MLS is closer to its Liga MX measuring stick than it's ever been

The urge for American soccer to compare itself to Mexico is understandable. The soccer-spheres of the two most populated countries in North America have been divided by much more than a border. Historically, the United States has not been a soccer-mad nation, while Mexico has. So if the USA wants a yardstick to measure growth, development, quality and all the rest, it needs only to look south.

Recently, this comparison has manifested itself in the contest between Major League Soccer and Liga MX. While the former aspires to one day boast the quality and pedigree of the latter, the latter longs for the financial prosperity and media packaging of the former. One wonders how Liga MX chiefs reacted to the news that MLS’ latest expansion spot went to Charlotte for $325 million when Mexico’s most valuable club (Chivas) is valued at only $290 million.

There has been a recent shift in the dynamic between the two leagues, though. It can be found in this offseason’s transfers, most symbolically in Inter Miami’s signing of Rodolfo Pizarro, the three-time Liga MX and two-time CONCACAF Champions League winner who has decided to swap Monterrey for David Beckham’s South Florida franchise.

Liga MX star Rodolfo Pizarro joined Inter Miami this offseason from Monterrey. (Miami Herald)
Liga MX star Rodolfo Pizarro joined Inter Miami this offseason from Monterrey. (Miami Herald)

That Pizarro, a first-team regular for the Mexican national team and arguably Liga MX’s best player at the time of his departure, saw a transfer to MLS as a viable career move is significant. The reasoning Pizarro gave for his move to Miami from Mexico was also significant, expressing his belief that MLS could potentially provide him with a springboard to Europe, something he didn’t have in Liga MX.

“I think it's a bit closer, being there first and then later [in Europe],” he said. “It's a lot easier from there [in MLS] to Europe.”

Pizarro likely looked at the case of Miguel Almiron before deciding to leave Liga MX. The former Atlanta United star helped establish a transfer market trade route between MLS and the Premier League. Almiron’s success with Newcastle United as the club’s record signing will surely give European scouts reason to look a little closer at the MLS talent pool.

Previously, Liga MX stars would only cross the border for higher wages and a perceived higher standard of life. Those were MLS’ biggest selling points, and they remain a factor. But if MLS is truly seen as a better springboard to bigger things, then that could pose something of an existential question to Liga MX.

The last three transfer windows have seen no fewer than 16 players swap Liga MX for MLS, while only eight have gone in the other direction. The stature of the players swapping Liga MX for MLS is also revealing.

Last season, the Portland Timbers reportedly paid a fee of around $12 million to sign Argentine striker Brian Fernández from Necaxa after he scored 16 times in 30 Liga MX appearances. This offseason, Sporting KC splurged around $10 million on Mexican striker Alan Pulido from Chivas, while Edison Flores joined DC United, Lucas Cavallini signed for the Vancouver Whitecaps and Lucas Zelarayan became a member of the Columbus Crew.

For MLS clubs, Liga MX players make for relatively low-risk signings, particularly compared to European signings who are more prone to culture shock.

“The adaptation aspect, the way they acclimate is really not that difficult because they are already in the region playing in CONCACAF, playing in difficult environments, climate, altitude, all those things. And then there’s also travel that goes along with it,” Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes said after signing Pulido.

Mexican striker Alan Pulido has swapped Guadalajara for Sporting KC. (Photo by ULISES RUIZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Mexican striker Alan Pulido has swapped Guadalajara for Sporting KC. (Photo by ULISES RUIZ/AFP via Getty Images)

The relationship between MLS and Liga MX is growing closer. This year’s MLS All-Star game, which usually pits Canada and the USA’s best against a European giant, will instead involve a Liga MX All-Stars selection. The so-called Leagues Cup, the inter-MLS/Liga MX tournament played for the first time last year, also underlined how the two top flights see their futures as intertwined.

Despite this growth, the CONCACAF Champions League is a reminder that MLS still has to start beating Liga MX on the pitch. It’s been 20 years since a Canadian or American club won the competition. By contrast, it’s been 15 years since a non-Mexican club was crowned continental champion.

On the flip side, nothing would be as symbolic, not even Inter Miami’s signing of Pizarro, of the changing relationship between MLS and Liga MX as the sight of a Canadian or American club lifting the CONCACAF Champions League trophy this season. Atlanta United, in particular, has made winning the competition a priority having won the largely ceremonial Campeones Cup last year.

Even if the CONCACAF Champions League ends up in Mexican hands once more, this season could prove to be a watershed moment for MLS, with Pizarro, Carlos Vela and now Javier Hernandez all playing for American clubs. El Tráfico, which will pit Chicharito’s LA Galaxy against Vela’s LAFC twice this regular season, presents a particularly big opportunity for the league to capitalize.

By most measures, there’s a transition of power and influence taking place in North American soccer. No one move or transfer window can confirm this, but the current trend cannot be denied. The reasons for MLS to be envious of its southern neighbors are thinning.

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