For the first time since 2011, an MLS team will be represented in the CONCACAF Champions’ League final with the Montreal Impact advancing on away goals against Liga Deportiva Alajuelense of Costa Rica in last night’s semifinal matchup. The Impact won the first leg 2-0 and were able to hold off Alajuelense in the second leg, losing 4-2 in Costa Rica, but advancing as the team with more away goals.
The Impact are the first MLS team to reach the final since Real Salt Lake in 2011, and the first Canadian team to make it overall. While the CCL has never been on the forefront of North American soccer fans’ minds, the achievement of the final is something that both MLS and Montreal fans should be extremely proud of. Reaching a continental championship is no small feat, and clearly demonstrates the growth MLS has experienced, even in the past five years. With the hopes of both the United States and Canada riding on them, the Montreal Impact will look to secure a victory in the final, in hopes of validating not only their club, but the league as a whole.
Since the competition changed to the Champions’ League format in 2008, Mexican teams have dominated the competition, winning every final since then. Leading the way with three titles is Mexican side Monterrey, who famously beat the last MLS side to reach the competition’s final game, Real Salt Lake, by a score of 3-2. However, Monterrey failed to qualify for the current edition of the competition, and barring a miracle comeback by Club America in tonight’s semifinal, Mexican teams could be out altogether, leaving a new nation or league to lead CONCACAF’s premier club competition and represent the region at the Club World Cup.
America is currently down 3-0 to Costa Rican side Herediano, but will host the Costa Ricans at the Azteca in a game America must dominate if they want to advance. Should Herediano advance, it will guarantee the first year since the competition switched to the Champions’ League format that a non-Mexican side will take home the trophy. However, Club America is undoubtedly the most well respected club on the continent, and the Azteca Stadium where they play their home games is probably North America’s toughest environment, so Herediano’s victory is far from guaranteed. However, a victory for the Costa Rican side would certainly shellshock the North American soccer world.
Ultimately, the Impact’s victory signifies a growth in the parity of CONCACAF soccer, and a championship would even further validate the steps MLS has taken towards becoming the best league on the continent. Between the expansion of MLS and the Costa Rican run in this summer’s World Cup, Mexican teams have been shown that they are no longer the sole players in soccer on this continent.
With more competitive leagues in the United States, Canada, and Costa Rica, the Champions League becomes more and more relevant, thus giving another opportunity for domestic teams to secure a trophy and compete on the international stage.
International competition both breeds and attracts better talent, which will be a huge factor as MLS looks to grow in the next decade. With their win in the semifinal, the Montreal Impact have made a statement that MLS will be a player in North America for years to come, and should they secure a place in the Club World Cup, they will alert the world that the American domestic league is playing catch up to Europe, and doing so quickly. Intercontinental rivalries have built soccer into the global game, and it’s time the MLS got in on the action.