The Seattle Sounders were in their third season in Major League Soccer when they advanced out of the group stage in the 2011-12 CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) to set up a quarterfinal tie with Liga MX power Santos Laguna.
It was a significant opportunity for the club and it won the first leg at home, 2-1, but the return leg provided a common reality check for MLS teams playing Liga MX opposition over the years. Santos won 6-1, and would advance easily through Toronto FC in the semifinal before losing to Monterrey in the final.
Thursday will see another all-Mexican final, when Monterrey and Club America meet for continental bragging rights.
For the Sounders, it was a successful run and they returned to the competition the following year better for it. They advanced out of the group stage again, but this time they flipped the script on Tigres, losing the first first leg away, 1-0, then winning 3-1 at home to reach the semifinal, setting up another matchup with Santos. It was competitive but once again the Sounders fell 2-1 on aggregate.
In the decade since, Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer and Santos Laguna chairman Alejandro Irarragorri have grown close. They remain in regular communication, serving as sounding boards for one another as they navigate the similar challenges of operating professional soccer teams.
Their relationship has also been influential in the increased collaboration between MLS and Liga MX in recent years.
“Alejandro and I have worked very hard on that: getting individual owners of teams in Mexico and teams in MLS to know each other,” Hanauer said. “It’s easy to point across the border and say, ‘Those guys do it like that,’ and not really understand the individuals involved.
“To have meals together and meetings together and really know and learn from each other [is important]. We have been working to get our owners together more often to share best practices because that’s what builds relationships and strong partnerships. That really hadn’t existed until a couple, three years ago when we really started pushing that agenda.”
That growing collaboration between the two leagues has never been more evident than the present. There was the MLS-Liga MX All-Star Game on Aug. 25, Club Leon beat Seattle to the Leagues Cup crown on Sept. 14, America knocked off the Philadelphia Union in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal a day later and the Columbus Crew lifted the Campeones Cup at the expense of Cruz Azul on Sept. 29.
There is obvious commercial value for both leagues. Mexican teams are keen to play in the United States, where the league remains a bigger television draw than MLS, while MLS clubs can use games against Mexican teams to market themselves to Mexican-American fans who might not otherwise engage.
“The truth is that we have 60 million [Hispanic people] living in the U.S. today, out of which probably 80% are deeply involved in [soccer],” Irarragorri said. “And they create the strongest base of [soccer] fans in the U.S. I don’t know about tomorrow, but today, [the Hispanic] fanbase is definitely stronger for the sport than the other fanbases in the U.S.”
One of the unique challenges in the United States, Irarragorri said, is converting people who play the sport into people who watch it as well. History shows only incremental progress is possible in that regard and the evolving relationship between MLS and Liga MX is just the latest step.
“An event like the All-Star Game, I think that only confirms what Adrian and I have been discussing for over 10 years now,” Irarragorri said. “Which is that probably in the in the short term, this is better for Liga MX. In the medium term, I’m sure it’s better for MLS. But in the long term, it helps both.”
Thursday’s CCL final illustrates that, despite the 10 years’ worth of relationship-building between clubs on both sides of the border, the leagues’ partnership is still very much in its infancy. While the MLS All-Stars prevailed against their rivals from Mexico, and the Crew won the illustriously titled Campeones Cup, the Champions League is the confederation’s premier club competition — and it’s an all-Mexican affair.
In fact, seven of the past ten finals have pitted two sides from Liga MX.
The Campeones Cup is in its third year of existence and the Leagues Cup its second, giving MLS outfits the platform to more regularly test themselves against what have historically been the best clubs in North America. Yet for that added and growing exposure, there’s yet to be an on-field payoff in the U.S. and Canada.
LAFC came close to realizing that potential in 2020, holding a 1-0 CONCACAF Champions League final lead over Tigres that was eventually overturned. That Andre-Pierre Gignac & Co. went on to give Bayern Munich a run for their money in the Club World Cup final demonstrates that the gap the Canadian-American league is attempting to bridge is considerable, and will take time to achieve.
But for MLS and its clubs to see the fruits of their labor, and for the relationship between the North American leagues to transition to the medium term, they’ll need to be more competitive against their rivals from Mexico when it matters most. Until then, they’ll be forced to watch Liga MX sides lift continental crown after continental crown.