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Gap between best of MLS and Mexican soccer starting to close

April 28, 2018 GMT

Once again, Major League Soccer came up short in the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL). Toronto fought valiantly against Chivas, winning 2-1 in Mexico to cancel out Chivass 2-1 victory in Canada, but the Reds came up short in the penalty shootout. Jonathan Osorio hit the crossbar. Michael Bradley put his attempt into space. Chivas took the shootout 4-2, Liga MXs 10th title in 10 years, ending the attempt by MLSs best team ever to break the string of Mexican victories.

North Americas version of Europes famous Champions League is important, but not so important that every team takes it seriously. Colorado head coach Anthony Hudson referred to his teams games this season as part of the preseason. In an ESPN survey this year, only 35 percent of MLS players said the competition was a priority. Yet, as a whole, both MLS fans and the league office look at the CCL as a major tournament.

So what gives?

The simplest explanation is that Liga MX is a measuring stick for how well MLS is doing as a league. For years, MLSs best teams have been slapped around by any team that Mexico sent to the CCL. The Americans and Canadians have made many excuses, chief among them that the CONCACAF Champions League took place in February, when MLS teams are in preseason and Liga MX teams are in midseason. The truth, though, is that the MLS teams just werent good enough to compete. Outside of the two or three designated players on every American roster, the rest of the lineup was out of its depth.

This is a big reason that MLS started giving teams more money to spend on players, specifically targeted not toward big-name designated players but to building the rest of the roster. This years CCL suggests that its already been a successful strategy. Toronto defeated both Tigres, the Mexican champion, and Amrica, the most famous team in Mexico. Both New York and Toronto won games in Mexico, something that never used to happen. MLS as a whole is still behind Mexico, but its clear that at least at the top teams are starting to catch up.

This also matters because MLS always will fight the perception that its nothing but a lucrative retirement plan for washed-up players.

MLS or China is universally mentioned as the destination for any big-name European player whos past his prime. Competing with Mexicos best gives MLS a way to prove that its worth soccer fans time and attention, whether those fans are Americans or not.

If MLS has its way, youll see more competition between Liga MX and MLS in the coming years. The first edition of this will be Septembers Campeones Cup, matching Toronto and Tigres in a battle of league champions. MLS is hoping for more, and for future CCL success. MLS says it wants to be the best league in the world. Its first step, though, is achieving parity with its near southern neighbor.

Short takes

Tickets go on sale Tuesday for a July 31 match between Tottenham and AC Milan at U.S. Bank Stadium, as part of the annual International Champions Cup exhibition tournament. Its the third such exhibition in Minneapolis, and AC Milans second trip here, after losing to Chelsea in U.S. Bank Stadiums first game in 2016.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic made headlines last week when he implied that he could return to Swedens squad for this summers World Cup, even though he retired from international soccer two years ago and the country had qualified without him. This week, though, both the striker and the Swedish FA confirmed that he would not be part of the squad, despite his hints. Ibrahimovic even noted that Sweden, which hasnt qualified for a World Cup since 2006, is better without him.

The champions in Europes biggest leagues are all but decided. Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich already have been crowned champions in their respective leagues, with four games to go. Barcelona could clinch a title Sunday with a victory and an Atltico Madrid draw or loss. As predicted, only Italy will have a title race this spring.

WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE

Premier League: Chelsea at Swansea City, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. Chelsea has rather dim hopes of making it into the top four, but the real excitement is at the other end of the standings. Swansea City is four points from the relegation zone with four to play. Can the Swans get a result and move closer to safety?

Serie A: Juventus at Inter Milan, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, beIN. One late Napoli goal in Turin last week, and suddenly Juventuss Serie A lead is down to one point. Inter, meanwhile, is locked in a fight for a top-four spot and a Champions League berth. Its called Derby dItalia, perhaps the biggest regional rivalry in Italy.

Liga MX: Tigres at Monterrey, 7 p.m. Saturday, Univision. Its the last game of the spring regular season, but Clasico Regio doesnt need playoff implications to be contentious. Its perhaps the best rivalry in Mexican soccer and certainly its the biggest game of the season for both sides, which have already clinched playoff spots.

Premier League: Arsenal at Manchester United, 10:30 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was never treated well at Manchester United, at first because he challenged Uniteds dominance but later because he was an easy target. His last visit to Old Trafford before leaving Arsenal will be a reminder of days gone by.

Writer Jon Marthaler gives you a recap of recent events and previews the week ahead. jmarthaler@gmail.com