For all the advancements that MLS has made over the years, there’s no denying that it still trails Liga MX, not only in off-field relevance but in on-field performance. While the gap may be shrinking, Liga MX continues to dominate when the two leagues face off.
One potential way to close that gap is to increase the frequency with which the two leagues play one another, or at least that’s what MLS officials hope and one of the reasons given for Leagues Cup coming into existence.
The competition first began in 2019, and I’ll admit I was skeptical. It was unveiled inauspiciously, with participating MLS teams seemingly chosen at random and many of them openly fielding second-choice lineups. After taking a year off due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the tournament is now back with a bit more structure that addresses many — but not all — of my main concerns.
- Unlike the inaugural version of the tournament, MLS teams did have to qualify. The Seattle Sounders, Sporting KC, Orlando City and New York City FC were the top two finishers from their respective conferences not to qualify for Concacaf Champions League.
- While the 2019 final was played outdoors in the summer heat of Las Vegas, this year’s final is at the gleaming indoor facility of Allegiant Field.
- Although the 2021 Leagues Cup winner won’t get a berth in CCL, the 2022 winner will get one when that tournament expands.
Admittedly, this tournament is still not perfect. I’m still not quite sure how the quarterfinal matchups were determined; it’s still a little annoying that none of these games are being played in Mexico — although Covid definitely complicates that; and the scheduling leaves a bit to be desired.
The scheduling on the first match is actually pretty good. The home match against Tigres UANL on Aug. 10 comes six days after the Sounders host FC Dallas and five days before they visit the Portland Timbers. From a fitness perspective, there’s nothing wrong with that.
A prospective semifinal won’t be as convenient, though. If the Sounders advance, they’ll face the winner of the Orlando City-Santos Laguna match, at a location to be determined. Presumably, the Sounders will host if they’re set to play Santos Laguna, but it’s less clear where that game will be played if both the Sounders and Orlando City advance. More than that, the Sounders have an MLS match scheduled for Sept. 15, essentially the same day as the semifinal.
The final is only slightly more convenient, as the Sept. 22 match would fall between two weekend road games against Real Salt Lake. (Sept. 18) and Sporting KC (Sept. 26).
But that’s all getting a bit ahead of ourselves. For now, the Sounders only need to worry about the Tigres match and the prospect of testing themselves against a very good Liga MX opponent, and head coach Brian Schmetzer promises to take that one seriously.
“We’re going to put our best team out there,” he said, almost incredulous at the suggestion he might do otherwise. “It’s Tigres, we’re putting our best team out there.”
I definitely have my concerns about how the Sounders will balance things if they advance, but I will admit that the concerns I voiced in 2019 are not as acute. If nothing else, winning this version of the tournament would feel like a genuine accomplishment. As an early champion of the “trophies not friendlies” campaign, I feel comfortable getting behind this.
Matches against Liga MX opponents have always been fun, especially when there’s something on the line and I like the idea of creating more opportunities to play them. In the absence of CCL or Open Cup games, I’m also inclined to think that the scheduling concerns can be managed. MLS still has work to do in terms of improving its visibility — especially among Latino fans — and I think this moves things in the right direction. If you want to see MLS improve, I think tournaments like this that both create competition and, yes, generate revenue are almost imperative. If that also involves a road trip to Las Vegas, I’m not against that either.