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MLS teams look to bridge gap with Liga MX in CONCACAF Champions League quarters

 

HANOVER, N.J. — On a national level, the United States-Mexico rivalry is special, in part, because of its competitive nature over the last three decades.

On the club stage, though, it is much more one-sided, especially when it comes to the CONCACAF Champions League.

Consider every CCL title has been won by a Mexican side with just two MLS teams — Montreal Impact and Real Salt Lake — ever reaching the final.

With the CCL quarterfinals kicking off tonight in Tijuana, three of the four matchups pit MLS squads against Liga MX counterparts, which again sparks the debate on how close the top American division is to closing the gap with their neighbors to the south.

It begins with the New York Red Bulls facing Club Tijuana before Toronto FC meets Tigres in a showdown of defending champions and Seattle Sounders FC taking on Guadalajara.

“We’re focused obviously on our success, but I think it’s important as a league that we continue to show we can compete with the best in our region,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. “It’s a little bit skewed because we’re not as game sharp as they are, but those are excuses. Right now all that matters is finding a way to gain an edge, to emerge in this series.”

Clearly MLS teams are taking the tournament seriously — Seattle resting several starters in a league-opening loss to expansion side LAFC in order to be fresh for the opening leg against Chivas perhaps the perfect example.

The Red Bulls were a bit more fortunate with a Week 1 bye, but Marsch said he’s considering roster rotation for Saturday’s league opener against Portland. That’s because the emphasis is on Xolos and Marsch knows the same is true of his opponent. Even though the rivalry on a club level has been heavily one-sided, it doesn’t mean Mexican teams are looking to give up their edge.

“I know that they take a lot of pride down there in beating MLS teams,” Marsch said. “I think there will be a lot on the line, both teams will put everything they have into it and I think it sets up to be a really good match there and a series overall.”

The addition of Targeted Allocation Money this year has allowed clubs to splash additional cash on young players, as was the case when the Red Bulls landed Argentine playmaker Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra. With budgets — and rosters — bolstered, Red Bulls sporting director Denis Hamlett thinks TAM could be the mechanism to finally “bridge the gap” between MLS and Liga MX.

“You’re starting to see teams get creative and use the flexibility to bring better players in to try to help reinforce their team and have the opportunity when they do get to these types of tournaments, like the CCL, that we can bridge the gap,” Hamlett said. “Time will tell, but we feel the league is heading in the right direction. Hopefully this could be the year for an MLS team to come out on top in the CCL.”

As for the players, sure there’s league pride on the line, but more importantly for Tyler Adams is a chance to move closer to the stated goal of winning the CCL title.

“I think for us, it’s more about what we’re trying to do for our organization going forward,” the midfielder said. “Obviously pushing MLS in the right direction is something the league is trying to do and these teams getting better around the league are going to help do. Toronto, coming off the great season last year helps validate our league, for sure. But I think for us personally just pushing the organization in the right way and going in a positive manner. We’re trying to win this thing.”

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