Monterrey's CONCACAF Champions League title sets standard for others
MONTERREY, Mexico -- These are the types of nights Miguel Layun came back to Mexico for. But first let's rewind.
The 30-year-old had a decision to make in January. With the Mexican international's time at Villarreal complicated by coaching changes and the club fighting relegation, offers came in for the versatile defender/midfielder.
"I put it all on the table, because I'm like that, I like to analyze in detail before taking a decision and I evaluated what I'd have if I'd left and what I'd have if I stayed," Layun told reporters ahead of the CONCACAF Champions League final second leg.
Moving to Lazio in Serie A and living in Rome was a possibility, he has admitted. Who wouldn't want to live and play there? But in the end the decision taken was to return to Mexico with Monterrey, even though there was a certain amount of criticism about him not continuing in Europe.
"I think that every decision I take will always be questioned because there will always be people that would like me to do the opposition," said Layun. "Everyone seeks their own happiness and to live their life to the maximum."
On nights like Wednesday in Estadio BBVA Bancomer as Layun's new team Monterrey lifted the CONCACAF Champions League against Clasico Regio rival Tigres in front of 53,000 fans, it wasn't difficult to comprehend why he has no regrets about leaving Europe behind.
"Being here [in the final] is a motivation for satisfaction because it reaffirms the decision I took," he stated. "I took the decision to come to Rayados to fight for titles, to look to make history in a club like the one I'm at."
The same rationale and decision-making was likely similar for Monterrey teammates Rogelio Funes Mori, Leonel Vangioni and Dorlan Pabon, all of whom signed from European clubs, and Marcelo Baravero, Nico Sanchez, Rodolfo Pizarro, Jesus Gallardo and Maxi Meza, who all joined from some of American continent's traditional giants. Tigres finished runner-up in this final, but Andre-Pierre Gignac, Carlos Salcedo, Eduardo Vargas, Guido Pizarro, Javier Aquino and Enner Valencia all chose the club having been at mid-level European teams.
Outside the very elite of Europe -- the Barcelona's, Manchester City's and Bayern Munich's, etc. -- you'd be hard pressed to find too many events and games in world soccer that can generate as much anticipation, atmosphere and excitement as the CONCACAF Champions League final did inside Estadio BBVA Bancomer on Wednesday.
Being involved likely beats going through a La Liga relegation scrap.
This game had the passion of an Argentine clasico, but without the agro. 27,000 turned up last weekend to a Tigres training session; rivals fans sat next each other inside the modern Estadio BBVA Bancomer, which may sound normal in North America, but certainly isn't in many parts of Europe or South America; Monterrey was welcomed to the stadium with thousands cheering the team bus. The pregame highlighted the more prominent cultural influence from north of the border, including a "Mexican wave" with cell phones glowing in the dark, fireworks and White Stripes' "Seven Nations Army" being bellowed at full voice by 53,000.
"This is one of the stadiums that's on the list to be a potential World Cup stadium and it's a fantastic venue," CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani told ESPN FC on Wednesday. "It just shows how far CONCACAF has come when we're hosting our pinnacle [club] event in venues of this nature."
On the field, the city rivals flexed their collective muscles. As if to highlight the strength of the squads, Argentina international Meza started on the bench for Monterrey to make way for the excellent Mexico international Roldofo Pizarro, and Gignac for sidelined for Tigres. The away side sought possession, while Monterrey hunted in packs trying to hit on transitions, providing a fascinating tactical battle amidst the mayhem in the stands. The only stain on the occasion was the questionable state of the pitch in Estadio BBVA Bancomer.
But while many from Mexico's heartlands -- Mexico City and its surrounds -- continue to demean the Clasico Regio as being a regional affair, the 120th edition of Monterrey's derby had repercussions that went beyond even Mexico.
"I think this tournament has improved every edition," said Montagliani. "This year is no exception. Higher TV ratings, more goals and that the final ends up being a derby of two teams from Monterrey is probably a fitting end to this edition of the Champions League."
For MLS front offices, the league itself, Central American and Caribbean clubs hoping to compete regularly to win the CCL, plus the vast majority of Liga MX, this final highlighted just how high the bar has been set and gave an insight what it is going to take for the rest to compete with Monterrey and Tigres.
In terms of quality of player, this was arguably the best final the CCL has ever seen. Even clubs in Mexico are struggling to compete. The Regio clubs snap up experienced players -- many lured by living in Mexico's richest municipality, San Pedro Garza -- as well as promising young talents and have absolutely no need to sell due to the size and economic power of their owners -- Rayados are owned by beverage giant FEMSA and Tigres by cement multinational CEMEX. It's rare that the best players from either leave in their prime.
"When they talk of the four big teams [in Mexico], they don't talk about Tigres," lamented French striker Gignac in an interview with ESPN's Futbol Picante. "I respect America a lot, Chivas a lot, Pumas and Cruz Azul, there's no doubt about that.
"But what've they done in the last 10 years, aside from America? Today, which are the two best teams in Mexico? They are from Monterrey."
But while the wider region may not have been gripped by the CCL final like the city of Monterrey was, perhaps it should've been.
The final accentuated that the epicenter of club football in the CONCACAF region is Monterrey. And, worryingly for the rest, both of its teams look set to strengthen moving forward.