Sports

MLS, Liga MX eye World Cup-style tourney in ’23

Major League Soccer and Liga MX announced on Tuesday that starting in 2023, the two organizations will take part in a completely revamped Leagues Cup, one that will see every team from each league take part.

All told, 47 teams — 29 from MLS and 18 from Liga MX — will pause their seasons for one month in order to compete in the tournament, with the format consisting of a group phase followed by a knockout stage. While many of the details still have to be worked out, it’s expected that there will be a significant prize-money component for the players.

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The revised Leagues Cup is just the latest sign of the increased cooperation between MLS and Liga MX. In a bid to raise the profile of both organizations and the sport ahead of the 2026 World Cup — co-hosted by Canada, Mexico and the U.S. — the revised tournament has CONCACAF’s blessing. The Leagues Cup will be an official competition of the CONCACAF Champions League, with the winner of the Leagues Cup gaining automatic passage to the CCL round of 16. The second- and third-place finishers will earn spots in the CCL’s opening round.

“We have been thinking about how to capture the interest and passion around the USA-Mexico soccer rivalry for many, many years,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told ESPN in an exclusive interview. “Now, we are authenticating it, and turning it into an official CONCACAF competition. Because ultimately, our confederation recognizes that increasing the interest and value of club competition between our two leagues is only going to help the sport grow in this region. And that’s an important priority for all soccer stakeholders in North America as we lead up to the World Cup in 2026.”

Mikel Arriola, executive president of Liga MX, told ESPN, “What we wanted, jointly, was to increase the breadth of our teams in the U.S. considering that we have 60 million fans here. So for us, it was very important to expand the presence of every team, not just the big teams, or the mid-sized teams. We wanted to grow in terms of presence, and also we want to grow jointly with MLS considering that they have a very solid governance model, they have a very solid commercial model. And we know that we can jointly generate more development for football in the region.”

Among the concerns about the expanded tournament is fixture congestion. The tournament fits a bit easier with Liga MX’s schedule in that the start of the Apertura tournament could be delayed while the Leagues Cup takes place in the July-August timeframe. Arriola also said that the Copa MX would be no longer be played.

But for MLS, in addition to the regular season and Leagues Cup, teams will also have to juggle the U.S. Open Cup and in some cases the CONCACAF Champions League.

“We feel we addressed that by taking a break in our schedules, and prioritizing this particular competition as something that stands alone from our respective regular seasons,” said Garber about fixture congestion. “We have such an incredibly long season, and there are so many competitions that take place within our seasons. So to create something that adds an exciting new element, I think shows that we’re innovative, and we’re looking to be creative, and take some risks during a really important time in the development and evolution of the sport.”

Historically, Liga MX teams have dominated the CCL, winning 17 of the 19 editions of the tournament since 2002, when the competition reinstituted a two-legged format. In 51 all-time matchups between MLS and Liga MX teams, MLS has prevailed just nine times. That history doesn’t concern either of Garber or Arriola.

Garber pointed to how the schedule of the CCL, the bulk of which happens in the beginning of the MLS season, didn’t favor the league’s teams.

“This puts everybody on equal footing, and ought to provide both an incentive and a perfect backdrop for competition between our two leagues,” said Garber.

Arriola added, “I think that [imbalance] is not eternal, no? Everyone can win, and our teams are very interested in winning in the U.S., considering also that this will be a new source of income for around 14 teams in our league. So I think that these, these are incentives to increase the level of the tournament.”

Liga MX has previously experimented with different interleague tournament formats, including the now-defunct SuperLiga which took place between 2007 and 2010. The partnership between MLS and Liga MX became more intertwined in 2018 with the Campeones Cup, a match that pitted the two most recent league champions against each other. This year’s edition will feature the Columbus Crew hosting Cruz Azul on Sept. 29.

In 2019 the Leagues Cup was born — with this year’s final featuring the Seattle Sounders FC against Club Leon, to be held on Sept. 22 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. The most recent MLS All-Star Game featured squads from both both leagues.

The partnership between the two leagues will extend off the field as well, as MLS and Liga MX will form a joint venture to sell international media rights to the tournament. The Leagues Cup will also be among the properties included by MLS and its marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing, for its new media rights deal that is set to begin in 2023, though it remains to be seen if the tournament will be bundled together with regular-season matches.

The Leagues Cup expansion was part of a broader announcement by CONCACAF regarding the future structure of the Champions League format. Eighteen North American clubs will qualify with the Leagues Cup winner, MLS Cup winner, and Liga MX winner (the particulars of this team to be determined later) progressing directly to the round of 16. Six Central American clubs will qualify, with the winner of the newly constituted Central American Cup moving directly to the round of 16. Three Caribbean clubs will qualify, with the winner of the Caribbean Cup also moving directly to the last 16.

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