CONCACAF Champions League preview: The MLS vs. Liga MX showdown

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Which league is “better” — Major League Soccer or Liga MX?

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It’s the question we’ve been agonizing over since the dawn of time literally only three or four years now. MLS has closed the gap a bit more every year this decade, but Liga MX retains the upper hand in just about every measurable category — money, TV ratings, tenure, top-to-bottom quality of players and, most importantly, a decided advantage in head-to-head clashes between the leagues.

Nevertheless, MLS gets its latest chance to measure itself against its southern neighbors each of the next two weeks, as the quarterfinals of the 2015-16 CONCACAF Champions League couldn’t have been drawn up anymore perfectly — four MLS sides set to do battle with four from Liga MX.

Queretaro vs. D.C. United — Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET

Of the four MLS sides, D.C. United were handed by far the most favorable draw — Queretaro are toiling away in the bottom third of Liga MX (7 points from 7 games, five places out of the playoff picture) — but unfortunately, if you’re an MLS backer, look perhaps the least capable of making the most of it.

Having undergone a number of important changes during the offseason (Perry Kitchen, Chris Pontius, Jairo Arrieta and Conor Doyle out; Lamar Neagle (who is cup-tied to Seattle), Marcelo Sarvas, Luciano Acosta and Patrick Nyarko in), head coach Ben Olsen will need at least a few weeks to work out his best 11 early in the season. The Black and Gold will also be without star goalkeeper Bill Hamid (knee surgery) until the summer months.

How they got here: Queretaro — won Group C, which featured San Francisco (Panama) and Verdes (Belize) | D.C. United — won Group H, which featured Arabe Unido (Panama) and Montego Bay United (Jamaica)

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Seattle Sounders vs. Club America — Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET

Speaking of an MLS side going through something of a rebuild (this will become a theme — remember, MLS sides’ greatest disadvantage in CCL is that they begin the knockout stage in the midst of preseason), up next are the Seattle Sounders, who have tasked with the dubious challenge of dethroning the reigning CCL champions, Club America. Making matters worse, they’ll have to do so without China-bound Obafemi Martins, their talisman for the last two seasons and scorer and 32 goals during that time. Thanks to Martins’ departure, the pressure on Jordan Morris is so very real from the moment his professional career begins Tuesday night.

Also gone from are Neagle, Marco Pappa, Gonzalo Pineda, Leo Gonzalez and Andy Rose from a Sounders side that finished fourth in the Western Conference and was knocked out of the playoffs by FC Dallas in the conference semifinals. The America side they’ll face twice over the next nine days is downright frightening, yet still seems a couple notches from top gear at present, at least during early days of the Liga MX season. Still on the books and terrifying opposition defenses are Oribe Peralta, Rubens Sambueza and last year’s CCL ringer, Dario Benedetto.

How they got here: Seattle Sounders — won Group F, which featured Olimpia (Honduras) and Vancouver Whitecaps | Club America — won group E, which featured Motagua (Honduras) and Walter Ferretti (Nicaragua)

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Tigres vs. Real Salt Lake — Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET

No MLS side has been closer to winning CCL in its current format than Real Salt Lake, who lost the second leg of the 2011 final at home to fall just short of becoming the first MLS team to get over the proverbial hump. The biggest offseason improvement for Jeff Cassar’s side comes in the form of former RSL and now-European veteran striker Yura Movsisyan, who’ll be asked to lead an offensive resurgence after the Claret and Cobalt scored just 38 goals in 34 regular season games in 2015. The core of the side remains mostly intact, though, as Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, Jamison Olave and Nick Rimando are back for one last go at CCL glory.

Unfortunately for them, arguably the best player currently plying his trade in CONCACAF stands between them and another semifinals appearance. Andre-Pierre Gignac, who moved from Marseille to Tigres last summer, took Liga MX by storm in his first half-season in Mexico, bagging 11 goals during the regular season and another four during the playoffs en route to the 2015 Apertura title. Gignac only turned 30 a couple months ago and looks likely to make Tigres a nearly unstoppable force for the duration of his stay.

How they got here: Tigres — won Group B, which featured Herediano (Costa Rica) and Isidro Metapan (El Salvador) | Real Salt Lake — won Group G, which featured Municipal (Guatemala) and Santa Tecla (El Salvador)

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LA Galaxy vs. Santos Laguna — Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET

No MLS side had a bigger (or better?) offseason than the LA Galaxy, who critically parted ways with longtime servants Omar Gonzalez and Juninho before restocking the ranks with their triple swoop for Nigel de Jong, Ashley Cole and Jelle Van Damme. Jeff Larentowicz and Mike Magee, a pair of MLS veterans, also arrived via free agency and will provide the kind of quality depth that was sometimes missing in 2015. How quickly the three foreign acquisitions are integrated into their new squad will go a long way toward deciding the Galaxy’s CCL fate.

Perhaps the biggest storyline surrounding the Galaxy this season, though, is the $6.3-million question: what exactly will they get from Steven Gerrard, who was downright awful and detrimental to the side after arriving in August of last season? With De Jong brought in to play the destroyer role just ahead of the backline, Gerrard will be allowed to venture forward and affect games in the typical ways we’re used to seeing him do, but for how much longer will his soon-to-be 36-year-old legs hold up to that task in a physically demanding league like MLS, not to mention the travel and the turf and all those other unexpected challenges? Surely he’ll be better this season than last, but by how much will shape the Galaxy’s 2016 campaign a great deal.

How they got here: LA Galaxy — won Group D, which featured Central (Trinidad and Tobago) and Comunicaciones (Guatemala) | Santos Laguna — won Group A, which featured Saprissa (Costa Rica) and W Conection (Trinidad and Tobago)