Only one of two MLS teams advance to CONCACAF Champions League final, but both show league's progress

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Michael Bradley (left) and Toronto FC look like overwhelming favorites to win the CONCACAF Champions League. (Getty)
Michael Bradley (left) and Toronto FC look like overwhelming favorites to win the CONCACAF Champions League. (Getty)

If nothing else, the Major League Soccer teams managed to avoid a third straight all-Mexican final in the CONCACAF Champions League. It would have been a sixth in seven years, in fact. But Toronto FC managed to hang onto its comfortable lead over Club America even as New York Red Bulls couldn’t turn its total dominance over Chivas into an equalizer or a place in the title games.

Even the legendary Estadio Azteca cauldron loses some of its threat when you bring a 3-1 lead there, as Toronto FC did in Tuesday’s second leg of the CCL semifinals. In a mostly uneventful game, it even came within a minute of squeaking out a victory from the gift goal Jonathan Osorio was handed in the first half, before an injury-time penalty ruined that.

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The Red Bulls didn’t fare so well. In spite of dominating an offensively uninterested and defensively cynical Chivas for 90 minutes at home — after doing the same in the away game, but going down 1-0 — the liberating goal never came. And, well, when you fail to score in either game, it’s hard to win.

Toronto will now become the third MLS team to attempt to become the first to win this competition, after the Montreal Impact and Real Salt Lake fell short in 2015 and 2011, respectively. But even if it fails to, something will have been gained from this edition.

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Three MLS teams reached the quarterfinals. Four Liga MX sides did. And in their endless head-to-head showdown, a significant shift seems to have occurred.

It used to be that MLS teams would always lose to their MX counterparts in the end, no matter the size of the lead they took or how close they managed to make it in some comeback. But the Red Bulls battered Tijuana 5-1. And while Chivas knocked out the Seattle Sounders after dropping the first game, Toronto knocked out Tigres. Now that the Canadians have eliminated mighty America as well, MLS teams dispatched three MX sides in all.

What’s more, the Red Bulls won a game in Mexico, and TFC nearly did, on the soil once impregnable to American and Canadian teams, for myriad evident and utterly inexplicable reasons.

For the first time, MLS teams took on their Mexican opponents without the usual trepidation. They weren’t intimidated the way they always had been. MLS’s slowly growing payrolls are slowly closing the gap with the wealthier MX teams — in their starting lineups, at least, albeit not in overall depth just yet.

In this edition of the tournament, the MLS sides played like equals to their MX brethren. In spirit, anyway, which is half the battle. The Red Bulls forced Chivas into taking a defensive, pressure-absorbing approach. It wound up working for the visitors, but they found themselves outshot 20-1 — that’s the actual, real number. The moral victory belonged to the Red Bulls, for whatever that’s worth.

Jesse Marsch’s side made a vigorous start and never let up, running ruts into the paths toward the Chivas goal, but never quite getting the final ball right.

New York was denied an obvious hand ball call at least twice — with one such incident occurring in the Chivas box. Trouble was, Guatemalan referee Walter Lopez seemed to have little grasp of what a handball is. Or even really what a foul is, for that matter.

The Red Bulls spent almost the entire game in Chivas’ third, but for the habitual proximity, they were rarely very close to scoring. That was partly to do with the outstanding Chivas goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota.

And the game was hardly one that thrived in clean sportsmanship.

All that one-way traffic made for an absurd stat sheet.

Ultimately, a single Tyler Adams turnover in the first leg decided this tie.

Bad luck.

Toronto FC, meanwhile, had the rare good fortune of not having to chase the game in a second leg against a Mexican side. America needed two goals, meaning it had to make a concerted effort to initiate the play.

And that allowed TFC to capitalize. In just the 12th minute, Osorio scored to even up the away goals — meaning America now needed three goals just to get to extra time. Clumsy defending by William on Tosaint Ricketts put the ball right in Osorio’s path in front of an open net.

TFC was a tad fortuitous as well. In the 20th minute, Eriq Zavaleta headed into his own goal, but the flag was already up for offside.

And in goal, Alex Bono was once again make a habit of coming up with great saves.

Late on, Michael Bradley bundled over his opposite captain Oribe Peralta in the box and Mateus Oribe slid in the equalizer from the penalty spot to make it 1-1 — and 4-2 to TFC on aggregate.

On the strength of their semifinal performances and league form, Toronto looks like the favorite for the final, played over home-and-away legs. That, certainly, is a first for MLS at the final stage. Still, it might well be that the hex still isn’t broken and Liga MX ultimately prevails again.

But if it doesn’t end this year, it surely will soon. Because what was once a gaping chasm between the leagues has closed to a thin sliver.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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