ATLANTA — When the final whistle blew, Atlanta United half-heatedly celebrated a moral victory.
That's all they had.
The reigning MLS Cup winners were bounced out of the CONCACAF Champions League by Monterrey on Wednesday night, leaving only one U.S.-based team in a tournament that seems certain to add another prize to Mexico's trophy case.
There is little doubt that Liga MX remains the king of North America.
"I think we are getting closer and closer," Atlanta coach Frank de Boer said after a 1-0 victory over Monterrey, which nevertheless won the two-game series by a 3-1 aggregate. "But they have a history that is much longer the U.S. We have to accept that."
Sporting Kansas City is the lone MLS team left in the continental championship, which has been dominated by Mexico's top division since the current format began in 2008. Liga MX clubs have won 10 straight titles and are an overwhelming favorite to make it 11 in a row, having claimed three spots in the semifinals after Monterrey, Santos Laguna and UANL knocked off MLS teams in the quarterfinals.
Sporting will host Panama's Independiente in the final quarterfinal match Thursday night, looking to overturn a 2-1 deficit from the first match.
MLS has made a few scattered challenges to Liga MX's dominance, most notably in 2018 when FC Toronto put a major effort into capturing the Champions League title (at the expense of its domestic season, it turned out). The team made it all the way to the final, becoming only the third MLS team to get that far in the league era before losing to Chivas in a dramatic final that was decided by penalty kicks.
Atlanta, which captured the MLS Cup title in only its second season and has rewritten the league's attendance records with a rabid fan base, was intent on making another strong showing in the Champions League. But, after rallying to knock off Costa Rican club Herediano in the opening round, United's fate was essentially sealed when Rayados scored two late goals for a 3-0 victory at Monterrey in the opening leg of the quarterfinals.
Playing a defensive-minded style in the second leg, the Mexican club throttled the home team before United finally struck for its only goal of the series, a flick into the top left corner by Josef Martinez after a nifty give-and-go with Darlington Nagbe allowed him the Atlanta striker to slip behind four defenders in the area.
United didn't come close to another goal, which would've put a bit of heat on the Mexican powerhouse.
"It's very hard to know exactly how far the MLS is from the Liga MX," said Monterrey midfielder Miguel Layun. "Here, you are growing up very fast and very well. I don't know. It's just about time. We need to improve ourselves too, and our league, if we want to keep it that way. But it's going to be hard. At some point, it's going to be a very similar level."
It hasn't happened yet.
In the quarterfinals played Tuesday, MLS Supporters' Shield winner New York Red Bulls faltered late in a loss to Santos Laguna, while UANL breezed past U.S. Open Cup champion Houston Dynamo with a pair of shutout wins.
New York's setback might have been the most compelling evidence yet of a major hurdle MLS faces because its season runs from spring to fall, rather than the fall-to-spring alignment that is common for major leagues around the world, including Liga MX.
The Champions League comes at the very start of the MLS season when teams are just coming out of training camp. Liga MX, which uses a split-season format, has already completed its fall Apertura and is in well into its spring-ending Clausura.
After losing 2-0 at home in the opening game against Santos Laguna, the Red Bulls tied the series by scoring two early goals in the second leg at Torreon. Alas, they couldn't hold on, giving up four goals in the final 18 minutes to lose the game, as well as the series by a 6-2 aggregate.
United midfielder Jeff Larentowicz also noted that Atlanta United gave up two late goals at Monterrey when it looked as though the team might escape with a manageable 1-0 defeat.
"That's not a coincidence," he said. "Teams from Liga MX are comfortable for 60 or 70 minutes — and then they put their foot on the gas. That certainly can be attributed to the timing of the season. They're in a different form than the MLS teams are."
Another factor working against MLS: a salary cap. The U.S.-based league allows its teams to sign only three players who are exempt from tight financial rules, while Liga MX has no such restrictions. The Mexican teams clearly have more depth, which comes in very handy when playing multiple games in a week as part of the Champions League and domestic leagues.
"Money's everything," Larentowicz said. "MLS has continued to stress their desire to beat and compete with Mexican teams. They feel like it's incredibly important. But it's tough if you're not spending the same money."
No matter what happens in Kansas City's series, it seems highly unlikely that MLS will finally break through this year.
North America is ruled by Liga MX.
"The gap is still there," Larentowicz said with a sigh. "Obviously."