Eight straight titles. That is the record that Mexican clubs currently enjoy in the CONCACAF Champions League. Since 2008/09, when the region’s confederation restructured its top club competition, only clubs from Liga MX have lifted the trophy and gone on to represent CONCACAF at the FIFA Club World Cup.
If you include the last three editions of the region’s preceding club competition, the CONCACAF Champions' Cup, you find a Mexican side has won the continental title on 11 consecutive occasions. These statistics not only underline the strength of Mexican football in the region but the daunting task that non-Mexican clubs face in pursuing the CONCACAF Champions League title.
As the 2016/17 edition enters the semi-final stages this week, two clubs continue to fly the flag for their countries and their league. As members of Major League Soccer (MLS), FC Dallas (USA) and Vancouver Whitecaps (Canada) are four matches away from creating football history and claiming the region’s berth at the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2017. What stands in their way is Mexican opposition, with Dallas set to lock horns with Pachuca, while the Whitecaps meet last year’s runners-up Tigres UANL.
Relishing the challenge
Overcoming Mexican opponents in the CONCACAF Champions League knockout stages has been a tall task for MLS clubs. While Liga MX is well into the second half of its domestic campaign, MLS only raised the curtain on a new season at the beginning of the month. In fact, Dallas and Vancouver’s 2017 seasons began in the quarter-finals, where they defeated Arabe Unido (Panama) and New York Red Bulls, respectively. Include a pair of MLS games played by both clubs and one soon realises how Dallas and Vancouver could struggle to be at their best in these semi-final contests.
This will be the biggest game of some of their lives and they’ve got to enjoy the occasion.
Though it is early days in the season, Dallas coach Oscar Pareja believes his side can give Pachuca a difficult test over two legs. “It’s always a great challenge for us,” the Colombian tactician told FIFA.com. “It’s always a privilege and honour to represent the league [MLS] at this stage, playing a team like Pachuca. We’re very optimistic, I think we have a lot of faith and conviction about what we can do in the series and we’re getting ready.”
Those sentiments are echoed by Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson, as he prepares to take his young Vancouver side to Mexico for Tuesday’s first leg versus Tigers at the intimidating Estadio Universitario. “It’s an unbelievable experience for the young players [in our squad],” said the former Wales international. “This will be the biggest game of some of their lives and they’ve got to enjoy the occasion. They’ve got to not let it pass them by and they’ve got to remember every single minute of both legs because when you get an opportunity like this, it’s important you don’t waste it.”
Seeking a breakthrough
A closer look at the history of the CONCACAF Champions League should provide Dallas and Vancouver with hope they can defy the odds and claim the title in late April. In 2010/11, Real Salt Lake came within a goal of being the first MLS side to claim the honour, and the first American club since Los Angeles Galaxy in 2000 to become CONCACAF club champions. Monterrey had other ideas and won the first of three straight crowns by edging the Utah outfit 3-2 on aggregate in the two-legged final. In 2014/15, a spirited run by Montreal Impact had many believing a first title for MLS and Canada would become a reality, but Club America proved too strong for the Quebec side, winning the final 5-3 on aggregate.
Among the semi-final combatants is a Whitecaps player with the unique experience of winning CONCACAF’s top club prize with the last non-Mexican outfit to achieve it. In 2005, Christian Bolanos helped Costa Rican giants Saprissa win the CONCACAF Champions' Cup and place third at that year’s Club World Cup in Japan.
“We have to believe in our possibilities and play as a team,” said the Costa Rican international. “We are in the semi-finals, so we have the chance and we have to take it. It doesn’t matter if they [Tigres] are more strong with the ball or what they say in the newspapers with numbers. It’s football. You have to play 180 minutes and you have to play very intelligently. If we take a 0-0 in Mexico, we’ll have a great result and we’ll get confidence.”
A favourable scoreline at Tigres would please the Whitecaps ahead of the decisive second leg at Vancouver’s BC Place stadium on Wednesday 5 April. For Dallas, claiming an advantage from this Wednesday’s first leg at their Toyota Stadium home will be essential before visiting Pachuca’s Estadio Hidalgo for the second leg on Tuesday 4 April.
Dallas goalkeeper Chris Seitz is full of anticipation for their encounter with Los Tuzos. “We go into every game thinking that we’re going to go out and win,” said Seitz. “Honestly, we have to be defensively very sound, as it’s a two-leg series, and we’ve become pretty familiar with them. We know it’s going to be a challenge.”