With the return legs of the CONCACAF Champions League kicking off on Tuesday, and all three MLS sides holding advantages over their Liga MX opponents, Jeff Carlisle and Tom Marshall highlight what to expect when the New York Red Bulls and Tijuana, Toronto FC and Tigres and the Seattle Sounders and Chivas all reconvene.
What does each team need to reach the semifinals?
Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle): A stellar performance from goalkeeper Luis Robles covered a multitude of defensive sins, all of which will need to be corrected if the New York Red Bulls are to prevail. They gave up plenty of uncontested headers on set pieces. New York also had difficulty picking up late runs into the box when Xolos got the ball out wide. Cleaning up these mistakes, while also taking better care of the ball, should get New York to the semis.
Toronto FC will need to be mindful of limiting the space behind its defense. To be clear, Toronto put in an impressive defensive performance, limiting Tigres to just four attempts at goal. But the moments when Tigres did look dangerous came in transition, allowing them to get isolated one-on-one against a single TFC defender. That included Eduardo Vargas' goal when TFC's Chris Mavinga got caught flat-footed. Toronto isn't likely risk too much going forward so long as it has a lead, but it'll still need to be alert to minimize the kind of opportunities that led to Vargas' goal.
The Seattle Sounders need to keep finding the feet of Nico Lodeiro ... and finish. While the Sounders were the beneficiary of some critical saves from Stefan Frei, it also had some chances in the second half to put a stranglehold on the series but failed to do so. That Seattle had more opportunities after halftime wasn't a surprise given that it found Lodeiro in the attacking third with more frequency. If Seattle can continue to find its playmaker, the Sounders will find life easier at the near mile-high altitude of Guadalajara.
Tom Marshall (@mexicoworldcup): Tijuana did everything but score in the first leg and certainly wasn't helped by the officiating in its 2-0 defeat. It's strange to say after such a disappointing loss, but Diego Cocca's team will be hoping for a similar performance that it had in Estadio Caliente and Tijuana will also be boosted by the return of Ignacio Malcorra. With forwards Guastvo Bou, Juan Martin Lucero and Juan Manuel Iturbe all out injured, the concern for Tijuana is who will get the goals if Xolos are to go through, especially if Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles is in beast mode again.
Tigres must keep the ball -- which will be much easier on Estadio Universitario's smooth playing surface -- and make Toronto chase while remaining concentrated at the back. Sebastian Giovinco caused serious problems in the first leg when he found space between the lines in the second half, but the return of regular holding midfielder Rafael Carioca will be a significant boost to Tigres in that regard.
It's going to take a big performance from Chivas on Wednesday simply because the team is struggling, there are off-the-field issues, Alan Pulido is suspended and the likes of Rodolfo Pizarro and Jair Pereira are battling to return from injury. Regardless of the starting XI, Chivas must rediscover that identity it showed in the 2017 Clausura playoffs, when the team pressed the opposition into submission, worked for each other and employed the kind of dynamic soccer that rivals couldn't handle. It's a big ask given how the team has been playing.
Has MLS closed the gap on Liga MX?
Carlisle: Yes. MLS sides are deeper and more talented than in years past. This is visible mostly in the money spent on TAM roster spots just beyond those occupied by designated players, but academy products like the Red Bulls' Tyler Adams and Seattle's Handwalla Bwana have shown their quality as well. There is still a gap, but it is closing.
Marshall: The quality of MLS teams overall has certainly improved. Jeff spelled that out articulately in his column last week. But I'd argue that the jury is still out on whether the gap has closed at all, or if any closing has been significant. There's also an important counter-question: How much of a boost have MLS clubs seen from the small, yet significant, calendar change in the tournament?
A look at quality that squads such as Tigres, Monterrey and Club America possess -- and the improvements they are making each transfer window -- tells you that Liga MX is also improving.
At the end of the day, this is the question that makes this week's CCL matches so intriguing and fires debate. If there are three MLS teams in the semifinals, the narrative will be that MLS has rapidly closed the gap. If all three go out, it will be that Liga MX is still vastly superior. The reality, regardless of this week's scores, is that Liga MX remains the stronger league in terms of depth, but there isn't a huge gulf in quality -- as Landon Donovan recently pointed out and last week's games clearly showed.
Are Mexican teams taking this competition seriously?
Carlisle: Let's face it, no Liga MX side wants to lose to MLS opposition, though it looks like the three teams facing MLS sides have engaged in varying degrees of squad rotation. Last weekend Tigres played basically a full-strength XI against a Tijuana side that dipped heavily into its reserves. This is likely a function of Xolos having to travel for the return leg in New York while Tigres are at home. Chivas sprinkled a few usual subs into its starting lineup against Lobos BUAP. That said, the Liga MX sides haven't resorted to reserve sides in the CCL, so yes, it looks as though those clubs are taking the competition seriously.
Marshall: Overall, yes. It's true that Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti controversially left Andre-Pierre Gignac on the bench in the first leg and has been noncommittal on whether the Frenchman will start the second. And Ferretti did state he'd rather win the Clausura ahead of the CCL. But while that might be Ferretti's personal view, Tigres as an institution are desperate for a continental title, as are Xolos, Chivas and Club America.
How much has this new format helped the CONCACAF Champions League garner interest?
Carlisle: I think it's due less to the format and more to the fact that there is a greater level of competition between MLS and Liga MX sides. The natural rivalry between the two countries is muted when Liga MX teams dominate the way they have in the past. With MLS teams doing better, there is now more of a reason to pay attention.
Marshall: When you try to shape or craft the CCL to garner maximum interest, it comes down to Liga MX teams facing off against MLS teams and the matchups being competitive. The Central American and Caribbean sides have a lot of work to do to reach the same level. This format provides those Liga MX vs. MLS battles and gives MLS teams that extra -- and crucial -- couple of weeks of preparation, which helps, as we've already seen.