The first leg of Toronto FC's CONCACAF Champions League semifinal tie against Mexican side Santos Laguna Wednesday night always looked like a tough match for the Canadians, so the 1-1 draw they achieved is a reasonably impressive result. It looks even better when you consider that the Reds were without two key players, defender/midfielder Torsten Frings and keeper Stefan Frei. However, that draw still leaves the team in a very tough position heading into the second leg in Mexico, and it's evidence that there may still be a substantial gap between the Mexican teams and the MLS ones in the CONCACAF Champions League.
This looked like an extremely difficult match for Toronto, so a draw is a reasonably impressive result. Few expected a TFC side that had failed to accomplish much in MLS play thus far this year (losing their first two games by a combined score of 6-1) to hold their own against Santos Laguna, currently leading the Mexican league with a 8-2-2 mark. The odds grew even steeper for Toronto following injuries to Frings and Frei, two of their biggest stars, and their improbable run to this stage of the competition didn't seem likely to hold up much longer. When Santos Laguna's American striker, Herculez Gomez, notched the match's opening goal in the 31st minute, it looked like the clock might have struck midnight on Toronto FC's Cinderella Champions League campaign.
That wasn't quite how things shook out, though. Far from being crushed by Santos notching a crucial away goal, the Reds seemed inspired by it, and they stepped up the tempo and poured on the pressure. They were rewarded in the 37th minute, when Chilean defender Miguel Aceval drilled a free kick from just outside the box; Santos keeper Oswaldo Sanchez got a hand to it, but couldn't keep it out of the back of the net. Toronto continued to press after that, and they had several more solid chances, particularly after Santos' Osmar Mares was sent off in the 77th minute. They also kept up the intensity, and that was evident late in the game, particularly with the minor brawl that developed at the final whistle. However, the Reds couldn't notch another goal, and that means that they'll have their backs against the wall going into the second leg in Mexico next Wednesday.
These semifinals are set up as a two-leg series determined by total goals, so if one side comes away with an outright victory next week, they'll go on to the Champions League final. However, away goals serve as the tiebreaker, so a 0-0 draw would be good enough for Santos Laguna to advance. That puts Toronto FC in a difficult situation; they'll have to go on the attack, but that's going to be tough in what's sure to be an incredibly hostile environment. Anything can happen on any given day, to be sure; as Ives Galarcep noted, this week's seen Canada beat the highly-ranked U.S. in Olympic qualifying and then tie lowly Cuba (setting up another Canada-Mexico clash, interestingly enough), while the Americans crashed out of that tournament, so it's not like we haven't seen unexpected results lately. A Toronto FC victory on Mexican soil would be at the high end of the unexpected spectrum, though, especially considering the terrible form the club has shown in MLS action thus far.
That brings to mind a wider question: is MLS soccer behind the Mexican league right now? If you go by how the CONCACAF Champions League has shaken out, the answer would have to be "Yes". Three of the four sides in the semifinals are Mexican (Monterey and Pumas face off late Wednesday night in the other first leg), and that's not a one-year anomaly; since the reworking of the competition format in 2008-09, Mexican sides have won the tournament every year and only one MLS team (Real Salt Lake) has made it to the final. Moreover, twelve of the last 16 teams to make it to the semifinal stage have been Mexican. That may not be entirely reflective of where MLS and the Mexican league are at as a whole, as many of the best American teams don't seem to really place a high priority on the competition at the moment (while the Mexican powerhouses clearly do), but it's an indication that MLS certainly isn't the unquestioned top league in North America at the moment.
In fact, that's a fair comment to make about the national sides too, as the Mexicans are currently ranked higher than the Americans (22nd versus 27th). That doesn't necessarily mean they're better, but the U.S. definitely doesn't have clear superiority at the moment (and Canada's quite a ways down from both). There's a lot of good homegrown soccer talent in Mexico, and the best Mexican clubs (like Santos Laguna) have been able to combine strong academy systems with the right acquisitions of veterans to form a formidable combination. That's still very much a work in progress for both the Canadian and American MLS clubs, and that's part of why TFC faces an exceptionally difficult task next week. They can't be written off, but the odds are stacked against them.