Toronto FC falls in CCL shootout: This one will hurt

For years, MLS has yearned for Concacaf respect.

Not that MLS clubs haven't won the regional championship before. In the early days of MLS, D.C. United (1998) and the LA Galaxy (2002) captured the old Concacaf Champions Cup.

But the Concacaf Champions Cup, first organized in 1962 when Chivas Guadalajara won the eight-team tournament, was often a haphazard affair. When D.C. United and the Galaxy won, they only needed to play three games, all at home.

The Concacaf Champions League has been another thing. It took 12 games, then 10, to win the tournament, launched in 2008, until it was restructured this season with four knockout rounds.

The tournament is a grind, especially for MLS teams participating in the knockout phase at the start of their league seasons.

Only twice previously did MLS clubs reach the final, and Real Salt Lake (2011) and the Montreal Impact (2015) both lost to Liga MX clubs at home in the second legs after tying in Mexico. But the fact is, RSL and the Impact weren't nearly as good as their Mexican rivals, Monterrey and Club America.

This year was different on a lot of fronts:

-- The six MLS wins matched the total number of wins MLS teams had over Liga MX teams in the first nine seasons of the Concacaf Champions League.
-- The three series wins were one more than MLS teams had against Liga MX teams in the first nine years.
-- For the first time, MLS teams finished with a record above .500 against their Liga MX rivals: six wins, four losses and two ties.

Toronto FC prioritized the CCL over MLS -- they are last in the league with one win in five games -- but never looked like they were getting preseason cobwebs out of their system.

The Reds were decimated by injuries, missing their top four center backs and starting left back on Wednesday, but hardly missed a beat. The same depth that helped TFC win the treble in 2017 got it through the 2018 CCL.

Tigres, Club America and Chivas threw everything they had at TFC, and it didn't fall. In each of the three series, the Reds fell behind or gave up an early goal in the first leg, but each time they came back to pull even or win.

Toronto FC was 3-1 down on aggregate Wednesday night when Orbelin Pineda scored for Chivas, but it never looked out of it, not as long as Sebastian Giovinco didn't do something foolish and get himself tossed. Until the shootout, it looked to be Toronto FC's time.

This loss will hurt because there aren't other MLS teams like Toronto FC with its star power, young domestic talent and depth. By contrast, six different Liga MX teams have lifted the trophy and three other Liga MX teams have finished second in the CCL's 10 years.

Liga MX is still team for team better than MLS. Its imports are player for player better than MLS imports, but that gap is narrowing with players like Giovinco, winner of the tournament's Golden Ball. The big difference is Liga MX's edge in domestic talent, evidenced by Chivas with its Mexico-only policy.

That competitive edge helped push Chivas over the line as it surprised TFC in the first leg of the final at BMO Field in the only home game an MLS team lost to a foreign opponent in this year's CCL.

And that gap remains MLS's biggest challenge.

MLS wins vs. Liga MX (CCL knockout stage)
2012 Seattle Sounders 1 Santos 0 (quarterfinals)
2013 Houston Dynamo 1 Santos 0 (quarterfinals)
2013 Seattle Sounders 3 Tigres 1 (quarterfinals)
2014 LA Galaxy 1 Tijuana 0 (quarterfinals)
2014 Sporting KC 1 Cruz Azul 0 (quarterfinals)
2017 FC Dallas 2 Pachuca 1 (semifinals)
2018 Tijuana 0 NY Red Bulls 2 (quarterfinals)
2018 Toronto FC 2 Tigres 1 (quarterfinals)
2018 Seattle Sounders 1 Guadalajara 0 (quarterfinals)
2018 NY Red Bulls 3 Tijuana 1 (quarterfinals)
2018 Toronto FC 3 Club America 1 (semifinals)
2018 Guadalajara 1 Toronto FC 2 (final)

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