Tuesday saw a major announcement in the U.S. soccer world: Major League Soccer and Liga MX announced they will take part in a completely revamped Leagues Cup starting in 2023, one that will see every team from each league participating.
All 47 teams — 29 from MLS and 18 from Liga MX — will pause their seasons for one month in order to compete in a group stage/knockout stage tournament format similar to most top competitions like the World Cup and UEFA Champions League.
ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle and Eric Gomez break down the announcement from the perspective of the two leagues. How will this work? What will each league get out of this, and will this be a good revision?
Jeff Carlisle: Expansion makes too much sense, but might be tough at first for MLS
MLS’s steady embrace of regional rival Liga MX reached a crescendo on Tuesday with the announcement of an expanded Leagues Cup, one that will involve every team from each league starting in 2023.
Off the field, the decision makes too much sense. Liga MX will get access to U.S. markets for each of its 18 teams, not just the select few. MLS can raise its profile as well by tapping into the U.S.-Mexico rivalry. It also gets a better competition on its calendar besides the previously watered-down version of the Leagues Cup that was in essence a series of glorified exhibitions.
With each league shutting down for a month during the tournament, and with considerable prize money at stake, the motivation level should be considerable, too.
In MLS circles, there is excitement about what the revised tournament could become on the field. “It’s going to be a game-changer,” said Sporting Kansas City manager and sporting director Peter Vermes. “I think first off, the competition being played in a World Cup style is gonna be pretty amazing for us to do that during our seasons. And there’s going to be a break.
“I just think it’s actually really, really cool. I think for players, it’s different. And when you have the chance to just focus on that one thing, I think it’s a big help for all teams. I’m really excited about it.”
But when you consider the extent to which Liga MX teams have dominated their MLS brethren in the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL), the new competition gives one pause. MLS teams have won just nine of the 51 home-and-home series against Liga MX teams in CCL play. It’s also a tad embarrassing for MLS to watch two Liga MX teams square off in the final of the CCL, which has happened in nine of the last 13 tournaments — including this year’s upcoming final between CF Monterrey and Club America.
Imagine those kinds of scenarios playing out over the course of an entire month. It’s one thing when it happens in the relative obscurity of the CCL; in the revamped Leagues Cup, not only would there be considerably more data in terms of games involving MLS and Liga MX sides, but there figure to be plenty more eyes on that data as well. There is the distinct possibility that the gap between the two leagues might be brought into sharper focus.
When that possibility was posed to MLS commissioner Don Garber, he pointed out how the calendar will be more favorable to MLS teams, making it “more of a level playing field.” That might be true on paper, but there’s still a sizable gap in payrolls, or at least the perception of one. Garber took exception to that characterization.
“We’re way more efficient in our spending than [Liga MX teams] are,” Garber told ESPN. “So just because they spend more doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re gonna win all the time.”
Even if, for the sake of argument, what Garber says is true, efficiency can be dwarfed by the sheer financial heft of Liga MX teams that operate without the salary cap with which MLS teams must contend. There’s also the fact that since Targeted Allocation Money was introduced in 2015 — which basically pumped more money into MLS salaries — the CCL numbers are slightly better, with MLS winning seven out of 27 times.
So yes, money matters, but the games will reveal just how much. And maybe some sobering Leagues Cup performances are what is needed for MLS to loosen its purse strings to a greater degree. It need not stop with salaries, either.
“It’s also our coaches doing a better job with our teams, being more organized,” said Vermes. “Understanding how we play with the ball, how we play when we don’t have the ball. I mean, it’s a combination of a lot of things. Obviously, [spending] helps, but I think we’ve got to get better with our pro-player pathway, and expect more from our homegrown kids. They have to be more committed; they have to want it more. There’s just so many things that go into that for me.”
How competitions like the CCL and U.S. Open Cup will be affected is an open question, but at minimum, the revamped tournament will be a compelling item on the North American soccer calendar. MLS in particular will be hoping it stays that way.
Eric Gomez: Leagues Cup makes sense for Liga MX… maybe just not on the pitch
The announcement of an expanded Leagues Cup — the first true joint tournament between MLS and Liga MX — is the fulfillment of a dream scenario partly cooked up years ago by a group of owners and executives in Mexico. Those who have long looked to capitalize on a market of nearly 40 million Mexican Americans in the U.S. will now feel successful in their bid to bring every single Liga MX team closer to those fans — and to make a healthy profit while doing so.
An extra revenue stream for Liga MX owners will go a long way toward stabilizing a league long racked with economic issues, even before COVID-19 ravaged the world. For years, an overall lack of investment in Mexico’s top division has meant a constant stream of franchises moving from city to city and unable to gain a foothold in the process. Liga MX’s promotion/relegation model was temporarily suspended in order to incentivize current owners to stay involved.
On paper, adding more games to the schedule — most, if not all, will likely be played in the U.S. — means that mid-table Liga MX teams can put some of the resulting revenues back into their squads and close the competitive gap that has arisen in recent years between the haves and have-nots in Mexico.
While the economic side of this was always a no-brainer for Liga MX, it will be interesting to see how the league will manage an increasingly saturated calendar. If this expanded Leagues Cup is held annually over the summer, it will invariably clash with big international tournaments like the Gold Cup, Copa America, the Olympics and even the World Cup itself. How much of a draw will it be if marquee players are constantly missing due to national team duty? It’s hard to say, but figuring out the calendar beyond pausing their own domestic schedules is a huge potential problem down the road.
Furthermore, Liga MX has little to gain on the pitch from this partnership given its supreme dominance in head-to-head matches and trophy lead over MLS in the past 25 years. Giving their biggest rivals a mathematical advantage in how many teams each league gets to field could eventually lead to the Mexican league losing their iron grip on things.
The biggest issue exclusive to Liga MX, however, is how they sell the idea to their fans back home. In recent years, momentum seemed to be building towards a return to the Copa Libertadores. A new, month-long tournament involving every single team in Mexico’s first division makes it very difficult to think teams would line up to add trips to South America on top of the Leagues Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League, which itself will expand starting in 2023.
Given the reaction, resistance and initial fury by fans of the European Super League only a few months ago, it would not be surprising to see Mexican fans riled up at the thought of shunning the chance to play against CONMEBOL clubs in favor of yet another venture with MLS. The expanded Leagues Cup, however, seems far more likely to occur than the ESL ever did, as Liga MX can always count on an eager second market north of the border where they can host games.