MLS, Liga MX square off as regional tourneys wind down

Osvaldo Rodríguez (left) stretches for the ball as Sporting KC midfielder Ilie Sanchez slides in. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Osvaldo Rodríguez (left) stretches for the ball as Sporting KC midfielder Ilie Sanchez slides in. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images) /
Liga MX, MLS twin tourneys
Seattle’s Abdoulaye Cissoko (left) tries to hold off Tigres winger Javier Aquino in a Leagues Cup quarterfinal match. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images) /

Liga MX clubs León and UNAM advanced to the semifinals in the second edition of the Leagues Cup, while Monterrey took a slim advantage over Cruz Azul after the first leg of their Concacaf Champions League semifinal match-up.

Meanwhile, the Tigres were brushed aside by Leagues Cup foe Seattle and Santos faces Orlando in the fourth quarterfinal match tonight for a spot in the semifinals against the Sounders. León and the Pumas will face off on Sept. 14.

In the top regional tournament, América welcomes the Philadelphia Union to Estadio Azteca Thursday night in the first half of their Concachampions tussle. The pair will do battle in the City of Brotherly Love on Sept. 15, a day before the Monterrey-Cruz Azul semifinal is determined.

Liga MX snares two of three semifinal spots

The Leagues Cup is a made-for-TV event that was launched in 2019 by Liga MX and MLS. It is not a FIFA sanctioned tournament and does not appear to be a priority for all participating teams quite yet. Cruz Azul won the inaugural event (a 2-1 win over the Tigres in Las Vegas) and last season’s affair was canceled due to the pandemic.

The tourney was originally envisioned as a 16-game bout, but the virus crisis led officials to reduce the event to eight teams, four from Liga MX and four from MLS.

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Unlike other regional tournaments, MLS clubs enjoy an advantage in this Leagues Cup as they are 17 and 18 games into their season while Liga MX clubs have just completed their third round of games.

In the past, MLS clubs have found themselves on the short end of the stick in the Concacaf Champions League which traditionally have reached the knock-out stages in Spring just as the U.S. league is kicking off its season. Typically, Liga MX teams are two-thirds of the way into their campaign, giving them a distinct advantage.

The Leagues Cup features a single-game elimination format, and that proved unfortunate for Sporting Kansas City, leaders of the Western Conference in MLS. Despite playing at home, Sporting KC was routed by León on Tuesday night as the Esmeraldas hit for a hat trick in each half. Angel Mena led “La Fiera” with a goal and three assists while Elías Hernández contributed a brace and Víctor Dávila had a goal and an assist.

Also on Tuesday, the Seattle Sounders – trailing Sporting KC by a point in the West – manhandled the Tigres by a 3-0 scoreline. The visitors demonstrated their disinterest in the tournament by virtue of the fact that coach Miguel Herrera used a makeshift line-up, holding out star scorer André-Pierre Gignac, his entire starting midfield and his first-choice keeper.

On Wednesday night, NYCFC dominated the Pumas but couldn’t find the net (two goals were discounted after VAR reviews) until just past the hour mark. UNAM answered 11 minutes later then edged past the Cityzens in a penalty shoot-out.

The last quarterfinal match takes place in Florida where Orlando City SC (second in the Eastern Conference) hosts Santos Laguna, runner-up last season in Liga MX.

Top regional tourney approaches final stage

The Concachampions is a two-legged format and it, too, was postponed to account for the pandemic. The Round of 16 and the quarterfinals took place in April/May (just as the MLS season was starting while the Guardianes 2021 had hit its stretch run) with three of the four semifinals spots being occupied by Liga MX clubs.

Monterrey and Cruz Azul reached the Final Four by knocking out the Columbus Crew and Toronto FC, respectively. Wednesday night’s semifinal was a back-and-forth affair that was decided by an early goal. Olympic bronze-medalist Carlos Rodríguez delivered a perfect pass to Maxi Meza who nodded the ball past the onrushing Andrés Gudiño. The young Cementeros keeper (between the pipes since skipper Jesús Corona has a broken hand) made three brilliant saves to keep the deficit manageable heading into the return leg next month.

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In tonight’s other semifinal, América is expecting to press its four Olympians into action as they struggle with injuries and forced absences (for instance, fullback Miguel Layún is ineligible as he played for Monterrey in April before being traded to the Aguilas).