Just a little over a week ago, El Tri's lackluster draw versus the United States in World Cup qualifying may have given opponents in CONCACAF hope that perhaps Mexico's traditional powerhouse club teams were similarly vulnerable in the region's Champions League competition. After all, the club system of Liga MX feeds the national team, drawing on many of the same players, so the connection is inextricable.
If there was any such hope that the Mexican clubs were due to falter, it was a false one, as Santos Laguna and defending CCL champions Monterrey defeated their Major League Soccer opposition earlier this week despite playing away in hostile territory.
Sure, it was USA national team player Herculez Gomez who scored the winning goal for Santos versus the Seattle Sounders. However, that just continues the Liga MX tradition of fielding top regional talent for their clubs.
It’s not that the MLS teams seem like they don’t belong on the same field versus Mexican club competition, but the maturity and depth of the south-of-the-border sides seem to pay off when it really matters nearly every time. Some thought that given their standing as current MLS champions, the LA Galaxy would do well versus the Rayados of Monterrey, but Bruce Arena’s players let a one-goal lead slip away in the second half of their match. The dynamic scoring duo of Humberto Suazo and Aldo de Nigris made the most of their chances late in the game, making the Galaxy defense look foolish in the process.
So the regularity of two Mexican clubs meeting in the CONCACAF Champions final looks set to continue. To prevent this, Seattle and/or LA would have to overcome aggregate goal deficits during the second leg of the semifinals in Mexico, where Liga MX clubs are nearly invincible.
What could be the downfall of Mexico’s clubs is the fatal flaw inherent in an obvious strength - a lot of ambition. Simply put, the schedule of games and competitions is very crowded for Mexican clubs and players, what with league games, Copa MX and many clubs participating in CCL matches or the Copa Libertadores. Throw in international duty with World Cup Qualification matches, the upcoming Confederations Cup and the Gold Cup, and some players might be secretly happy to miss the Liga MX playoffs even if their clubs are risking relegation.
International competition is a true test for a club, and sometimes the hostile conditions can expose players badly. Yet the flip side of Toluca getting drummed out of the Libertadores tournament due to a 4-0 loss to Uruguay’s Nacional on April 4 was Tijuana’s triumph a day earlier in advancing as one of the final sixteen teams of the same competition. Of course there’s risk in taking on a tough challenge. The more there is, the sweeter the final reward.
Cruz Azul seeks an elusive crown
There has to be some concern, however, that the more glamorous competitions abroad are turning even historic domestic tournaments like Copa MX into a meaningless exercise. It doesn’t seem that the top clubs are that thrilled about competing or even winning the trophy. Being resentful about losing, as Club America seemed to be when eliminated by Cruz Azul this week in the semifinals, isn’t the same as being thrilled about winning.
For Club America supporters, the Copa MX loss took some sheen off the El Clasico victory versus Guadalajara this past weekend. It also left the fans of Las Aguillas more determined than ever to succeed in securing this year’s Clausura trophy.
Cruz Azul, meanwhile, are left with the unenviable task of making sure they don’t lose what on paper appears to be a relatively easy Copa MX final versus Atlante. That club is probably thrilled just to be contesting the cup final after a fifty-year absence.
On the other hand, how important can the tournament be if it’s not played for fifteen years? After going on hiatus in 1997, Copa MX just returned last year. Clubs and coaches are still weighing up the value of the prestige involved versus the simple hassle of playing the matches and risking injury to expensive players.
One solution tried by current Liga MX leaders UANL Tigres earlier in the CCL was to put their reserves into action instead of the regular starters. That backfired and the squad was eliminated from the tournament. Still, Tigres coach Ricardo Ferretti has to be given credit for his willingness to throw young players into the fire of competition with something on the line.
Taking chances spurs action and a cycle of renewal. While certain clubs are individually vulnerable, as a whole, venturing out of the comfort zone yields positive results for the league. Perhaps that’s why certain outcomes remain the same, as Mexican clubs make some significant noise abroad, and continue to dominate close to home.