The 2016 CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals were set up for MLS to break through and finally start getting on equal footing with their Liga MX counterparts. Instead, it was just another year of disappointment as all four American sides were beaten, and handily so.
MLS teams getting dominated by Liga MX opposition isn’t anything new. They’ve now fallen in 14 of 15 knockout stage ties against Mexican clubs. And while there are plenty of reasons to hope and wish for an American team to break through in the Champions League, expecting them to do so against Mexican clubs is unreasonable. They’re fighting too steep of an uphill battle, and it’s not going to get easier anytime soon.
Liga MX is the best league on the continent, and it’s no accident. It’s a 73-year-old league with a giant fan base – in the U.S. as well as in Mexico – that has the resources to out-spend MLS by miles. Any assumption that MLS teams should be competing with Liga MX clubs ignores one rather large fact: Liga MX is really good. That plays as big of a role in the disparity between the two leagues as anything MLS is doing.
For all of MLS’s strides, and there have been plenty in the last 20, 10 and even three years, the league’s teams still aren’t on a nearly level playing field with teams south of the border. The scheduling of the Champions League, which sees the quarterfinals played during the MLS preseason, hurts and a change there would probably help, but the biggest hurdle is that Liga MX teams are simply better than their MLS counterparts.
MLS’s roster rules provide huge barriers to success in the competition. The salary cap that limits teams’ spending doesn’t exist in Mexico and it wreaks havoc on the bottom half of MLS squads. They lack the depth and quality of the Mexican sides. It makes them more susceptible to injuries, suspensions, poor runs of form, all on top of the fact that their players generally just aren’t as good.
The league is closing the gap in total salaries, but that’s almost entirely because of upper-end Designated Players. Liga MX doesn’t reign supreme in CONCACAF because of the top three players on each team. They do it because of their fifth best players, or 10th best, or even 20th best. That is where MLS lags behind.
Liga MX teams don’t have limits on Homegrown player signings and they don’t have to trade up the Allocation Order to sign a player. Never has a team south of the border dealt with a discovery list or Targeted Allocation Money.
There are a slew of limitations placed on MLS sides, and as long as they are there, at least in their current iterations, Liga MX will reign supreme. That’s not a big problem for MLS, though.
The primary goal for MLS is continued and sustainable growth. It is about laying down roots in home markets and developing a culture around clubs and the league. Doing so requires patience and restraint. How much can be argued, and it is regularly, but growing the developmental systems in the league, its infrastructure and coaching, and the revenue streams that can loosen financial restraints farther down the line is the rightful priority.
MLS will not magically be a better league with a brighter future just because it starts beating Mexican teams in the CONCACAF Champions League. They need to be better in the 40 weeks of the MLS regular season and playoffs much more than they do on the handful of matchdays in continental competition.
So change the Champions League schedule and sure, that’s a barrier gone. Continue to gain experience and handle the adversity of foreign matches better and things do get easier. But the elephant in the room is that Liga MX is simply better and that’s not going to change this year, next year or the year after. That’s a process, and it’s secondary to MLS’s improvement in its own competition.
Liga MX teams are better. It’s that simple and railing on any MLS club for their failures in the Champions League, or even MLS for not overhauling its system to compete in the competition, is foolish. Is it reasonable to expect that to get better? Sure, but MLS getting better is very different than MLS getting even with their Liga MX rivals. Even if that’s a long ways off, and that’s okay.