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What do you mean there is more than one Champions League?

Wednesday 11th April 2018

Tuesday was a vintage evening for UEFA Champions League football. Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool brought tragedy in so many different threes to Manchester City. Third loss in a row for the Sky Blues. First time a rival has beaten Mourinho three times in one campaign. Three goals scored in total in each leg. Possibly a three-match ban for Pep for confronting referee Antonio Mateo Lahoz, he of the three names, after the Spaniard incorrectly ruled out Leroy Sane’s second goal of three that City needed to level the tie. Delirious Liverpool fans who were probably three sheets to the wind throwing debris on the Etihad pitch.

And all that turned out to be the sideshow because Roma improbably scored three goals to steal their quarterfinal tie from Barcelona when Ernesto Valverde was betrayed by his instincts to park the bus when 4-1 up after the first leg. Lionel Messi is not an effective weapon if he’s stuck in reverse.

The Cules’ unexpected demise didn’t end the night’s Champions League action, however. There was still the CONCACAF semifinal second legs to come. In terms of drama, it was an impossible task to follow the Reds and Giallorossi, but matters had to be decided.

New York Red Bulls 0 (0-1) 0 Chivas de Guadalajara

The early game kicked off at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Chivas came to the Big Apple having won the first leg 1-0 in Jalisco. Unlike Ernesto Valverde, Goats boss Matias Almeyda had personnel comfortable and well-drilled in manoeuvering large transportation vehicles into tight spaces.

The Argentine set up all his players behind the ball and allowed the Red Bulls to run at them for 90 fruitless minutes. Chivas attempted one shot on Luis Robles all game. It missed. The Red Bulls unleashed 20, testing Rodolfo Cota nine times. Despite that barrage, the Red Bulls only just edged possession.

Breaking down a wall of defenders was an uncustomary task for manager Jesse Marsch and striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, who thrive on the counterattack. With the Goats having left their horns at home, though, there were no opportunities to exploit.

Club America 1 (2-4) 1 Toronto FC

The late match took place in Mexico City at the fabled Azteca. After claiming police brutality following the 3-1 first-leg loss in Toronto, Club America manager Miguel Herrera sent his side out to bully the MLS champions. With Jeremy Menez and Cecilio Dominguez both ruled out to injury, the former El Tri boss had no creative options in the midfield to take the game to the Reds in any other fashion.

Greg Vanney’s side demonstrated its resilience when Jozy Altidore was forced off in the first ten minutes. Shortly afterwards, Sebastian Giovinco found Tosaint Ricketts who, in turn, linked up with Jonathan Osorio to cancel the Aguilas away goal. After taking one for the team in the tunnel during halftime in the first leg, Osorio had to derive satisfaction from delivering a figurative bloody nose in exchange for a literal one.

From there, the Reds closed shop. America pushed and probed but couldn’t find a way through. When TFC cleared their lines and Giovinco attempted to run the counter, opponents leaned on the 5’4” midfielder at every opportunity. He took the abuse in stride, like his teammates, focused solely on winning.

Herrera’s squad wasn’t able to get on the board until they were given a penalty in added time.

The Final

Dates and times are yet to be set, although the two-legged final will take place between April 17th and 25th. The first leg will be at Toronto’s BMO Field, the second at Chivas’ Estadio Akron, aka Estadio Omnilife, aka Estadio Chivas, aka “El Templo Mayor”. Whichever name you choose, nearly 50,000 Goats fans will be intent on finally putting down the MLS Champions League revolution.

Chivas will need all the help it can get. Toronto will hit them on the counter like the Red Bulls, but they also have the talent and patience to work their way through an organised defence. It should be a compelling confrontation.

MLS on the rise?

We all tend to get excited when the status quo is challenged. For the Premier League’s first half, the narrative was that Manchester City could be the new Invincibles, Pep Guardiola was a genius, and the Sky Blues would roll through all comers on their way to a quadruple. 

Liverpool chipped away at the notion in January by ending City’s league unbeaten run, but that was alright. It was just one match. 

Wigan put an unattractive dent in the euphoria with a 1-0 FA Cup win a month later. No worries, It was a wakeup call. The treble was still on offer. 

This last week, Liverpool and Manchester United formed an unlikely tag team that delivered a tombstone piledriver and five-star frog splash from the top rope to City’s season. Guardiola’s only consolation is the Premier League title wasn’t on the line.

[Side note: Sorry about that. Apparently, I had some lingering effects from Wrestlemania to get out of my system]

The point is that similar excitement existed when two MLS teams made the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals, traditionally an exclusive hunting ground for Liga MX clubs. Major League Soccer fans dared to dream their league had finally drawn level with its rival.

While two MLS clubs in the final would have been a needed boost to the competition in the US, it would have furthered that illusion. Major League Soccer is closing the gap but isn’t there yet.

Toronto FC has proven during this competition that it is as good as any Mexican club, but Greg Vanney’s Reds are just one franchise. MLS isn’t as deep as the top flight south of the border. That said, NYRB made an impressive run in the competition despite ranking somewhere outside the league’s top five clubs. The difference in talent is near enough to if not marginal.

If there is one stark difference outstanding between the two leagues, it is commitment to the competition. Mexican clubs are eager to win it even if their fans only turn out for the matches between domestic clubs. For MLS sides, it has tended to be an inconvenient distraction with excessive logistical problems outweighing limited financial incentives.

TFC and NYRB have altered that perception with their success. If the Reds can win the competition, it will gain further exposure in the US and Canada, which should drive up revenues and, by extension, prize money. That only adds to the pressure on the MLS Cup winners to add this trophy to their cabinet. When the final becomes a one-off held at a big stadium every year, you will know that both MLS and the CONCACAF Champions League will have become relevant. Until then, don’t get caught in the hype.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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