By Paul Kennedy
What lessons can we draw from another year of MLS participation in the Concacaf Champions League?
The good news is that the Mexican home-field advantage is shrinking. Even if the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders didn't get the wins they needed to advance, they played their opponents evenly. The closest thing to a no-contest of this year's four MLS-Liga MX series was Santos' 3-0 win over the Houston Dynamo in the second leg of their quarterfinal series.
The days of MLS teams going down to Mexico, hitting a wall after 50-60 minutes and then getting blown out are over. MLS's accommodation in its schedule certainly is a big factor. The weekend off between the first and second legs allowed the MLS teams to play more key players with fresher legs than they would have otherwise been able to.
Tigres certainly learned a lesson when it tried to send a "B" team to Seattle to preserve a 1-0 lead over the Sounders. The days of Mexican clubs fielding less-than-full-strength teams -- at least in the knockout stage -- are over.
But to assume that MLS clubs are on the verge of catching up with their Mexican clubs would be wrong. There's still a talent gap and experience gap.
One could not help to be impressed with how the Sounders -- winners of one game (against Tigres) in seven outings heading into Tuesday's game at the Estadio Corona -- made it a contest against Santos and how they close they were to pulling out an improbable victory.
But one couldn't help be pained by how sloppy some of the play was from the Sounders. This is supposed to be the elite of MLS, but some of the touches and some of the passes were shockingly poor. It's the kind of play one sees week in and week out in MLS and blends into the choppiness that is MLS, but it's a killer on the international stage.
One likes to think of the Galaxy as the best of the best of MLS, a team with the right mixture of youth and experience, but a 10-minute brain freeze late in the first leg cost it a decent chance of knocking off the two-time defending champion, Monterrey. The Galaxy has carried a 1-0 lead into the last 10 minutes of countless MLS matches in recent years, but rarely does it come up against a team that can actually punish it like Monterrey did.
In the wake of the exits by the Galaxy and Sounders, there's been a lot of talk about the money gap between MLS and Mexican teams.
To a certain extent, that is true. The money gap means that Mexican clubs can pay for better foreigners. The South Americans they import are on the whole a rank or two better than those MLS clubs import. The money gap means that Mexicans can afford to spend more on player development and more to retain their best young players.
But to think MLS clubs can buy their way to the top of Concacaf would be wrong. Mexico simply produces better players and has been doing so for a long time.
The most encouraging performance in the USA-Mexico confrontations of the last six weeks did not take place in the CCL and it wasn't the 0-0 tie in World Cup qualifying at Azteca. (How many points out of 30 should you expect to get if you played 10 times and were outshot 19-1 each time?).
The most encouraging performance was Tab Ramos' U-20s not only taking Mexico's highly rated U-20s to overtime in the Concacaf U-20 final in Puebla but taking the game to the Mexicans with panache.
One bright spot in this year's CCL run was how well teenagers like Jose Villarreal and Jack McBean(five goals between them for the Galaxy) and DeAndre Yedlin (a revelation for the Sounders) all fared.
The problem is, this year's U-20 class of which Villarreal, McBean and Yedlin are all a part is just one age group -- and many of them, let's not forget, play south of the border.
Mexico has been cranking out players with scary consistency each year since it won the U-17 World Cup in 2005. So many U.S. age groups have underperformed in the same period that the national team has been forced to deal with what in effect amounts to a wasted generation by importing American-Germans en masse.
One will start feeling much better about the narrowing of the USA-Mexico divide only when another crop of teenagers are out there holding their own for MLS teams against their Mexican opponents.