If I were the cynical sort (perish the thought!), I might suggest that MLS realizes its main stream of income, expansion, might be drying up in the coming years. That’s if you go by the “MLS is a Ponzi scheme” theory, which one has to admit has some legs. Charlotte and St. Louis join the league in the next two years, but, after that, there are no more definite candidates, and the pandemic has probably made that an even farther reach for a lot of cities. So perhaps MLS went searching for another revenue source to boost their anemic (comparatively) TV deal. That’s what I would say if I were the cynical sort.
Which is probably what’s led the league to have the hots for tapping into the huge amount of Liga MX fans in the US, which is in the tens of millions. It is the most-watched league in the States, after all. However, let’s not be that cynical, and say that the combined Liga MX-MLS Leagues Cup coming in 2023 involving every team from both leagues is really cool. And it could lead to more cool stuff down the road, probably after the jointly-held (with Canada getting their pat on their head, too) 2026 World Cup.
First off, there’s not really anything in the world like it. Yeah, there are cross-country competitions like the Champions League and Copa Libertadores. And with the rumored group stage aspect, this is kind of what the two leagues are getting after. But neither of those competitions take place at once, as this cup will. Both leagues on either side of the border will pause their season for a month to play this competition in one go. Which should give it a unique feel, perhaps add to the intensity of it, and certainly let it build momentum through the group and knockout stages. At least for the teams in MLS that aren’t scrapping for the top spots in the conference or around the fringes of the playoff spots, this will be a chance to redefine a season. Perhaps the teams at the top of the standings or loitering around the last playoff spots will regard this as a nuisance, but they also might enjoy the pause. And as for the teams chasing a playoff spot, will fans remember clawing into the playoffs, or a deep run in this competition more? Debatable.
But as I’ve said a lot, once you hit the summer months in MLS, the urgency drops. Playoff positions aren’t set, but they aren’t exactly in total dispute either. Combine that with trying to play through some intense heat, and you get a lot of games that are just kind of… there. You get some bonkers ones, too, as teams aren’t all that committed to doing the running to defend either, so it’s something of a balance. This will be a nice little jolt.
The timing should be great for MLS teams, not so much Liga MX teams. Liga MX basically runs on the European calendar, with their Apertura Championship starting at the end of July, usually. Mexico runs two seasons every year essentially, with an “Apertura” season running from July to November with every team playing each other once, and a “Clausura” that runs from January to May with the reverse fixtures from the Apertura. It can be a little confusing but this is how South and Central American teams have done it for a while, so just go with it. As such, this Leagues Cup will either begin before the Mexican season starts, meaning some teams might use it as a preseason training exercise, or it’ll start right after the MX season kicks off, which is also a bit awkward. They’ll have to sort this out.
MLS’s argument will be that this is what happens to their teams in the CONCACAF Champions League, as those knockout rounds start when MLS teams are still in preseason and have left them unequipped to really vie for it. Not sure two wrongs make a right here, but whatever.
What MLS is dreaming about is a separate TV deal, and cashing in on ESPN’s or Fox’s or CBS’s desire for fans in the states to tune in to watch Chivas or Club América, which is hardly a tiny possible audience. The money on such a deal would be of the antihistamine variety (not to be sneezed at!) And MLS will be eying their desire to buy tickets when they have to come north in this tourney, assuming the whole tournament doesn’t take place in the States, which it might. Liga MX will be only too happy to introduce themselves to more and more American fans to boost their US TV deals. No one loses in that sense. Liga MX has had some serious financial issues of late, so any cash injection is welcome. And this one could provide quite the hit.
Of course, how you divide 47 teams (29 MLS, 18 Liga MX) into equal groups is a challenge. Another is just how clocked MLS teams have generally gotten by MX teams in the CONCACAF Champions League over the years (MLS is 9-42 in two-legged ties between teams in the two leagues), and what kind of look it would be for MLS if they were to get domed for the first two or three years of this competition. Thirdly, if it is held in late summer, how do players participating in international tournaments in the summer mix back in? Are they still on break? Just getting back into shape?
The question overhanging all of this is… will this lead to a permanent merger of the two leagues. Owners and execs on both sides have been quick to squash that of late, but it’s hard to ignore how much money it could lead to for both. It wouldn’t happen until after that 2026 World Cup, but if the first couple iterations of this Leagues Cup are a smashing success, watch how quickly those execs go from denying a merger out of hand to smiling mischievously.
For now, or in two years, fans will get a unique and cool competition to watch at a point that is kind of dead on the soccer calendar, at least on these shores. And maybe MLS getting embarrassed a couple times, in anticipation of a possible merger down the road, might see MLS rules changed to get even more around their draconian salary cap and see the league run more like the ones around the world. Hey, a fan can dream.