- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 21, 2018

So it’s not exactly a paradigm shift, but there are signs that Major League Soccer is catching up to its neighboring league to the south.

The evidence was on display last week, when the New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC advanced to the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals with two-legged victories over Liga MX teams.

The Red bulls defeated Club Tijuana 3-1 to advance 5-1 on aggregate. It’s the first time the Red Bulls have made the semifinal round. Toronto, the reigning MLS Cup champion, finished 4-4 on aggregate against Tigres UNAL, advancing on away goals.

It is the first time that two MLS clubs have defeated two Liga MX teams in the same tournament.

“We’re not done. It’s only the quarterfinals. It feels like a big victory and a big moment,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said after he was reminded that his team was the first to win against a Mexican opponent both at home and away.

“It’s big for our club and our league to be able to go through the Mexican champions,” Toronto coach Greg Vanney said.

The only disappointing part is that there might have been three MLS teams in the semis, but the Seattle Sounders fell 3-1 on aggregate in their two-legged quarterfinal to Chivas de Guadalajara.

Early next month, Club America (3-1-0) will host the return leg of the series with Toronto FC (2-1-1), while the Red Bulls (3-1-0) host the return leg of the other semifinal against Chivas de Guadalajara (3-0-1).

Of course, the CCL championship could be the best indicator of the strides MLS has made in recent years when it comes to quality.

The rival leagues are certainly getting closer in other ways. MLS and Liga MX recently joined forces on a long-term partnership that will launch later this year when Toronto hosts the champion from Liga MX.

The match, dubbed the Campeones Cup, is set for Sept. 19 in Toronto. The Liga MX opponent will be the winner of July’s Campeon de Campeones match between the Apertura champion Tigres and the Clausura champion determined in May.

The last MLS team to win the CONCACAF Champions League was the LA Galaxy 17 years ago. Since then, just two MLS teams have reached the finals. The winner of the event advances to the Club World Cup.

Mexico has dominated the tournament. The last time a Mexican club lost in the final was 2005, when Costa Rica’s Saprissa beat the Pumas.

“I think the MLS is evolving and evolving pretty quickly. It’s a league that’s still maturing,” Vanney said. “The league itself is giving (teams) mechanisms to be able to go out and bring in more experienced players and spend a little bit more money on rosters, which gives us more depth and sometimes more quality. I think from the perspective of our league, teams are getting tactically more savvy, more aware.”

But the public has yet to really catch on in the United States: The Red Bulls match in Harrison drew 6,393 fans. To be fair it was a winter weeknight match.

“We’re hopeful as an organization that as we move forward here in this tournament that word gets out that yeah, this is a big deal,” Jesse Marsch said.

MATCH OF THE WEEK: Can NYCFC keep winning? The league’s only perfect team (3-0-0) goes on the road to play the New England Revolution (1-1-0) in Foxborough on Saturday.

NYCFC is coming off a 2-0 victory over Orlando City last Saturday, opening the season with three wins for the first time. And the team did it without star David Villa, who is nursing an injury. Anton Tinnerholm was also out.

“Of course when you’re missing David, you’re missing Anton, it’s not easy. But I think we showed we have a good squad of good players,” NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira said following the victory over Orlando. “I’m really glad because it shows that we are working well, and that everybody is aware about what we need to do when we are on the field.”

BEST OF THE REST: On the other side of the spectrum are the Portland Timbers, who finished atop the Western Conference last season but opened this year with two straight losses. The Timbers are adjusting to a new system under coach Giovanni Savarese, who was hired after Portland parted ways with Caleb Porter in the offseason.

Portland, on an extended season-opening road trip because of construction at Providence Park, visits FC Dallas on Saturday. Dallas is 1-0-1 to open the season.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez was named the league’s Player of the Week after a hat trick in Atlanta’s 4-1 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps last Saturday.

Martinez has four hat tricks in just 23 regular-season MLS games, one shy of the league record. The Venezuelan forward averages a goal a game for his MLS career.

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