CHESTER, PA- AUGUST 13: Bruno Guarda #8, Maicon Santos #9 and Brek Shea #20 of the FC Dallas celebrate a goal by Santos during the game against the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park on August 13, 2011 in Chester, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
The Mexican Primera Division used to dominate MLS, but domination is now gone and it has been replaced by merely being better as the American clubs close the gap on their counterparts from south of the border
MLS has long been the Mexican Primera Division's punching bag. In fact, all of CONCACAF has been six, seven and eight steps behind the Primera Division for years. That gap between the Primera teams and MLS teams has begun to close in recent years though. On Wednesday night, FC Dallas took MLS' first Primera scalp of the new year and maybe the biggest one to date, becoming the first MLS team to win in Mexico as that impenetrable wall Primera teams had built up continues to crumble.
For a while, there wasn't any way of measuring exactly how much better the Mexican clubs were than those from north of the border, but anyone who watched a MLS match and then tuned into a Primera Division match knew that the Mexicans were far superior. International stars were playing in the Primera, with hardly any in MLS. The American clubs could have trouble stringing passes together some weeks, while Primera clubs were playing some of the most fluid soccer in the hemisphere. While there was no doubt that the Primera was CONCACAF's top league, it wasn't hard to argue that the Costa Rican Primera was superior to MLS.
Then in 2008, CONCACAF dumped the sham of a Champions Cup and instituted the Champions League. There, Primera clubs got to finally prove that they were better and that is exactly what they did. The first year of the league format saw one Mexican team beat another Mexican team in the final and Primera clubs go 4-0-2 against MLS teams and outscore their American counterparts, 10-5. The next year was worse with Primera clubs going 6-0-2 by a combined score of 19-6. Mexico was still the dominant side.
Last year things because to change though. The third year of the Champions League saw MLS clubs prioritize it a bit more and the growing league saw better results. MLS clubs picked up their first two wins over Primera teams, even if the Mexican teams went 5-2-1 against MLS clubs. Real Salt Lake topped their group, finishing ahead of Cruz Azul. That was the beginning of Salt Lake's road to the final, where they battled one of Mexico's top sides, Monterrey, to the very end and almost beat them before falling 3-2 on aggregate. Primera teams were still the class of CONCACAF, but they were no longer unbeatable.
One thing that MLS clubs could never do was defeat a Primera team on Mexican soil in a competitive match. They failed on 24 attempts, coming closest last year when Salt Lake fell to Cruz Azul in Mexico City despite holding a lead in the 86th minute. No matter what MLS clubs did, Primera clubs were untouchable at home. That is until Wednesday night, when FC Dallas went to Mexico City and knocked of Pumas, Mexico's Clausura champions. Even if Pumas didn't start near a full team, Primera clubs never had issue winning with reserve teams before and that was home or away. Dallas got them in their own backyard. The door that was seemingly dead bolted shut was finally knocked down by a MLS club.
Even with the recent success nobody is going to argue that MLS is as good as the Primera. MLS is taking pride in single victories right now, while Mexican clubs are taking home Champions League titles. Primera clubs are going down to Copa Libertadores and acquitting themselves well. By any measure, the Primera is still the best league in CONCACAF, but they are not six steps better like they used to.
MLS has long passed up the Costa Rica Primera for the title of second best league in CONCACAF and they are staring the Mexican Primera down the barrel of their gun. The Designated Player rule has allowed the MLS clubs to add bonafide stars to their clubs. The LA Galaxy look to be the strongest team in Group A of the Champions League with Landon Donovan, David Beckham and, soon, Robbie Keane leading the way. Dallas will get David Ferreira healthy for the knockout stages, if not the end of the group stage. Fredy Montero and Alvaro Fernandez are essential to the Seattle Sounders' success and Toronto FC is a very different team than the one that qualified for the tournament now that they have added Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans.
The scouting and Generation adidas program has boosted MLS even further. If Donovan wasn't the Galaxy's best player in their group stage opening win then it was Omar Gonzalez, who joined the team as a Generation adidas signing. That is the same way that league MVP candidate Brek Shea joined Dallas and how Marvell Wynne, who helped the Colorado Rapids top Metapan, came into the league. Stefan Frei will stand between the sticks for Toronto as a Generation adidas signing and Generation adidas signing Steve Zakuani could be a gigantic boost to Seattle in the knockout stages when he is healthy again.
One place where the Primera has always had an advantage over MLS and continues to have an advantage is in youth development. Mexico youth teams, filled with products of Primera academies, have been wildly successful this summer in winning the U-17 World Cup and advancing to the semifinals of the U-20 World Cup. The current youth movement in Mexican soccer is because of an investment in youth development that is paying off, but it may not result in their continued dominance over MLS because those players aren't all sticking in Mexico anymore.
European clubs ignored Mexican players for a very long time. Deemed to be inferior or a difficult sign, Mexicans would develop in Primera academies and stay there for their entire careers. That isn't the case anymore as Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez heads to Manchester United, Pablo Barrera goes to West Ham, Guillermo Ochoa goes to Ajaccio and Hector Moreno goes to Espanyol, among others. Even the younger players like 18-year-old Erick Torres has drawn interest from abroad. Primera clubs can develop player after player, but that is no longer a sign of continued Primera strength as some of those players head overseas.
MLS is the only league in CONCACAF that has the resources to compete with Mexico. The Primera continues to spend far more money than any other league in CONCACAF and, unsurprisingly, attracts many of the best players in the region. If MLS is to really chase down the Primera Division and compete for the crown of CONCACAF's best league then they will have to raise their salary cap, but that is still a little ways off. What isn't any ways off is MLS closing that gap and FC Dallas closed that gap even further on Wednesday.