MLS and Liga MX fill a hole in soccer’s schedule with themselves
By Kevin Draper
In a major reordering of soccer competition in North America, the top men’s leagues in the United States and Mexico announced earlier this week the creation of an annual World Cup-style tournament in which every team from both leagues will compete. The monthlong tournament will take place in July and August, beginning in 2023, expanding the collaboration between Major League Soccer and Liga MX and adding more matches to an already crowded world soccer calendar.
“We need more global interest,” Don Garber, the MLS commissioner, said Tuesday. “This is a global sport. We are doing a good job of growing interest in MLS in our league here domestically. The next step is how do we grow interest outside of our region?”
A 47-team tournament (it will have 48 whenever MLS expands to 30 teams) with group and knockout stages during the only relatively quiet period of the soccer calendar — between the end of summer international tournaments and the beginning of club play in the fall — is a linchpin of the strategy.
The tournament will replace the much smaller Leagues Cup tournament and take its name. In order to grant it legitimacy and ensure teams take it seriously, organizers promised a large prize pool (but didn’t say how large). The top three teams will also earn berths into the CONCACAF Champions League, the region’s top club competition.
The new Leagues Cup will require a substantial reorganization of the MLS and Liga MX schedules. Rather than holding the event alongside league competition, both leagues will take a break for the duration of the tournament. For MLS, that means a pause of a month in the middle of its season, which typically starts in March, while for Liga MX that likely means a delay to the beginning of its season.
The entire soccer world, from clubs to leagues, confederations and FIFA itself, are in a constant pitched battle over the schedule, over new leagues and navigating national coronavirus laws. Promoters seem to often view soccer as a lucrative zero sum game, using increasingly exhausted players to wring as many dollars as possible out of the sport, with little cooperation among organizations.
Aware of this tension, MLS and Liga MX say they created the new tournament with the involvement of CONCACAF, which oversees soccer in North America, Central America and the Caribbean. And the Leagues Cup announcement coincided with another Tuesday, from CONCACAF, which said that starting in 2024 the CONCACAF Champions League would expand to 27 clubs, from 16 in 2021.
The expanded Champions League will begin with three regional tournaments, one each for North America, Central America and the Caribbean, before 16 teams qualify for knockout stages.
The Leagues Cup will see Mexican players spend even more time in the U.S., as the tournament will be held here. In 2023, the best Mexican players will compete for their national team in the Gold Cup, the regional championship for national teams that has always been held primarily in the U.S., in June and July. Many will then return to their Mexican clubs, which will already be in the U.S. preparing for the Leagues Cup.
Mikel Arriola, the Liga MX president, is not worried that Mexican soccer fans will dislike seeing their players spend nearly the entire summer playing north of the border, able to watch only on television without significant travel. This tournament is additive, he said, and does not take away from Liga MX.
“This will be a mixed model because we will continue with our traditional way in our local league,” Arriola said. “However, we both are innovating in this kind of summer extravaganza.”
The organizers hope the tournament, beyond selling millions of tickets, will create a bonanza of television dollars, especially outside of North America. The rights to show MLS and Liga MX games outside of their home countries are not particularly valuable. While MLS is shown in, say, England, television and streaming companies there pay far more to show the Premier League or the Champions League than they do for MLS. But an easy-to-understand tournament during a lull in the calendar could prove popular.
MLS will control television rights to the tournament in the U.S. and Canada, Liga MX will control the rights for Mexico, and the two will partner to sell them in the rest of the world. MLS is also speaking with media companies about both local and national rights to show its league games, which are currently held by ESPN, Fox and a number of local media companies but expire next year.
Media rights to the Leagues Cup could be sold in conjunction with those rights to the same company or companies, or could be sold separately.
The success of the tournament will also be judged on whether it improves North American clubs and players. Arriola said the tournament will provide vital competition to teams in the middle and the bottom of Liga MX, who do not qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League.
“Sometimes big teams grow alone,” he said. But if the Leagues Cup generates the proper incentives, there will be more of what Arriola called “horizontal growth” across the entire league.
Ultimately the Leagues Cup, and everything else between the two leagues, is pointed toward 2026, when the U.S. will host the World Cup, alongside Mexico and Canada. “Now we have the rocket fuel of the World Cup that could help propel us to a higher level,” said Garber, “and ultimately be viewed as we have aspired to be, one of the top leagues in the world.”