This novel situation should occur with some regularity, in fact. The two competitions operate on a higher plane than the rest of their counterparts in the region. The clubs, particularly in Mexico, attract better players and wield their resources to field the strongest squads on the continent.
Even bearing in mind the inevitable interlopers from Central America and the significant gulf in budgets between the two leagues, MLS and Liga MX – with their combined nine Champions League berths, if the Canadian qualifier hails from MLS – should meet at this stage in most years. Instead, Mexican clubs have dominated the landscape.
MLS finally held up its end of the bargain this year and placed two of its entrants into this stage of the competition for the first time since CONCACAF introduced this format in 2008. Los Angeles and Seattle join Real Salt Lake (defeated finalists in 2010-11) and Toronto FC (ousted semifinalists in 2011-12) in the surprisingly exclusive group of teams to advance to the semifinals. Seattle even created some history along the way when it became the first MLS team in the Champions League era to eliminate a Mexican side in the knockout stages.
The current state of affairs represents a fillip for MLS after the troubles experienced over the past few years. MLS commissioner Don Garber speaks often about the need for his league to succeed in this competition in order to help its growth on the domestic stage. This edition of the tournament serves a significant step forward for the league as it attempts to achieve its overarching goals on the continental stage.
Los Angeles boss Bruce Arena and Seattle coach Sigi Schmid will take a shorter-term view of the situation as they prepare their sides for the toil ahead. Nothing less than a place in the final will suffice, though both the Galaxy and the Sounders enter the semifinals as significant underdogs to their Mexican opponents.
The MLS Cup holders face the more arduous of the two tasks against two-time defending champions Monterrey (live, FOX Soccer, Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET). Victor Manuel Vucetich’s side has struggled a bit in domestic play during the Clausura, but it continues to storm through its continental duties without any regard to those concerns. A perfunctory 4-2 victory over Guatemalan side Xelajú in the quarterfinals prolonged this experienced outfit’s bid for a third straight title.
Vucetich can lean on a cadre of seasoned figures – tested and trusted warriors like José María Basanta, Aldo de Nigris and Humberto Suazo – to rise to the occasion against a Galaxy side capable of producing a shock. Arena needs Landon Donovan (fresh off a second half appearance against Toronto FC on Saturday after returning from his leave of absence last week), Omar Gonzalez and Robbie Keane (calf) on top form to supply the extra touch of class required to contend with Los Rayados over two legs.
Seattle needs to focus on producing the necessary quality first when its two-legged tie against Santos Laguna commences at CenturyLink Field (Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET, FOX Soccer). Schmid held a protracted team meeting in the locker room after a 2-1 defeat at Real Salt Lake to address the concerns created by a four-match winless run to start the campaign. He will hope the rallying cry – plus the continued assimilation of recent arrival Obafemi Martins – instigates the improvement required to trouble the defeated finalists from a year ago.
Santos will expect to replicate its 3-1 aggregate victory over Houston in the quarterfinals and secure a rematch against Monterrey in the final later this month. Oribe Peralta’s return from a knee injury bolsters an already formidable side with the likes of Hérculez Gómez and Carlos Darwin Quintero capable of providing plenty of support in the final third. As if those threats are not imposing enough, stalwart center back Felipe Baloy leads one of the top defenses in Liga MX to protect former Mexico number one Oswáldo Sanchez.
Only a positive first leg result will keep hope alive for both MLS sides as they attempt upset the odds. The daunting challenge of emerging with a result from Estadio Corona and Estadio Tecnológico rises to the fore next week, but the immediate focus must fall on the task at hand.
Similar sentiments apply to the wider objectives in play. MLS’ desire to establish relative equity with Liga MX remains a priority. The achievements to date in this edition of the competition show some of the growth required to take substantive steps in that direction and transform the current predicament into the status quo. The burden now falls on the two remaining American representatives to amplify the strides already made by claiming an unexpected place in the final in a couple of weeks’ time.