It’s nothing new for MLS teams to host Mexican counterparts in international friendlies, as the Union will do with Mexico City’s Pumas UNAM on Saturday.
But the next time a Liga MX team comes to Chester, the circumstances might be quite different.
If the Union finish first in the Eastern Conference, or second with a better record than the West’s second-place team -- or if they win the MLS Cup -- they will qualify for the Concacaf Champions League for the first time ever.
If the Union finish short of the Champions League, they likely will qualify for next season’s Leagues Cup. That’s a new tournament with just MLS and Liga MX teams, launched this year.
The leagues cooked up the tournament as a way of fostering cross-border competition. Cynics claim it’s to make money for MLS teams that host Mexican opponents with big fan bases, and this year’s teams were picked in part for marketing purposes. Two games played at the Houston Dynamo’s stadium, including one with the home team, drew more than 20,000 fans each -- 5,000 more than the Dynamo’s average.
At least next year there will be some merit involved. The MLS entrants will be the top four in each conference that don’t reach the Champions League. Call it America’s version of UEFA’s second-tier Europa League.
(Mexican teams could play in both tournaments, proving the cynics’ point.)
While some teams won’t take the Leagues Cup seriously, the Union would actually benefit from playing in it. Real games against foreign teams would be great experience for the team’s many young Americans. The Champions League would be even better, serving up a road trip to a hostile crowd and uncomfortable facilities.
“To go play in Guatemala, to go play in Honduras, to play in Mexico, it’s a whole different level,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “It’s a real challenge, as intimidating an environment as there is ... I would love nothing more than for our young guys especially to go through that.”
It’s not hard to imagine those lessons paying off if Mark McKenzie, Jack de Vries, Auston Trusty or Brenden Aaronson play for the senior U.S. team in World Cup qualifying some day.
Curtin played in the Champions League in 2008, when now-defunct Chivas USA faced Panama’s Tauro FC home and away (and lost on aggregate). He recalled that Tauro’s field was poorly lit and had a swarm of bats flying overhead. He also said he gladly would make another such trip as a coach.
He’d also like to see MLS win the continent’s biggest prize one of these years. It never has happened. Mexican clubs have won every CCL title since the format started in 2008, and MLS has been unwilling to match Mexico’s bigger rosters and payrolls.
The Leagues Cup has gone just as badly. Three of the four MLS teams lost in the first round, and the one winner (the Los Angeles Galaxy) lost in the semifinal. Monterrey’s Tigres UANL and Mexico City’s Cruz Azul will meet in the final in Las Vegas on Sept. 18.
“You certainly want the Philadelphia Union playing in, whether it’s the Champions League [or] whatever competitions they come up with," Curtin said.
He spoke from experience on that count, too.