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Gulf in class pervails in CONCACAF
On the surface, little changed during the latest edition of the CONCACAF Champions League.
Liga MX placed two of its four entrants in the final. The two representatives were the same two finalists from a year ago. And Monterrey won its third consecutive title on Wednesday night, albeit in more dramatic fashion than expected.
The broad theme – Mexico once again exerts its supremacy over the rest of the region – remained the same. The particulars, however, changed in a way that benefited the Champions League on the whole and reduced the still-significant gap between the Mexican sides and the rest of the region.
As the results throughout the competition showed, the CONCACAF Champions League no longer represents some sort of invitational where Mexican teams can just turn up and win matches with a minimum of effort. This tournament reinforced the notion that the heavy favorites must apply themselves appropriately in order to achieve the desired level of success.
Consider the plight of C.D. Guadalajara as an indicative example of the new order. Chivas received a favorable draw (Guatemalan side Xelajú and Trinidad and Tobago outfit W Connection) in Group 8 and expected a simple procession to the quarterfinals. That belief ignored the peril introduced by structural changes made to the group stage prior to the tournament. The revamped setup limited the room for error because it reduced the number of matches from six to four to address fixture pileups and travel burdens. Two poor road performances – a draw in Trinidad and a loss in Guatemala – transformed Chivas from a quarterfinal certainty into the first Mexican side to exit after the group stage during the Champions League era.
Clausura powers Tigres UANL entered the history books for similar reasons after their quarterfinal tie with Major League Soccer side Seattle Sounders. Tigres manager Ricardo Ferretti fielded a reserve-laden side for the second leg trip to CenturyLink Field after securing a 1-0 first leg victory in San Nicolás de los Garza and weighing the implications of a hectic domestic slate. The gambit appeared worthwhile until Manuel Viniegra picked up his second yellow card on the stroke of halftime. Seattle took advantage of its 10-man opponents to claim a 3-1 victory on the night, notch the first victory by a MLS team over a Liga MX side during the championship round in the Champions League format and usher Tigres out of the tournament to howls of disapproval back home.
It should come as little surprise that Monterrey and Santos Laguna sidestepped those concerns and squared off in the final yet again. Both clubs approached the tournament with the evident desire to lift the trophy on May 1 and tailored their Liga MX exertions accordingly. They played strong lineups in most matches in a bid to ward off any missteps. They used their ample resources to their advantage and worked their way into the later stages of the tournament yet again.
The Liga MX representatives in the 2013-14 edition of this tournament – Tijuana and Toluca booked their places after meeting in the Apertura final, while the Clausura finalists will fill the other two berths – must follow that path in order to maintain their hopes of a place in the Club World Cup. The gulf between the Mexican sides and the aspiring challengers from MLS and Central America closes incrementally with each passing year. MLS' success in this edition of the tournament reveals the American and Canadian sides possess enough quality to take advantage if the proper opening is provided.
Although the presence of two MLS sides in the semifinals offered a much needed boost of diversity in the latter stages of the competition, it did not eliminate the ample Mexican edge entirely. Liga MX outfits possess significant economic and sporting advantages over their rivals within this region. Until MLS increases its salary budgets substantially or other challengers in Central America splash the cash to strengthen their squads, the gulf in class will persist.
But the continued reduction of that margin leads to a stronger competition on the whole. Mexican sides set the standard. Other clubs strive to meet it. By pushing forward toward that goal, the challengers place themselves in position to succeed when those Mexican clubs show indifference to the task at hand or slip up along the way.
The dynamic always existed in this competition, but it now assumes greater importance and relevance. There are more clubs capable of punishing Mexican sides if they falter. That reality may not influence the final outcome if the favorites conduct themselves appropriately, but it does supply the groundwork for continued intrigue in the years to come.
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