Manuel Veth –
After losing 2-0 to Tigres UANL in Monterrey, Vancouver have a mountain to climb in the second leg of the semi-final of the CONCACAF Champions League on April 5 at BC Place. There was talk that Vancouver were at a disadvantage because of the difference in schedule between Major League Soccer and Liga MX; whereas Liga MX uses the European match calendar, MLS uses an annual calendar starting the season in March, and ending in early December with the MLS Cup Final.
The playoffs in Major League Soccer also make it difficult for MLS teams to compete in early March. Vancouver, for example, were eliminated in the MLS regular season which ended in late October. It could, therefore, be argued that Vancouver were still trying to find their legs in the first leg against Tigres.
There might be something to that statement. At the same time, however, Vancouver has already played two games in the CONCACAF Champions League, and also two matchdays in the 2017 Major League Soccer season. Four games of competitive football should usually be enough to gain the necessary match fitness to close the gulf between them and a club that has been in competition mode since January.
Furthermore, Vancouver were not exactly facing a team in top form. Coached by Ricardo Ferretti, Tigres might have won the Apertura on December 25, 2016 against Club América. But Tigres have been anything but consistent. After matchday nine, Tigres are 12th in the Clausura standing with just 11 points. Tigres have won three, tied two, and lost four games since winning the title.
Tigres are not anywhere near top form
Tigres, therefore, may have the most expensive and perhaps the most talented squad, on the continent but, in fact, the Ricardo Ferretti side has struggled, and may even be in danger of failing to reach the Clausura playoffs.
The Mexicans, however, dominated the first leg against Vancouver despite the fact that they were clearly not playing their best football. Over, and over again, Vancouver’s backline was exposed, and it was only due to their inefficiency that Tigres did not go up in the first half.
Following the match, the talking heads on Canadian television highlighted that the Whitecaps showed defensive capabilities that kept Tigres off the score sheet. The reality, however, was different. Vancouver lacked defensive shape, as the back four was either too compact, or to thinly spread out to counter the Mexicans.
There are several examples in which the Mexicans were given space in the penalty box and, fortunately for Vancouver, star forwards Jürgen Damm, Eduardo Vargas, and André-Pierre Gignac were off form for much of the first half. In the second half, Tigres were stronger, but the goal came from another defensive blunder in which four defenders clustered around the six-yard box instead of challenging Gignac out wide. His sharp pass then bounced off Vancouver defender Kendall Waston and past goalkeeper David Ousted for an own-goal.
The second goal was another outcome that resulted from mistakes made in Vancouver’s defensive setup. Once again, players were clustered too deep rather than spread out and exposed massive space around the edge of the penalty box where Vargas was given the freedom to finish the game off.
Has Vancouver done enough?
Vancouver’s head coach Carl Robinson, therefore, has to ask himself whether he has done enough to give his squad the necessary tools to mount a strong challenge against Tigres. There is, however, more to the story.
This is the fact that the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal not only dramatically exposed the shortcomings of the Vancouver Whitecaps, but also the wide gap between Major League Soccer and Liga MX.
Robinson was honest enough to admit that much after the game. Talking to the press after the game Robinson said: “Anyone that says there isn’t a gap doesn’t understand football.” He further added that catching up is a slow process and that MLS is doing everything in its power to reduce it.
The question, however, is whether MLS is truly doing enough to close the gap. The league is certainly developing, but it is doing so in a weird bubble that is almost typical of American exceptionalism.
This season, Major League Soccer has expanded to 22 teams, and will add another franchise next season in the form of Los Angeles FC. The inclusion of LAFC will, however, not be the last step. The league will be further blown up to 26 teams in 2020, and to 28 teams at a later, yet unannounced, date. In fact, there seems to be no end to the expansion, and no clear plan as to where the league wants to be in one or two decades.
The recent referee strike in Liga MX has shown that the competition is a league that also has its problems. But, on the other hand, the competition is firmly embedded in world football, and television growth numbers in the United States have indicated that the Mexican league is the most watched football league in the USA.
Liga MX, in fact, is very much part of the world football circus and, therefore, has not developed inside a bubble as it is the case for Major League Soccer. Hence, for real development MLS, perhaps, will have to consider drastic changes , which could include promotion/relegation, shorter seasons, a different league schedule, and the abandonment of the salary cap, to its business model in order to become truly competitive not just with its next door neighbour, but also with leagues around the world.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and podcaster for WorldFootballIndex.com. He is also a holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.