The Equalizer: The CCL and the CONCACAF myth

While the UEFA Champions League (UCL) quarterfinals took center stage last week, MLS and Liga MX — Mexico’s top league — duked it out in the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) first-leg semifinals to determine North and Central American supremacy.

Toronto FC’s historic 3–1 semifinal home win against Club America on Tuesday was only the second time an MLS team has won a CCL semifinal against a Liga MX opponent. Ahead of the embarrassing loss, Club America coach Miguel “Piojo” Herrera had to flex Mexico’s continental superiority“Our league doesn’t compete with MLS,” he said. “Our league competes with European leagues.”

The claim may come as a surprise to soccer fans operating in an MLS bubble, but Liga MX is still the most-watched soccer league in the United States, and Toronto’s historic CCL run only proves Liga MX’s superiority. Liga MX teams have won the tournament the last 12 times, and only three MLS franchises have ever reached the CCL final.

In an effort to save face, the U.S. Soccer demographic has created the phrase of getting “CONCACAF’d” — that is, when MLS teams face other CONCACAF teams away from home, they always seem to be beaten by anything but the other team’s soccer. Getting CONCACAF’d can entail poor refereeing, playing on flooded pitches and under poor weather or having almost every player on the other team cramping up in the dying minutes of a match to save a result. Usually, it’s a combination of all three.

Perhaps the idea stems from the fact that other American sports teams don’t experience any culture shock when they play away from home, so such a difficult and unfamiliar atmosphere is seen as unnatural. Of course, there’s also the idea that the U.S. is the best at everything and that any match that says otherwise must have some sort of blemish.

Funny as the joke may be, it deflects any accountability for American performances in the CCL and essentially disregards other CONCACAF teams as lucky at best and deceitful at worst.

The New York Red Bulls’ 2–0 win against Club Tijuana in the quarterfinals was the first time an MLS team had beaten a Mexican team away from home in a knockout round — a watershed moment for MLS. The game was no fluke, either: In the second leg, New York beat Xolos 3–1. Toronto and the Seattle Sounders also beat Mexican opponents in the quarterfinals, defeating Tigres UANL 2–1 and Chivas Guadalajara 1–0, respectively. Playing the second legs, though, Toronto won on away goals while losing 3–2, and the Sounders crashed out of the competition after a 3–0 thrashing.

The first leg of the semifinal wasn’t so easy on the Red Bulls. The team’s 1–0 away loss to Chivas Guadalajara — which is in 15th place out of 18 Liga MX teams, no less — proved the CCL will always conform to the laws of nature and regress back to the mean.

MLS teams are getting better, and their performance in the CCL proves it. As MLS grows up, complaints of getting CONCACAF’d will look childish. The U.S. soccer demographic will realize that other CONCACAF teams were simply better than them at soccer.