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The depressing history of MLS versus Liga MX in CONCACAF Champions League

A.J. Delagarza (L) of US LA Galaxy gestures during their CONCACAF Champions League quarter final football match against Mexican club Santos at the Corona stadium on March 1, 2016 in Torreon, Mexico. (VICTOR STRAFFON/AFP/Getty Images)

CONCACAF Champions League fever is fully underway, with the tournament kicking off yesterday between Toronto FC and the Colorado Rapids.

The dominance of Liga MX teams in the tournament has been a thorn in the side of Major League Soccer executives and general managers for years. And MLS’ lack of success fueled change within the league. 

Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), which transformed how squads are constructed, was in part made to close the significant gap between MLS clubs and top teams below the border.

With the influx of cash comes a newfound optimism that MLS is about to turn a corner. But has MLS progressed since the modern form of the tournament began in 2008?

History doesn’t look great.  MLS teams have squared off against Liga MX foes 74 times (counting a two-legged playoff as two matches) since 2008 — and they’ve won 12. 

Only two of those victories were in Mexico:  Seattle Sounders at Monterrey and FC Dallas at Pumas UNAM in 2011.

Teams made great runs in the past. Both Real Salt Lake and the Montreal Impact advanced to the CCL finals in 2010 and 2014, respectively. Both streaks occurred during World Cup years and both teams fell in the finals in agonizing manner – getting the away tie in the first leg and then losing the home match.

Both were supposed to represent progress for MLS, but instead were aberrations.

Take a look at he trend line:

The chart above shows the average goal difference per game between MLS and Liga MX clubs throughout the tournament.  MLS teams and Liga MX teams squared off in the group stage from 2008 to 2011, resulting in an average of 10 matches between the two each year.  Save for the one year RSL made it into the final, the results were one-sided. MLS teams had an average goal difference below one.

In 2012, the rules changed in the group stage to help stop the dominance. Now with only three-team groups, MLS and Liga MX mostly avoid each other until the knockout stages. 

The first three years, competitiveness seemed to increase. Montreal’s epic run in 2014 capped that period. Then in 2015 and 2016, it seems MLS clubs regressed despite large increases in spending.  What gives?

The chart above provides a closer look.  The blue line shows the average goal difference per game for MLS teams at home versus Liga MX teams.  The red line shows the average goal difference per game away.

What you’ll see is that the home form after the group stage structure changed in 2011 starts to creep up (except for the 2014 aberration).  MLS’ away form, on the other hand, continues to be terrible — losing to Liga MX teams by an average of two goals or more.  

Another way to look at it: since MLS clubs only face Liga MX sides in the knockouts, Mexican sides seem to play conservatively in away legs then drop the hammer in home legs.  This is exemplified in 2015, when all four MLS sides tied at home but then were outscored away by a collective 11 goals to one.

This all points to a very depressing fact — the gap between top MLS and top Liga MX clubs is still considerable.

Take a look at the market value of each club’s roster per Transfermarkt (as of Feb 20, 2018) below:

Club Squad Value (in millions of pounds)

  1. UANL Tigres – 62.4
  2. Guadalajara – 36.1
  3. Club America – 35.3
  4. Tijuana – 34.6
  5. Toronto FC – 24.7
  6. Seattle Sounders – 18.3
  7. New York Red Bulls – 17.7
  8. FC Dallas – 14.7
  9. Colorado Rapids – 14.4

I know market value of squads is a guesstimate and an art, but the gap between most MLS clubs and top Liga MX sides are two-fold.

We’re about to embark on the 2018 edition of CCL, and with it comes a new structure that avoids MLS and Liga MX sides meeting in the first round of knockouts.  That brings excitement and hope. But if we’re realistic and look at the data, MLS should be happy with just improvement.





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