Every year, it seems, we have this conversation. We talk about how MLS teams are closing the gap on their Mexican counterparts and how it's just a matter of time before the Americans start beating the bullies from south of the border with some level of regularity. At some point, though, it needs to actually happen.
Three MLS teams have golden opportunities to do just that this week.
Based solely on history, the MLS teams don't stand a great chance. Since CONCACAF adopted the two-legged, home-and-home format for the knockout rounds of their championship tournament in 2002, MLS teams have won just two of their 18 match-ups with Mexican opponents. That's mostly due to an inability to get decent results in Mexico, where MLS teams have gone a combined 0-16-2 with a -44 goal difference.
It's faint, but if there's a bright spot, it's that MLS team have managed to get a result six times that would have allowed them to advance if they had won 1-0 at home. It's also worth noting that in the four MLS trips to Mexico during last year's tournament, the matches were all reasonably close with only one of them ending worse than 1-0 in favor of Liga MX sides.
But real rivals don't trumpet two wins in 18 tries and they certainly don't boast of only losing by one goal. If MLS teams are going to really challenge Liga MX for CONCACAF supremacy, they need to start winning these matchups more often than once every six years. Considering there was actually 11 years between the then-Kansas City Wizards' win over Santos Laguna in 2002 and the Seattle Sounders' elimination of UANL Tigres last year, it's tempting to write them both off as flukes.
If any of the three MLS teams playing this week can move on, maybe we can confidently say the ties have at least started to turn.
The Earthquakes probably face the tallest task, if only because they have to score a goal to have any chance of advancing and probably need to win outright (a penalty shootout would be their only lifeline). But their style of play may actually work to their advantage. No team MLS team has bigger bodies and, perhaps more relevantly, are willing to use them with their kind of reckless abandon. We saw what kind of trouble that can cause a team like Toluca when Alan Gordon scored a stoppage-time equalizer in the first leg to salvage some hope for Wednesday's match.
Sporting Kansas City, at least for a half, looked as if they might actually be favored to advance. They too seem quite capable of simply overpowering their opponents, as their full-press style was driving Cruz Azul crazy in the early goings of the first leg. The major concern there is that the second leg will be played in the harsh environs of Mexico City, someplace that American teams have always struggled to get results. It's hard to imagine that even a team as fit as Sporting KC can sustain that style at altitude.
The LA Galaxy, then, maybe offer the best chance for MLS. Estadio Caliente is just about two-and-a-half hours away from StubHub Center, presenting one of the CCL's shorter possible road trips. Tijuana was probably the better team in the first leg -- despite losing 1-0 -- but the Galaxy have no shortage of talent and experience that could carry them to victory.
Ugly or not, though, at least one MLS team has to figure out a way to advance. The gap may be closing, but opportunities for MLS teams to eliminate Mexican opponents don't get much better than the trio of chances they'll get this week.