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Mexican teams still rule CONCACAF Champions League

Thursday, April 22, 2010
Apr 22
You certainly could argue that the 2010 final of the CONCACAF Champions League is packed with intriguing storylines.

Cruz Azul, frequently the runner-up but never the champion in recent years in Mexico, have supporters wondering whether one of the country's most storied clubs will ever win anything again. Three runner-up finishes in recent league tournaments and second place in last year's Champions League have caused more heartache than jubilation at the "Blue Stadium" in Mexico City.

This year's other finalist, Pachuca, has a more successful recent track record in both local and international play. Los Tuzos have represented CONCACAF in the FIFA Club World Cup two of the past three years and, perhaps even more impressively, won the Copa Nissan Sudamericana in 2006.

This year's final is a chance for Pachuca to establish itself as a consistent force in North American soccer, despite up-and-down performances in the Mexican League. And it comes against none other than its former manager, Enrique Meza, who left Pachuca for Cruz Azul last summer.

You might have expected a bit of excitement for Wednesday night's opening match of the home-and-home series in Mexico City, then. But a tepid dual in a half-empty Estadio Azul instead demonstrated some of the lingering problems with this region's version of a Champions League.

Cruz Azul will take a small advantage into the second leg next week on the heels of a 2-1 win. A pair of first-half errors in the Pachuca defense handed the locals a two-goal lead, but Pachuca and American Jose Francisco Torres, who played the full 90 minutes, fought back to ensure that Mexico's perennial runners-up will have work to do if they want to claim the prized ticket to the Club World Cup that comes with the CONCACAF crown.

With all those stories floating around, it's easy to get distracted. But the real issue here is, Why do so few fans -- even in Mexico -- seem to care? Such a sparse and quiet crowd suggests the competition has failed to inspire the imagination of even die-hard Mexican fans, for whom regional competition is still a distant second to the local tournament.

Variety is the spice of life, so it probably doesn't help that the Champions League final has become a perennially all-Mexican affair, and this year's semifinals were entirely Mexican. There are too many reasons that Mexican clubs dominate to list here -- for one thing, the budgets and roster sizes of the Mexican clubs dwarf those around the region -- but the failure of other leagues to compete certainly has detracted from the competition's appeal.

MLS teams, for their part, have been virtual non-starters in regional competitions the past few years. It doesn't help when the league schedule means teams are in preseason during the Champions League quarterfinals stage, but only one of five MLS entrants even made it that far this time around. American teams still don't have the roster depth to compete in both MLS and the now-lengthy Champions League, which was greatly expanded last season.

CONCACAF is not just about the U.S. and Mexico, though. Central American teams have at times competed well in the region. Including this year, seven of the last nine champions will have been Mexican, but Costa Rican pair Alajuelense and Saprissa were the last to break that streak. Increased parity in Central American leagues has since reduced the dominance of the traditional powers, and its representatives' competitiveness internationally as smaller clubs that perform well enough in local play to earn a berth in the Champions League then find it difficult to follow up on the regional level.

The bottom line, though, is that Mexican teams have simply outclassed their regional rivals on the field. So by the time what should be the climax of CONCACAF's club season rolls around, few around the region are paying much attention.

The tournament may become more relevant at some point in the next few years, though. As MLS continues to strengthen, and as American fans' understanding of the importance and prestige of international play continues to grow with MLS roster size and quality, the CONCACAF's Champions League should take on new importance.

In the meantime, the two teams left in this year's tournament are taking it seriously enough, even if their fans aren't. Pachuca and Cruz Azul rested many of their starters this past weekend to keep them fresh for the Champions League despite being in the thick of the closing stages of the race for the Liguilla, Mexico's version of the playoffs.

The plumb of participation in December's Club World Cup is a great motivating factor for the proud clubs, likely more important than the chance to play one more Liguilla -- which comes around twice each year. The publicity and bragging rights that come with brushing shoulders with soccer royalty at a FIFA event in a far-off land are a boost to the résumé of any team and the credibility of the league in which it plays.

So it will be at least worth watching next week, when Pachuca and Cruz Azul determine which team gets to add the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup to its list of accomplishments, even if we already know which league will again be represented in Abu Dhabi in December.

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