If a man from Mexico City I met on a LAX-Seattle flight is correct, then these guys are easily beatable...someday. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
(This is a true story...it didn't happen to a friend of a friend of mine, it actually happened to me. Some details are hazy, though...)
It was the day after Toronto FC's big win over the LA Galaxy. I was on my way home to Calgary after providing coverage of the match for Waking The Red...it wasn't the most exciting trip, but at least I was heading home on a high.
When I boarded the plane, he was already seated along with his wife. They were heading to his daughter's wedding in Victoria. Shortly after takeoff, he noticed my freshly autographed TFC supporters' scarf, and we got to talking.
Out of all the people I had seen on the trip (besides the Galaxy bloggers and the people at the Home Depot Centre), he was the first person who knew the result of the match. He said he had seen the highlights on ESPN, and was thoroughly impressed. And as the plane made its way north, he mentioned he was a Mexican soccer fan...and I couldn't help but ask him a few questions about the Mexican league.
You see, I've always been curious (as I am sure most of you are, as well) about how that league works. But the picture this man paints, isn't the rosy picture we all think it is.
After a crash course in geography and history of Mexican soccer, he told me about the problems that plagued Mexican soccer: money, he said, was ruining the game -- "agents" ripping off teams, one major company owning four Mexican Primera Liga teams (and here you thought Lamar Hunt or Phil Anchultz owning multiple teams was bad...), the stories went on and on.
Do you ever wonder where a team like Atlante is now? Having won the first-ever CONCACAF Champions League, the squad now drifts dangerously close to the relegation zone (as of writing). Why was that? I asked. He told me that while teams go through the ebbs and flows, owners in Mexico are quicker to grab a buck. I'm sure most of you know about the sale of Chicharito to Manchester United -- he told me that since the sale, Chivas de Guadalajara hasn't been able to replace him, and have paid the price since.
He then turned his focus on MLS, and waxed lyric about how he loved the fact that we had a salary cap which controlled salaries, and how much better run the league is, and how good the talent is...he even went on to say that someday, we will see MLS teams regularly beating Mexican ones. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow he said, but soon.
He assured me that someday, with what the MLS has right now -- it is a winning combination. Not letting salaries get out of hand, no funny business...and talented players well known around the world plying their trade in the league (and players wanting to), it will lead to MLS supremacy, he said. To all of this, I was a bit skeptical -- but he stood by his words, even when I pressed him on some of the perceived shortfalls of MLS.
But one of the most striking things he told me was to say MLS should avoid the CONMEBOL tournaments. Why, I asked him -- and he told me, that the travel would be even harsher than the regimen that MLS currently has just for the league. It wasn't worth it, he said, the travel will be the death of any MLS squad, no matter how hardened. Not now, maybe far in the future...but not now.
The plane touched down in Seattle, and as we parted ways inside the terminal, I got to thinking...how much of this is true?
A couple days later, I got to reading...and what I read was pretty much in line with what the man said. There was problems with organized crime and soccer in Mexico, big business owning multiple teams in the Primera Division (especially media corporations), and a dichotomy between valuing a less interesting CONCACAF Champions League or a more lucrative but more taxing Copa Libertadores -- he had mentioned something about UANL Tigres, the most recent Apertura champions, crashing out to a Chilean team at the first hurdle of the Copa Libertadores.
So clearly there are problems south of the border; but how long will it take for MLS to take advantage of this? I can't say...but if what this man in the seat next to me on Alaska Air flight 467 from LAX to Seattle that warm Thursday afternoon is correct, maybe MLS domination of the CCL may not be as far off as we think.
The Santos Laguna series may end up pear-shaped for us, but any victory will be yet another chip in the Mexican armour. That sort of feels rather comforting, no?