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There's no longer a big gap in the level of play between Mexico's Liga MX and MLS, Donovan says

No player has appeared in more MLS games than Landon Donovan. No one has scored more goals, registered more assists or won more championships either.

So the former Galaxy captain has a pretty good grip on the strengths and weaknesses of the domestic soccer league. After nearly two months in Mexico, he says he has a pretty good handle on the Mexican league, too.

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So guess what? He insists they're no longer all that far apart — and with two MLS teams reaching the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League for the second consecutive year, he appears to be right.

More impressive is the fact that those teams, Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls — who will face Mexico's Club America and Chivas of Guadalajara, respectively, in next month's semifinals — advanced with quarterfinal wins over Liga MX clubs, marking the first time two MLS teams have eliminated two Mexican teams in the same tournament.

If the Seattle Sounders had been able to protect a one-goal lead in the second half against Chivas last Wednesday, three of tournament's final four teams would have come from MLS. That, too, has never happened before.

"The styles are different. But being here now and watching it, they're absolutely competitive in every way," Donovan said of the leagues. "And not like 'competitive but eight out of 10 times the Mexican league team is going to win.' You could say it's probably a coin flip."

Jordan McCrary, left, and the Seattle Sounders gave Rodolfo Pizarro and Chivas of Guadalajara all they could handle in a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal.
Jordan McCrary, left, and the Seattle Sounders gave Rodolfo Pizarro and Chivas of Guadalajara all they could handle in a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal. (Bruno Gonzalez / Associated Press)

The reasons for the newfound parity are multiple and varied. Many of Mexico's top players have left the domestic league to play in Europe, lowering the talent level at home. So, while 19 of the 23 players on the 2006 World Cup team played in Liga MX, less than half the roster for the Mexican national team's last competitive game consisted of players from Liga MX teams.

Another move that brought MLS and Liga MX closer together was the Mexican league's decision earlier this month to suspend promotion and relegation for at least two seasons, joining MLS among the few major soccer leagues in the world that does not utilize that system.

But the key, Donovan says, is that the level of play in the U.S. and Canada has risen noticeably.

"The difference now, for me, is that the American teams have players that are capable of making special plays to score goals," he said. "In the past, you would compete with [Mexican] teams. But you didn't have special players. It's real fun to watch."

Apparently, the leaders of the two leagues think so, which is why they announced last week the launch of an annual match between the champions of MLS and Liga MX. The first Campeones Cup will be played in mid-September in Toronto and will match Toronto FC, the 2017 MLS Cup winner, against the winner of a July playoff between Tigres UANL, champions of the 2017 Apertura season, and the winner of the 2018 Clausura, which is still in progress.

"It's almost like a continental Super Bowl," gushed MLS commissioner Don Garber.

Uh, no, it's not like that at all, actually. But as Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla said, it could be the start of something meaningful.

"We realize that the world is getting global and there are no longer borders in football," he said. "So we started talking about doing something together and being more competitive in football, not just on the pitch."

"It's a win-win relationship," he added.

And there's more to come. The leagues have committed to an All-Star game, something Liga MX has never tried, though that's unlikely to happen this year. There also have been rumors of a club competition to replace the Copa Libertadores, a South American tournament in which Liga MX teams no longer compete.

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"The Campeones Cup is only the first step," Bonilla said, adding, "it's a big step."

For the relationship to continue and thrive, however, the games must remain competitive. And it's been 17 years since an MLS team — the Galaxy, under coach Sigi Schmid — won the CONCACAF Champions League. Only twice since then has an MLS team even reached the final.

Now, however, the MLS-Liga MX rivalry might be achieving a balance similar to the one between the national teams. The U.S. once went 46 years and 25 games without an international win over Mexico. But since 2000, the U.S. has won 13 of 26 games with another six ending in draws. And that's turned the border battle into one of the most spirited clashes in any sport.

Bonilla, like Donovan, is convinced that's happening on the club level, too.

"Definitely the MLS teams are growing; they're growing fast," he said. "Each day it's more difficult for our teams to get an easy win. Everybody thinks it's an easy win, it's not anymore.

"That gap is shortening."

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

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