Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared on ESPN Mexico.
This season's meetings between Liga Bancomer MX and MLS in the CONCACAF Champions League have sparked a debate over which league is better. In Mexico, soccer has been the national pastime for over 100 years. However, its evolution when it comes to professional play has been slow but steady while in the States, since the mid-1990s, MLS has laid the foundation for a development process that's resulted in a solid sporting organization.
Here is ESPN Mexico's "Tale of the Tape" on the two leagues, an attempt to measure and assess which is the better league.
From its inception, MLS has tried to fill arenas trying to allure fans with star power. However, this hasn't played out the way the league expected: David Beckham carried LA Galaxy as its main presence in 2011 and 2012. Other top-flight players like Thierry Henry, Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Kaka and Didier Drogba went to the U.S. in order to play out their final years as professional players without becoming main attractions.
Recently, Mexico has seen a trend in which its clubs are betting on players with European stints on their resumes like Ronaldinho, Luis Garcia Sanz, Raul Tamudo, Roque Santa Cruz and Matias Fernandez. Andre-Pierre Gignac and Enner Valencia have become the latest standouts and game-changers on the pitch.
Some domestic soccer league rankings list Liga MX in the Top 10, above MLS. It appears that MLS quality players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sebastian Giovinco, Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Villa are a cut above Liga MX's equivalents (Gignac, Raul Rudiaz, Djaniny Tavares and Nicolas Castillo). That's not necessarily the case when assessing their performances on the field.
What about Mexican players?
This summer's World Cup in Russia could make history for the Mexico National Team, since three players currently on MLS rosters could become part of the side managed by Juan Carlos Osorio, and likely as starters. Giovani dos Santos, Carlos Vela and Jonathan dos Santos are considered among the best Mexican footballers these days.
Liga Bancomer MX is making a larger contribution to El Tri, though. Over 10 players from this circuit could join Osorio's team; however, few of them have legitimate chances to start. Only Jesus Gallardo and Nestor Araujo (currently injured) have a genuine chance of being among the starting XI facing Germany in Mexico's first group game.
Advantage: Liga Bancomer MX
In matches between MLS and Liga Bancomer MX in this year's CONCACAF Champions League, MLS teams prevailed in two of their three quarterfinal head-to-heads and are evenly matched following the first leg of the semifinals.
Tigres and Club Tijuana were eliminated by Toronto (5-1 aggregate) and New York Red Bulls (via away goals) respectively. In the first leg of their semifinal in Canada, Toronto handily defeated America 3-1 while Chivas survived in Guadalajara over the Red Bulls, 1-0.
It's true that this is just the third time in MLS history in which two of more of its clubs are playing at this late stage of the CONCACAF Champions League, right after the Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy in 2012-13, and FC Dallas and Vancouver in 2016-17. But now, there could very well be a final between two MLS clubs.
However, no MLS team has ever won the CONCACAF Champions League. Seven clubs from MLS have made it to the semifinal round but five of them have been eliminated at this stage.
Advantage: Liga Bancomer MX
You can say whatever you want about the way MLS fans cheer for their favorite teams. However, its stadiums are usually packed. They boast an attendance average between 74 and 100 percent, according to league-provided data.
Atlanta United and Seattle Sounders are remarkable cases, with stadiums filled to capacity each matchday: their most recent games had 42,500 and 39,419 fans, respectively, in attendance. On some occasions, they even have to provide extra areas for fans due to high ticket demands.
Last season, there was an increase of 8,270,187 fans in the season's 374 matches compared to the same numbers in 2016. That means an attendance average of 22,113 fans per game, a 1.9 percent increase over the previous campaign.
Mexico has a larger fan base, no doubt. However, that doesn't translate to packed stadiums, which are generally larger than the soccer-specific stadiums in the United States. So far this season in Liga Bancomer MX, 2,922,924 fans have attended 117 matches (according to league data) for an average of 24,982 attendants per match, 2,869 more than MLS.
Tigres has a remarkable 98 percent attendance in its stadium in Monterrey, which is the largest average in the Mexican league. By contrast, recently promoted Lobos BUAP, a club with the lowest ticket prices, has not been able to have more 20,000 fans in the stands for their home matches. Four of its matches were attended by less than 11,000 fans.
In MLS, Video Assistant Referees (VAR) has been in use since August, 2017. Despite causing controversy in several instances, it appears that it is one of the best implementations of the polarizing system. According to data from ESPN FC, out of 46 incidents reviewed via VAR this season, 37 were revoked and 33 were changed correctly, for 89 percent in accuracy. MLS also has an average of one VAR review for every three matches played, which also represents a minimal disruption to the pace of play.
Liga Bancomer MX has yet to implement VAR. Despite announcements of a recent launch, it has yet to happen. Therefore, each and every week sees contentious debates over referee decisions.
Despite the fact that the United States will not be participating at this year's World Cup, two of its referees will be in Russia: Mark Geiger and Jair Marrufo, a Mexican American born in El Paso, Texas. Mexico will have one ref in Russia: Cesar Ramos Palazuelos. Each league is providing two assistant referees as well.
The MLS schedule does not help its competing with top football leagues across the world, since it starts in March, two months after most of the top leagues in the world return from a short midseason break (two weeks, on average). MLS playoffs start in October (with 12 teams in play) and the final is generally played in December.
MLS clubs begin play in the CONCACAF Champions League just as they're also starting their domestic league campaign and coule be playing out of sync,the exception being the current edition.
Liga Bancomer MX splits the year into two tournaments with a pair of so-called "Liguillas" that see eight clubs reaching the playoffs. Another difference is that on the last date before the playoffs, MLS has all 11 of its matches played simultaneously (similar to the last day in the Premier League fixture) while Liga Bancomer MX has opted to not make similar modifications to its schedule.
Television rights and ratings
In Mexico, every team has to deal its own television rights with networks that pay for them according to club "stature," while MLS teams sell these rights collectively, resulting in a fairer share of revenue.
When it comes to ratings, the numbers are still not what league executives could expect: according to an AP report, ESPN averaged 272,000 viewers for 30 regular-season telecasts on ESPN and ESPN2 while FOX averaged 236,000 viewers for 33 matches on FS1 and the FOX Network. Besides, Univision is averaging 250,000 viewers for its MLS Spanish-language telecasts. That's why there are several production improvements already in place, such as pre- and post-game interviews staged in locker rooms across the league.
In Mexico, the most important matches still draw high TV ratings, although that's not the case for all matches despite being Mexico's elite sporting spectacle. According to Ibope, the company in charge of collecting TV ratings in Mexico, last year's Liga Bancomer MX final between Tigres and Monterrey was seen by over 22 million people when the numbers from Televisa and TV Azteca's broadcasts were combined.
Advantage: Liga Bancomer MX