MLS' Mexican Ignorance Brings Blowouts Not Bliss

If MLS want to challenge for CCL and regional club titles, they must know their enemy and learn from the best
by Mike Firpo   |   Friday, April 06, 2012

MLS Mexican Primera & Futbol Ignorance

In a recent survey conducted by MLS of its head coaches 0% said they watched the Spanish La Liga. The same league which makes up 5 of the 8 UEFA Champions League & Europa League finalists and coincidentally is also home to the two best clubs in the world today and the two best players.

With the recent decline in EPL clubs’ fortunes, the slow march by Italian clubs to get back to prominence and a German league that boasts only a small handful of continental class clubs at any given time, it is the Spanish league that can now arguably be called the world’s best in terms of results and technical ability.

Shockingly, no coaches from MLS watch La Liga. Nothing to learn from watching them? No takeaway to bring to their clubs or the North American game? No one. Nada. Not a head coach (of the 14 of 19 that participated in the survey) follow the current pinnacle of the game.

0%. A scary statistic for sure.

If that makes you shake your head, prepare to lower it with this one that hits closer to home and might explain a bit of why it is so hard for Klinsmann and Co to turn the corroded Old American Soccer liner around and sail to more technically and tactically sophisticated waters.

In that same survey, 0% of MLS coaches claim to watch the Mexican league.

Mexico, you know, the titans of CONCACAF at youth and senior levels, fresh off of accomplishing the first royal flush of all CONCACAF men’s tourney crowns, the nation about to win its seventh successive regional club title, the 25th of the past 44, the same clubs that have not been knocked out by non-Mexican foes since the modern CONCACAF Champions League began and whose 5th thru 7th placed teams perform admirably in South America’s hotly contested Copa Libertadores.

Yes, them. The same league that gives MLS the annual CCL wakeup call that it needs to keep growing as a league, but is seldom heeded only to hit the collective ‘snooze’ button with distant and vain hopes that next year David’s slingshot does the trick against the gloomy Aztec backdrop of history.

Just this past Wednesday night, Toronto FC and Canadian club soccer got to experience what the USA-based MLS clubs have received for years now – the ol’ “Mexican rope-a-dope”. That’s the now customary CONCACAF Champions League tradition which sees MLS clubs play their Mexican counterparts at home in mostly competitive matches with hopeful first-leg scorelines, only to get embarrassed in return legs in Mexico.

Toronto FC was MLS’ last club standing in the current CCL so they garnered league-wide attention by default. Neutral MLS fans even did a half-hearted backing of TFC like they did with RSL in 2011. Only problem was, most of the reason league fans backed RSL then wasn’t just because they were the last or furthest MLS club in the modern CCL, but because RSL was doing something most MLS fans want but few of its clubs provide … playing good, entertaining, attacking soccer. Like, well, Mexican and Spanish clubs! The irony.

Last year, Monterrey, the CCL & CONCACAF superclub, beat out Salt Lake and the league-wide #MLS4RSL campaign that supported them, but not by much, and though the results didn’t go RSL or MLS’ way – the two legged final was entertaining for all involved. The Mexicans were given something they rarely get in the CCL - a true challenge - outside of themselves of course.

You have to feel for Toronto though, this was looked at as the turn-around series of an adrift franchise. They really thought they had a chance against Santos.

And the script played out as it always does for MLS versus Mexican clubs. After managing a futile 1-1 draw in Ontario, they ended up getting hammered 6-2 in Torreon by the unfailing false sense of hope the Mexicans generally give MLS clubs in these knockout competitions, only to use their better technical ability and more sophisticated tactics in the last quarter or so of the essentially 180 minute two-legged matches. In other words, they not only outplay MLS clubs, they outsmart them.

So how does one counter or beat that?

Realistically, it will be some time before MLS can compete with Mexican clubs’ financial superiority. Though that margin will lessen over time and then so will the talent gap that sees better quality Central & South American players heading to Mexico rather than to Canada or the USA.

And it must be said that the Mexican league also plays a better brand of the game, and that’s not by accident. As J Hutcherson explains in his usual graceful & clever analysis:

“MLS remains a league full of clubs that believe winning is success, regardless of how those games are won.”

But hope exists.

Major League Soccer managers can do something now to start closing that gap with their counterparts south of the border. The aforementioned league survey serves to highlight in vibrant technicolor the issue that is not being confronted time and again … KNOW YOUR ENEMY. That doesn’t just mean the opponents in your MLS division or your league, but your region, especially the ones that win all the time, at your expense.

As Chinese military tactician Sun Tzu pointed out ages ago, and yet is still followed by military scholars today, to have knowledge of your opponent and how they move, their abilities, patterns, strengths and weaknesses is to gain a huge advantage over them, sometimes even more than having better equipped personnel or numerical advantages – in Mexico’s case financial and playing superiority.

There are an alarming number of current MLS managers with little to no professional coaching experience beyond playing the game, and that mostly in MLS. They know the league and its players but if young coaches like Ben Olsen, Jay Heaps, Jesse Marsch, Jason Kreis and Robin Fraser only learned their trade under Bruce Arena or Bob Bradley, they can only know and grow so much, even in decades from now with lots of personal experience added. If however, they study the better foreign leagues and the tactics of their masters like Guardiola, Mourinho and watched Santos or Monterrey more … they can grow further, faster and have better results.

MLS coaches must stop extracting most of their learning from their small pond of 16 years, but gather from the vaster ocean of coaching that has over a century’s worth of collective knowledge.

On the continental level of soccer, it is far too late for MLS clubs, coaches, staff and players to initially sit down on a Monday night to begin watching tapes of and trying to understand their Mexican Primera foes they face on Wednesday. If they followed the Mexican league more, understood the mindset, the moves of the best players, the tactics of its top coaches, the recent form and mindset of the clubs … it would give MLS clubs a greater chance of winning.

Obviously Mourinho and Ferguson don’t sit and watch all the games of their rival leagues and clubs in England and Spain of the past weekend, but you better believe they do watch some, especially that of the best and certainly their peers. They know their enemy, well before the battle ensues.

You never know when that information will be needed, especially to claim the ultimate prize you seek. Not so coincidentally, the European Champions League title will now see Mourinho’s Madrid taking on German big-boys Bayern Munich and his former club Chelsea have the unenviable task of opposing a dynastic FC Barcelona. It’s a small club of elite in Europe, it’s not hard to follow a few other leagues here and there, especially the superclubs.

The same can be said with the Mexican clubs. To follow Pachuca, Monterrey, Santos and the dominant clubs in the Primera, and region, takes a few minutes setting up the DVR. And those few hours per week spent watching those Primera matches certainly do not impede MLS coaches from watching the other 8 or so MLS matches that round. They have a far easier job to study the enemy in CONCACAF with two big fish in a tiny fishbowl than their counterparts who play in the huge continental soccer bodies of Europe, Africa or Asia.

I mean is there any better way to improve one’s own abilities than to learn from the greatest of that particular craft? For MLS coaches and clubs to close their eyes or plug their ears in ignorant bliss until the big March CCL matches come beckoning is to play in a vacuum of ignorance and to waste the potential of generations of North American soccer’s best assembled players and clubs.

In the craft of art, if there was no Donatello, the best sculptor of his time, how than do we get Michelangelo, the best sculptor of ALL time?

We don’t.

Which is why human growth is best done by compounding learning from the best of our past, layer upon layer, as well as emulating the trailblazers of the current day and evolving and taking that standard to yet another level. This is why we can honor the greatness of Michelangelo today, but of course we have built machines now that can do more, with more precision, consistently, in a fraction of the time. This was because we kept learning from each other, especially the best. If we didn’t learn in this manner, if we practiced art in a vacuum, humanity would still be painting stick figures in French caves.

The same can be said with soccer. Matthews begat Puskas who begat Pele who begat Cruyff who begat Platini and Maradona who begat Van Basten who begat Ronaldo who begat Ronaldinho who begat Messi. And though it seems unattainable, there will be better than even Messi, one day. As long as there are those watching, learning and daring to improve even further, it will happen.

We improve by learning from the masters before us and of today. MLS coaches need to spend some time watching more Spanish La Liga and learning from the best, and more time watching the Mexican Primera and analyzing their superior regional foes. Watching only other MLS games versus peer coaches and clubs is great short-term to help get to the playoffs that season, but to win the CCL and ultimately be the first modern MLS club in the FIFA Club World Cup (the pinnacle of club soccer) – league coaches must do more.

They mustn’t just watch their peers in a reflective mirror or continue to play in the self-imposed isolation of a North American vacuum but learn and emulate the best on our doorstep in regional power Mexico and the world masters from Iberia.


Binghamton Univ.
Club Domestic:
NY Cosmos, RSL
Club Foreign:
Palermo, Napoli, FCB
Creator of Soccer Newsday. President of World Football Travel. Founder of NY Cosmos Campaign. Manager of North American Soccer Industry group on LinkedIn. Helped a few fans see the global game. Proposed on-field at MLS Cup 04. Longtime devotee of Soccer.