For at least the last decade, MLS teams have been using Liga MX opponents as a sort of measuring stick. What started off as a gross mismatch has slowly, over time, become a bit more of a fair fight. MLS teams now, at least, force Liga MX teams to use starters when once they were happy to roll out reserve-laden squads.
Actual victories in real competition, however, have been harder to come by.
Liga MX teams have won all 11 Concacaf Champions League titles and have claimed the top two spots in all but three years. Of the 44 semifinalists, just nine have been from MLS.
At the same time, both leagues seem to recognize that a rising tide raises all ships and have started working together as part of a “strategic partnership.” Last year, that brought us the first-ever Campeones Cup, which pitted the Liga MX champions against the MLS Cup champions. It was, to be sure, a bit contrived and a barely disguised money grab. But it was also fun, mostly. It was just a single game between two obviously good teams. At the very least, it was inoffensive and had the potential to be interesting. Was it really any more ridiculous than countless “Super” cups played around Europe?
The recent announcement of the Leagues Cup feels a bit different. Unlike the Campeones Cup, the Leagues Cup is supposed to be an actual tournament consisting of seven total games. Another notable difference: at least for the inaugural tournament, which will kick off this July, the MLS teams didn’t even need to qualify. Rather, they seem to have been selected by virtue of how likely their fans are to be interested in watching Liga MX teams play.
How teams were selected is just the first of many problems that keep the Leagues Cup from having even the faintest air of legitimacy. Notably, no games are scheduled to be played in Mexico. The quarterfinals are all being contested at the home stadiums of the MLS teams. Even if all four Liga MX teams advance in the single-elimination format, the semifinals will be played at the LA Galaxy’s StubHub Center or the Houston Dynamo’s BBVA Compass Stadium. The location of the final has not yet been determined, but the rumor is that it could be played in Las Vegas, presumably at Sam Boyd Stadium, which should be absolutely pleasant in September heat.
There’s also the potential problem that both Liga MX and MLS coaches will be reluctant to use starters. For MLS teams, the Leagues Cup semifinals and finals will be played during the league playoff push and be smack dab in the middle of what is already a busy point in the season, with weekend games being played on either side of the Leagues Cup schedule. One MLS coach already confirmed he plans to use mostly second-team players, and that will likely be the norm. For Liga MX teams, the games will be played during the early stages of the Apertura, and it’s unlikely that players will have built up the fitness to compete on two fronts — an issue that currently plagues MLS teams in CCL play.
Fans are not stupid. I’m sure these games will sell some tickets, which always happens when Mexican teams come to the United States, but only the most naive will see this as anything like a genuine competition, no matter how loudly participants scream “We are taking this extremely seriously” as RSL head coach Mike Petke did.
My suspicion is that most fans, especially those without a team participating, will simply ignore it while also crossing their fingers that their team isn’t forced to play in it the subsequent years. Even if MLS teams perform well, no one will accept it as proof that the quality gap has been significantly closed.
What’s worse is I don’t think it had to be this way.
It does not take a PR genius to recognize that there’s a pretty good foundation to build a competitive tournament that pits Liga MX directly against MLS outside the confines of CCL. That tournament would need a few key elements to give it an air of legitimacy, though.
Here is a quick and dirty format that I think might work:
- Force all teams to qualify through regular season play: In MLS, it should be the top four teams in the Supporters’ Shield standings that aren’t already in CCL. In Liga MX, it should be the top four teams from the combined Apertura-Clausura table of the preceding year that haven’t already qualified for CCL.
- Seed the tournament on a 1-4 scale: The top qualifying MLS team would play the bottom qualifying Liga MX team and so on.
- Let Liga MX host games: The higher-seeded team from each league would get a home game in the quarterfinals regardless of which league they’re in.
- Play the semis and finals in one neutral location: Las Vegas seems like a fine place to host, as long as the games can be played in the Raiders’ new stadium — or perhaps in a planned MLS facility — which should be ready by next August. Block out a long weekend in early September and have games on Thursday and Sunday.
- Give the winner a spot in CCL: The details would obviously need some tweaking, but it doesn’t seem impossible, especially since Concacaf has already sanctioned the tournament.
This tournament might still be silly and push the boundaries of legitimacy, but I think it at least has the potential to be fun and interesting.
Unfortunately, I fear the well is being poisoned by rushing out a half-baked product this year. I suspect league officials knew that, but did it anyway because they would rather have the guaranteed payday of filling otherwise empty stadiums with more event dates. Doing it this way is a sort of path of least resistance, requiring a lower level of buy-in from all sides while still offering some potential.
If the Leagues Cup is successful, maybe it gets expanded into something like I’ve outlined here. My suspicion, though, is that it will never be successful without many of these elements, feeding a negative cycle. In the end, it’s a wasted opportunity and MLS officials have no one to blame but themselves.