The start of the Concacaf Champions League is drawing closer, and with it comes another chance for MLS teams to put an end to the continental dominance of Liga MX.
Mexican clubs have won the competition every year since Concacaf rebranded it in 2008, asserting themselves as the top dog in the region.
In recent years, MLS has gotten closer, with several teams making the final before falling short.
Atlanta United also made waves last season by taking down Club America in the Campeones Cup, a match that pits the MLS Cup champion against the Campeón de Campeones from Liga MX. But, for MLS to truly be recognized as equal to or better than Liga MX, a Champions League title is necessary.
With this year's competition set to begin on February 18, Atlanta United, Los Angeles FC, NYCFC, the Seattle Sounders and the Montreal Impact will represent MLS. It is a group that offers perhaps the league's best chance yet of going all the way and finally ending the drought.
Atlanta United boss Frank de Boer believes that drought will end sooner rather than later, and his team is in a decent spot to be the one to do it.
With the likes of Josef Martinez, Gonzalo 'Pity' Martinez and Ezequiel Barco leading the way, Atlanta brings back a strong attacking core to go with new signing Fernando Meza at the back. The club has experienced a number of key losses, including Julian Gressel, Tito Villalba and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, but De Boer is confident that the level of MLS is getting closer and closer to its southern neighbors.
“It’s very good that there are players like Fernando [Meza] and Pity in MLS, because they are going to raise the level of MLS; now there are many players that want to be in MLS, including Mexicans,” De Boer said ahead of a preseason friendly against Leones Negros. “We are proving that the difference between Liga MX and MLS is closing now that MLS has much more quality.
“The level will surely grow because when you play with quality players the level rises. Also for U.S. players it will be very good.”
This season, a number of players with Mexican connections have made the move to MLS. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez is the biggest of them all, as the Mexican icon made the move from Sevilla to the LA Galaxy this winter.
Hernandez is another key figure to have stated that MLS is growing while adding that he believes that Liga MX does not want to admit that the rivalry is getting closer and closer.
A number of other key players have moved, such as Alan Pulido, who joined Sporting KC after leading Liga MX in scoring as a member of Chivas. There have also been players such as Lucas Zelarayan, Edson Flores and Lucas Cavallini, all names with Liga MX ties who joined teams in MLS. Rodolfo Pizarro has also been linked with a move in recent weeks, with the El Tri midfielder potentially set to join Inter Miami.
“We regret the departure of Zlatan [Ibrahimovic], but others are added that do not have their name out there and are great players," Pity Martinez said. "They are young and they will grow the league.
"We must welcome Chicharito. That is an important signing. We hope he enjoys it. It will not be easy, it is not an easy league and you have to be fully prepared to face the games that are not like the ones that were a few years ago."
“I think it’s fantastic that players like Pity want to play in MLS and even moreso with our club,” De Boer added. “But Chicharito is also a phenomenon and will be very good for the youngsters, as a player and as a professional. Pizarro is also a very good player and it would be fantastic if he signs with an MLS club.”
Atlanta United is set to face Honduran side Motagua in their CCL round of 16 tie, while the Seattle Sounders face Olimpia, NYCFC takes on San Carlos and the Montreal Impact take on Costa Rican powerhouses Saprissa.
LAFC is the lone MLS side to have a match with Mexican opposition in the opening round as last year's Supporters' Shield winners will face Club Leon in their first tie.