In second year, SuperLiga continues gradual growth
In Mexico, the conventional wisdom regarding Major League Soccer runs something like this: It's the United States, so it must not be good.
Ask any Mexico-based footballer their impressions of MLS before they've competed with or against an MLS club and they'll admit they know little about the league. Once they've played against an MLS club, though, most of them seem to realize the same thing.
"These teams are fast and their football has improved quite a bit," Santos midfielder Fernando Arce said.
MLS may not be highly respected among Mexican soccer supporters and media but a growing number of Mexican clubs are experiencing the American league firsthand. Through such events as SuperLiga, Mexican coaches and players are leaving with positive impressions of the ever-growing league.
"There is a good level here," Pachuca coach Enrique Meza said. "The soccer here is fast-paced and of an important caliber."
The 2008 SuperLiga field featured four Mexican clubs with a wide array of recent accomplishments. It included the last four Mexican league champions in holders Santos Laguna, Apertura '07 champs Atlante, Clausura '07 and overall Mexican tyrant Pachuca and Apertura '06 winners Chivas.
Of the MLS teams, only New England has enjoyed consistency throughout the season, with fellow participants Chivas USA, Houston and D.C. United enduring their ups and downs.
If there were a vast chasm in level of play between the two leagues, though, Mexican clubs may have enjoyed success with relative ease over their MLS foes (even if these games fall in the Mexican preseason).
Instead, the results have been varied. Atlante walked away with a 3-2 win over D.C. United but only after suffering a humiliating 4-0 thrashing by Houston. Chivas won both group games against MLS teams but Santos lost to -- and failed to score a single goal against -- New England and Chivas USA.
"I think it's difficult to win here," said Meza, whose team went 1-1 against MLS competition.
Whatever complaints Mexican teams have had about SuperLiga have had little to do with the American teams.
"For an international tournament like this, I believe that it's important to bring the highest-quality referees so the tournament can function well," Santos coach Daniel Guzmán said. "It's very difficult to compete like this and it makes for an unbalanced competition. Despite that, it has been a great experience to participate in these games here in SuperLiga."
A year ago, SuperLiga had more of a curiosity element than anything. There seemed to be no purpose for the tournament other than generating ratings and marketing MLS to an audience not normally exposed to the league.
But after one edition, it was easy to see that teams from both sides took the games seriously. The '07 Pachuca-Galaxy final was as exhilarating a match as has been played in North America in recent history, with David Beckham's knee injury, Chris Klein's dramatic equalizer and Miguel Calero turning Landon Donovan away on a title-clinching spot kick.
This year, the tournament continues to evolve, players said.
"It's even more significant now than it was a year ago, and I think it will only continue to grow in significance and importance as the years go on until it becomes prestigious," Pachuca midfielder Gabriel Caballero said. "It's well-organized, the participating teams play good soccer, the fields are good. Everything about this tournament is first-rate."
Soccer United Marketing, which puts together the annual InterLiga tournament, runs SuperLiga as well. InterLiga is a way for Mexican clubs to get into the Copa Libertadores, the storied South American club tournament. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future then, SuperLiga might replace InterLiga and open the doors for MLS clubs to gain entry into the Libertadores.
The more, the merrier, some suggested.
"Mexico has always been an invited guest," Arce said. "Why not have another invited guest?"
But would an MLS club have what it takes to compete in the Copa Libertadores? After all, a Mexican team has never won the tournament and only a handful of clubs have even reached the semifinals.
At the rate MLS is improving, why not?
"Very soon, it will be one of the stronger leagues in the Americas," Pachuca forward Bruno Marioni said.
MLS may have its issues -- a pathetically low salary cap and roster limitations are among the factors that could hold back the league's growth -- but with an increasing level of talent and tournaments such as SuperLiga, MLS have more opportunities to show they can compete abroad.
If someday South America's powerbrokers deem MLS worthy of competing in the Libertadores, it would speak to the league's growth.
"If an MLS team were to compete, it would be because they deserve it," Arce said. "Little by little, they've shown that they have the ability to play and compete internationally."
Ultimately, a strong and successful league in the United States is not a bad thing.
"It's grown quite a bit and it shows on the international level," Santos forward Matías Vuoso said. "It's a very welcome addition to the Americas."