLS club wins the CONCACAF Champions League. It may not be next year, the year after or even the year after that, but eventually, it will come. Someday, maybe, MLS will have a run of dominance in the tournament, signaling their rise to the throne of North America’s best.
However, it’s very clear that that day isn’t here yet, but the path there continues to look a bit brighter year-by-year.