Once again, Major League Soccer came up short in the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL). Toronto fought valiantly against Chivas, winning 2-1 in Mexico to cancel out Chivas’s 2-1 victory in Canada, but the Reds came up short in the penalty shootout. Jonathan Osorio hit the crossbar. Michael Bradley put his attempt into space. Chivas took the shootout 4-2, Liga MX’s 10th title in 10 years, ending the attempt by MLS’s best team ever to break the string of Mexican victories.
North America’s version of Europe’s famous Champions League is important, but not so important that every team takes it seriously. Colorado head coach Anthony Hudson referred to his team’s games this season as “part of the preseason.” In an ESPN survey this year, only 35 percent of MLS players said the competition was a “priority.” Yet, as a whole, both MLS fans and the league office look at the CCL as a major tournament.
So what gives?
The simplest explanation is that Liga MX is a measuring stick for how well MLS is doing as a league. For years, MLS’s best teams have been slapped around by any team that Mexico sent to the CCL. The Americans and Canadians have made many excuses, chief among them that the CONCACAF Champions League took place in February, when MLS teams are in preseason and Liga MX teams are in midseason. The truth, though, is that the MLS teams just weren’t good enough to compete. Outside of the two or three designated players on every American roster, the rest of the lineup was out of its depth.
This is a big reason that MLS started giving teams more money to spend on players, specifically targeted not toward big-name designated players but to building the rest of the roster. This year’s CCL suggests that it’s already been a successful strategy. Toronto defeated both Tigres, the Mexican champion, and América, the most famous team in Mexico. Both New York and Toronto won games in Mexico, something that never used to happen. MLS as a whole is still behind Mexico, but it’s clear that — at least at the top — teams are starting to catch up.
This also matters because MLS always will fight the perception that it’s nothing but a lucrative retirement plan for washed-up players.
“MLS or China” is universally mentioned as the destination for any big-name European player who’s past his prime. Competing with Mexico’s best gives MLS a way to prove that it’s worth soccer fans’ time and attention, whether those fans are Americans or not.
If MLS has its way, you’ll see more competition between Liga MX and MLS in the coming years. The first edition of this will be September’s Campeones Cup, matching Toronto and Tigres in a battle of league champions. MLS is hoping for more, and for future CCL success. MLS says it wants to be the best league in the world. Its first step, though, is achieving parity with its near southern neighbor.
• Tickets go on sale Tuesday for a July 31 match between Tottenham and AC Milan at U.S. Bank Stadium, as part of the annual International Champions Cup exhibition tournament. It’s the third such exhibition in Minneapolis, and AC Milan’s second trip here, after losing to Chelsea in U.S. Bank Stadium’s first game in 2016.
• Zlatan Ibrahimovic made headlines last week when he implied that he could return to Sweden’s squad for this summer’s World Cup, even though he retired from international soccer two years ago and the country had qualified without him. This week, though, both the striker and the Swedish FA confirmed that he would not be part of the squad, despite his hints. Ibrahimovic even noted that Sweden, which hasn’t qualified for a World Cup since 2006, is better without him.
• The champions in Europe’s biggest leagues are all but decided. Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich already have been crowned champions in their respective leagues, with four games to go. Barcelona could clinch a title Sunday with a victory and an Atlético Madrid draw or loss. As predicted, only Italy will have a title race this spring.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Chelsea at Swansea City, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. Chelsea has rather dim hopes of making it into the top four, but the real excitement is at the other end of the standings. Swansea City is four points from the relegation zone with four to play. Can the Swans get a result — and move closer to safety?
Serie A: Juventus at Inter Milan, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, beIN. One late Napoli goal in Turin last week, and suddenly Juventus’s Serie A lead is down to one point. Inter, meanwhile, is locked in a fight for a top-four spot and a Champions League berth. It’s called Derby d’Italia, perhaps the biggest regional rivalry in Italy.
Liga MX: Tigres at Monterrey, 7 p.m. Saturday, Univision. It’s the last game of the spring regular season, but Clasico Regio doesn’t need playoff implications to be contentious. It’s perhaps the best rivalry in Mexican soccer and certainly it’s the biggest game of the season for both sides, which have already clinched playoff spots.
Premier League: Arsenal at Manchester United, 10:30 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was never treated well at Manchester United, at first because he challenged United’s dominance but later because he was an easy target. His last visit to Old Trafford before leaving Arsenal will be a reminder of days gone by.