TORREON, Mexico -- LA Galaxy captain Robbie Keane believes Major League Soccer is level with Liga MX in terms of quality, having seen a gradual improvement in the northern league since joining in 2011.
"If you look at the MLS in terms of the first year I came until now, you would say that the MLS now would be on par with the Mexican league," Keane said in a news conference ahead of the Galaxy's CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Santos Laguna.
"As the Mexican league has stayed [the same], the MLS has got bigger and I think it's going to continue to get bigger."
The Galaxy goes into Tuesday's game needing a score draw or victory to advance after the 0-0 tie in the first leg and Keane thinks his experienced side -- including Steven Gerrard, Giovani Dos Santos and Nigel De Jong -- has the best chance of any Galaxy team he has been involved with of earning CONCACAF glory.
The reason for previous failures and Mexican domination -- Liga MX teams have won the last 10 CONCACAF club titles -- in the competition is simple for Keane.
"Our league structure doesn't help the MLS teams," said Keane. "You get too much time off, [and] we don't get enough time to prepare for the quarterfinals. At this stage, MLS teams go out. This [competition] is not structured for MLS teams to win."
A lot of the build-up to the game in Mexico has been centered around El Tri international Dos Santos, who will be playing his first official club match of his career in his native land. He was greeted at the team's Torreon hotel by fans appearing to chant borracho (drunk) at him, and a video went viral in Mexico, but Keane laughed off suggestions that there was any negativity towards the former Barcelona forward.
"I thought it was One Direction coming off [the bus]," contested the Irishman. "I wouldn't say it was stick. It looked like the fans were desperate to see him."
"I thought he got a great reception by the Mexican people because he's one of the superstars here."
Tuesday's task could be made more difficult for the MLS outfit because of the mystery surrounding the involvement of LA Galaxy left-back Ashley Cole, who didn't train at Estadio Corona on Monday. Coach Bruce Arena said Cole was "back at the hotel" in his news conference, but didn't elaborate.
From the Santos Laguna side, Cape Verde international Djaniny is back in contention for a start following injury, while Diego de Buen is likely to replace the suspended Diego "Pulpo" Gonzalez, according to Santos Laguna's Argentine coach Luis Zubeldia.
There is excitement from the home side and fans of Los Guerreros about international stars like Gerrard and Dos Santos coming to the northern Mexican city, but Zubeldia stressed all that ends at the first whistle.
"Football players are competitive animals that are raised competing," he said in his Monday morning news conference. "If [Santos players] have a couple of [big] names in front of them like Galaxy, it could be that they feel something [extra], but when the whistle sounds, they want to win."
Zubeldia opined that it is the Galaxy who has the bigger budget of the two sides and conceded that the opposition's experience may give the MLS team a slight advantage in managing the game.
Former Portland Timbers and current Santos left-back Jorge Villafana is expecting another close-fought encounter, with a fair dose of edge to it, like in the first leg.
"It was a hard game with a lot of tackles and hard plays in the midfield," Villafana told ESPN FC after training on Monday. "I think they'll be a little bit of friction, but in these kinds of game it is normal because in this stage of the tournament everything is on the line and you don't want to lose."
Santos go into the knock-out match against the Galaxy having failed to win in any of their five games in February.