The UEFA Champions League gets all the attention but there is another Champions League taking place. The CONCACAF Champions League is starting their knockout stage tonight and this provides an intriguing situation.
All four quarterfinal matchups in the CONCACAF Champions League are Liga MX vs. MLS. Over the years of this, I guess you can call it a rivalry, Liga MX teams have dominated, advancing to the next round in 13 of 15 total Liga MX/MLS matchups since the modern Champions League rules began in 2009. That stat is pretty alarming for MLS teams this year. The question is, can these MLS teams buck that trend and be competitive against their Mexican counterparts.
MLS has showed slow improvement over the years over Liga MX teams but it’s still very much a big brother/little brother mindset. Last year, the Montreal Impact came closest to beating a Mexican team since Real Salt Lake in 2011. Montreal held tough with Club America, even escaping with a 1-1 draw at the Estadio Azteca. But in the second leg (they have a two-legged Final) America came back and beat Montreal 4-2 to win their sixth overall title in a 5-3 aggregate score.
This year, only D.C. United is back from last year as the LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders join the fray. Teams had to qualify via a three team round-robin group stage whereas the group winner advanced. Groups were drawn so that Mexican and American teams could not be drawn together. That kind of sucks for the Canadian representative as they are in MLS but still must face an MLS or Liga MX team but that’s the rule. Teams are seeded by their point total in their group and enter the knockout stage with 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5 matchups.
CONCACAF Champions League Matchups
1) Club America vs. 8) Seattle Sounders
2) D.C. United vs. 7) Queretaro
3) Real Salt Lake vs. 6) UANL (Tigres)
4) Santos Laguna vs. 5) LA Galaxy
As you can see, two MLS teams have high seeds so you would think that’s a good omen. Well, not really. A big drawback in deciding knockout stage matchups by seed is that if you are drawn in a tough group, you not only have a tough group but you are likely going to have a low seed and have to face a top opponent. For instance, Seattle got a tough draw in their group stage as they had to play their Cascadia rival Vancouver as well as the Honduran champion Olimpia, who is always difficult to play against in the Champions League. By going through both of them, with an understandable 2-1-1 record, they finished in 8th and were rewarded by having to play against Club America.
So how many MLS teams will be able to move on to the semifinal? At my most optimistic, I would say the best MLS can hope for is to have two of four teams advance. D.C. United has a great chance to beat Queretaro and the Galaxy can beat Santos Laguna.
Both Queretaro and Santos Laguna have been struggling in Liga MX since the end of the Apertura and as they have been playing in the Clausura over the last month, things haven’t improved. Queretaro finished 11th in the Apertura and currently in 13th with seven games in the Clausura. Queretaro have only kept a clean sheet once in their seven Clausura games and that was in a 3-0 win against last place team Dorados. So Queretaro are pretty vulnerable for D.C. For Santos Laguna, they are in the midst of a three game winless streak and haven’t won since January 29. The Galaxy and their stout but aging team can give them issues.
Those would be MLS’ best chances for winners in the quarterfinals. It’s going to be tough for Seattle to fare well against the Mexican giants of Club America or RSL beating the Liguilla – Apertura champions. If this result holds, this would create two more Liga MX vs. MLS matchups in the semifinal as America would face the Galaxy and Tigres would go against D.C. United. Either way, this is a great test and an incredible opportunity for MLS to stick its chest high against those Mexican teams who have constantly and consistently beaten them.
[Photo: Getty Images]