Europe’s top leagues are still ideal for El Tri players, but the manager’s apathy about moves back to North American leagues could serve him well

If Tata Martino didn’t believe it, he wouldn’t say it.

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The recently appointed Mexico national team coach is a man of his word. And Martino not only has he said it once, he’s said it on multiple occasions: The Argentine isn’t so sure European leagues are more competitive than the leagues in North America.

It’s important to note Martino isn’t saying the quality is higher in MLS or Liga MX than in La Liga or the Premier League. He’s talking about parity. Teams in MLS and Liga MX are much more level. Grandes like America win championships, but so do less-storied teams like Santos Laguna. In MLS, an expansive playoff system means the Portland Timbers can make the final after finishing behind seven teams in the regular season.

“Probably the Liga MX or the American league, there are a higher number of competitive games than in the Spanish league or the English league,” Martino said Wednesday. ​If you look at the Premier League or the Spanish league, the really competitive games are 10 [of the] 38.

“Here the competitive games, if you really compare, in the United States where you have teams all having the same conditions for signing, I’m speaking in financial terms, you’re probably competing with more urgency over the long-term of the year in Liga MX or in the U.S. than the best leagues in Europe.”

Last week he said national team managers have no say over a decision like that of Carlos Salcedo’s choice to leave Eintracht Frankfort for Tigres. 

“In no way do I consider it a regression that he’s come to play here in Mexican football because when you analyze the European leagues, I don’t know if there are as many matches like America-Monterrey, Cruz Azul-America, Monterrey-Tigres, Tigres-Pachuca, in Mexico there are seven or eight teams that are really even and that gives the player competition,” Martino said. 

“If you analyze the German league, the Spanish league, the Italian league, there are two or three teams that stand out above the rest and the other teams have a regular level.”

After a string of managers yelling at the clouds about the economic realities of the current ecosystem, it’s a breath of fresh air to know Martino won’t consistently be railing against players signing in North America. Managers of both the U.S. and Mexico have expressed their frustration with their players’ decisions to come back to this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

It’s only going to happen more frequently as the level keeps increasing in North America and the arms race gets more and more serious. The Monterrey teams have shown that they’re willing to spend big to coax an El Tri player like Salcedo or new Monterrey signing Miguel Layun back home. And Martino’s former club Atlanta United helped usher in a new era in MLS by spending big on all three designated players – and sparing few expenses in other categories. Now Marco Fabian is in Philadelphia with MLS teams’ appetite for Mexican players unlikely to decrease.

Yet, while it’s nice to know Martino won’t be bringing up where his players play their club football at every opportunity, his view feels incomplete.

Martino’s logic tracks if we’re thinking about a club like the Barcelona team he managed. Most games your roster is simply better than any other team you play. Now and then you come across Real Madrid or a team like Atletico Madrid, which won the league during Martino’s time with the Blaugrana. The other weeks you’re playing clubs like Eibar, Alaves and Celta de Vigo.

Flip it, though, and take a player like Nestor Araujo currently with Celta. Not only does Araujo occasionally test himself against Lionel Messi or Karim Benzema, he also has the sort of competitive games that Martino mentions when Celta comes up against equivalent opponents in the middle of the table in Spain. 

It’s the same for Raul Jimenez at Wolves. His tests against teams like Manchester City and Liverpool are infrequent, sure, but they are significant. The level drops slightly but the competition is still there when Wolves face mid-table rivals or opponents desperately looking for three points to avoid relegation.

Maybe a player like Hirving Lozano, whose PSV side is the heavy favorite to take a second Eredivisie title in his two years there, isn’t getting the sort of ‘roce’ Martino wants his players to have or falling into the same sort of competitive rhythm. Even then, those are the players who are always going to have enough talent for the Mexico national team and know how to raise their game for big occasions, whether it be Champions League or Gold Cup.

What Martino believes, like what you or I believe, is shaped by his experiences. He’s managed a megaclub in La Liga and experienced the grind of an MLS season. Competitive or not, though, his players are still best served in Europe’s top leagues.

That said, there’s little use in complaining about a trend that’s going to continue. Martino may be off-base about where his players will be tested the most, but already he’s setting up as a coach who can get the most out of the players in his pool – no matter where they call their club home.