Luis Bueno
Friday May 22nd, 2009

If Major League Soccer isn't seen as inferior in Mexico, it's because it isn't seen at all. South of the border, MLS has either a bad image or no image at all. The league isn't considered a top option for players wanting to leave the Mexican league and, in fact, is more of a last resort for players who no longer can cut it at the top level in Mexico and are willing to play for anyone, anywhere.

But to gain a different perspective of the league to the north, all Mexican fans and media need to do is take a glance at the current Mexican league playoffs, in particular the Puebla-Pumas semifinal series. Four MLS alums -- three of whom had varying levels of failure in the league -- have played critical roles with their respective Mexican league teams and at least one of them is assured of fighting for a spot in the final.

While Ramón Núñez, Duilio Davino, Daniel Osorno and Francisco Palencia all had different reasons for joining and leaving MLS, the quartet is taking center stage this postseason. Had MLS been a hindrance or a final destination to these respective players' careers, it seems unlikely they would have had an impact on any Mexican club, let alone those within a step of the finals.

MLS may not become a feeder league into Mexico and the league won't cease being a last-chance destination for some aging, out-of-contract, past-their-prime players, but it should gain a bit more respect among Mexican media and supporters. MLS teams themselves do more harm than good by playing terribly in the CONCACAF club championships throughout the years, but deficiencies by individual teams don't mean the league is worthless.

Of that quartet of MLS alums, only Palencia was considered a true loss to the league, and was only a sought-after commodity when he was seeking employment in Mexico. The former Chivas USA star did well in his time with the northern Rebaño and his exit following the 2006 season was difficult on the club. But Palencia did well for himself and landed a job with Pumas de la UNAM. Instead of showing rust or a severe drop-off form, he has been his usual self with Pumas and even earned some call-ups to the Mexican national team after leaving Chivas USA.

In the quarterfinal round against Tecos UAG, Palencia scored the series-clinching goal. Tecos led Pumas 2-1 in the aggregate score with five minutes left in the second leg, and Palencia scored the goal Pumas needed to advance.

Palencia's Pumas met up against Puebla, which was more than happy to take advantage of players no longer wanted in MLS. FC Dallas castoff Davino joined Puebla before the start of the Clausura '09 season. The defender had a terrible go at it in MLS and was often burned by opposing forwards or making some other defensive mistake that cost FC Dallas goals. And if he couldn't hack it on one of the worst defensive teams in MLS, what would he do against Mexican opposition?

At least he went straight from MLS to a superior league. Núñez and Osorno, cast off in '07 by Chivas USA and Colorado, respectively, went to lesser leagues. Núñez went home to his native Honduras and latched onto national power Olimpia. Osorno, a former star with Atlas, plied his trade with Dorados de Sinaloa in the Primera A, Mexico's second division.

Each player, though, improved and ultimately shined with their respective teams before joining Puebla for the Clausura '09 season. With key contributions from both, los Camoteros enjoyed a massive turnaround. Last season, they won just two out of 17 games and had a pathetic 12 goals all season. This season, they went 7-5-5, finished fifth overall and reached the semifinals.

A former standout with both Club América and the Mexican national team, Davino provided the standout defending and veteran leadership that he mostly failed to deliver in Dallas. Osorno and Núñez -- who also has become a regular with the Honduran national team since his MLS departure -- combined for seven goals and were each influential players on the attack. Núñez, though, is a bit unique from his teammates. He had never played in Mexico before and is an MLS-bred product.

To reach the final, Puebla will need some magic from the trio as Pumas won the first leg 2-1 and can lost the second leg by a goal and still get through.

Of course, not all MLS-to-Mexico returns are successful. Juan Pablo García has fallen off the map after leaving MLS. He spent time with Tigres this season but was an option off the bench for one of the worst teams in Mexico. Francisco "Panchito" Mendoza played in just three games for Chivas de Guadalajara and was hardly an impact player. But other players have left MLS and won Mexican league titles as well, as Johnny García and Jorge Barrera played bit roles on Santos' Clausura '08 side.

It may be wishful thinking, but when a former MLS player takes his turn at trying to win some silverware, perhaps MLS will gain a modicum of respect in Mexico.

While one Mexican league semifinal features MLS alums, the other features American-born, Mexican-bred players. Texas natives José Francisco Torres and Marco Antonio Vidal are fighting for a spot in the final as Pachuca and Indios de Juárez do battle in a semifinal series.

Torres has gained attention in the U.S. after opting to play for the country of his birth. He has seen action in World Cup qualifiers and his personal rise to U.S. national-team prominence might be just around the corner. Vidal, meanwhile, played an influential role in Juárez's season. Vidal made his season debut for Indios in a scoreless draw with Atlante in their 12th match of the season. With that draw, Indios began a six-game unbeaten streak to close out the season and extended it to eight after knocking off Toluca in the quarterfinal round.

Torres, who scored a goal in Pachuca's quarterfinal series against Jaguares, has a step in the final though after Pachuca beat Indios 2-0 in Ciudad Juárez on Thursday.

Americans may have even played a prominent role for Mexican teams in another competition. San Luis and Guadalajara, each of whom have American-born players within their ranks, were set for Copa Libertadores Round of 16 games before the Mexican Football Federation broke ties with CONMEBOL and pulled out of all South American competition.

Thus, San Luis' Michael Orozco and Guadalajara's Jesús Padilla, each born in California, were denied the chance of playing in the knockout rounds of South America's famed international tournament.

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