Luis Bueno
Friday August 28th, 2009

It seemed if any Major League Soccer club were poised to claim the league's first victory aganst a Mexican club on Mexican soil in a competitive match, it was the Columbus Crew.

A near-immaculate record and impressive statistics to boot, Columbus went into Mexico City's Estadio Azul on Wednesday determined to make history. Instead, the Crew suffered an embarrassing, all-too-familiar fate. Cruz Azul routed the MLS Cup champions 5-0.

It seems like a bad joke. Or at least a cruel one. MLS teams head to Mexico with high hopes of winning only to leave with their tails between their legs, wondering what happened. Stories like these have played out across Mexican league stadiums with growing rapidity. With the CONCACAF Champions League expanding to include a group phase, MLS teams get more chances to go down and lose in Mexico.

In the first season featuring the new format, MLS teams made a tiny bit of progress. Houston was the first team to not lose a match against Mexican teams on Mexican soil as the Dynamo tied Pumas 4-4 during last year's group stage. But that progress was lost when Houston was soundly beaten by Atlante 3-0 in the quarterfinals.

This season, MLS entered the competition with three chances of seeing a team make history. Columbus had the best opportunity. To say the Crew entered the match on a hot streak would be understating it somewhat. They had six consecutive victories before the match, including a 2-0 win over Puerto Rico in their Champions League opener. Four of those wins were by shutout, and the Crew had allowed just six goals in their last nine games. Since April 5, they had lost just once.

But that didn't matter. Cruz Azul didn't play all of its regulars. Nor did it play a dominant match. But la Máquina still put five goals past William Hesmer -- technically four, as MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall contributed with an own-goal.

Hopes will surely be high the next times MLS teams travel to Mexico. Houston will visit Pachuca on Sept. 16 (Mexican Independence Day) while D.C. United travels to Toluca on Oct. 20. Houston may seem like a strong candidate to do what Columbus couldn't and pull off a historic win. However, it's difficult to imagine the Dynamo entering with more impressive numbers than the Crew.

But an MLS team someday will walk away with a win ... right? Law of averages and all that. MLS might not waltz South of the Border and toy with their opponents the way Mexican clubs do, but that doesn't mean an MLS team won't sooner or later.

What needs to happen for MLS teams to be successful in Mexico?

Time. Mexico's Primera Division has a 53-year head start on MLS. Columbus, founded in 1996, faced a club that was first established in 1927. There's no substitute for history, and no matter how fast the U.S. national team went from minnows to regional power, such success on a broader scale is much more difficult to establish.

Depth. The difference between first- and second-division clubs in Mexico is stark: Querétaro was promoted to the top flight and already sacked its coach five games into the season, as the club is floundering against stronger competition. The difference between first- and second-division clubs in the United States (MLS and USL-1 sides) is about three to five players. Take away the top three to five players of most MLS teams and you're left with a team of serviceable but interchangeable players with no real standout.

Luck. Fortune always seems to smile on Mexican teams at home. Aside from an uncharacteristically bad game by Marshall, the Crew were also done in by a phantom penalty kick. Emmanuel Villa dived and Cruz Azul was awarded a spot kick. Dodgy refereeing isn't exactly a phenomenon exclusive to Mexico; Central American teams also get calls at home. But an MLS team could stand to get a lucky bounce or two. Or it may even luck out and get an evenly called match.

Will it happen? Will an MLS team leave Mexico with a win someday? Possibly. If North Korea can reach the World Cup, anything is possible. But will it happen anytime soon? Probably not in '09. Or '10. But MLS is improving slowly. The league is better now than it was in '03, and it will be better in '13 than it is now. Expansion will eventually create a stronger league as teams in markets that really do care about soccer will continue to enter the league.

Until then, however, MLS teams will take their lumps time and again in Mexico.

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