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What is this Leagues Cup thing Sounders are playing in?

Leagues Cup is a relatively new competition between MLS and Liga MX.

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Gallery Photo: Sounders FC vs. Santos Laguna Jane Gershovich / JaneG. Photography

Although the Seattle Sounders are in the middle of a pretty busy part of their schedule, you’ve likely noticed that they do have a match on Tuesday when they host Mexican powers Santos Laguna in Leagues Cup. Based on what I’ve heard about ticket sales, I am guessing a lot of you either don’t know or, perhaps, don’t care about this game.

That said, it’s a competitive match and we here at Sounder at Heart have long championed the idea of “Trophies not friendlies”, so we feel it’s our duty to at least give you the ability to make an informed decision about how much you should care about it.

Here’s a quick rundown of what this tournament is and why it might be worth your attention:

What is Leagues Cup?

At its most basic level, it’s a competition between MLS and Liga MX teams. The tournament consists of four teams from each league, all of whom qualified through regular-season play. All of the matches are played in the United States, with the first two rounds being played at MLS stadiums and the final being played in Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium. This is actually a scaled down version of what was planned last year, when there were going to be 16 teams.

Who’s playing?

The Sounders are the last remaining MLS team after Sporting KC, New York City FC and Orlando City were all eliminated in the quarterfinals. The Sounders-Santos Laguna winner will then face the winner of Leon-Pumas UNAM — which is taking place in Houston on Wednesday — in the Leagues Cup final on Sept. 22. That game will take place in Las Vegas regardless of who’s playing.

How did everyone qualify?

Each league sent four regular-season finishers who didn’t otherwise qualify for Concacaf Champions League or Campeones Cup. MLS chose the top two eligible teams from each conference in the 2020 standings, while Liga MX used the aggregate table from 2020-21. The Sounders got in by finishing second in the West.

The Sounders advanced to the semifinals by beating Tigres UANL, while Santos Laguna got here after beating Orlando City.

What kind of roster will the Sounders field?

Ever since he was first asked about this tournament, Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer has insisted that he’s planning to take it seriously. True to his word, he put out what was pretty much a first-choice lineup against Tigres. He’s been saying the same stuff ahead of this game and will likely field a lineup that at least comparable to that first one. The big difference this time is that the Sounders are quite a bit healthier, albeit also in the midst of a very busy period of their schedule.

Did I hear that Jordan Morris might play?

Well, he’s technically on the Sounders roster but I wouldn’t read too much into that. Everyone who hasn’t been declared out for the year is listed as eligible, and there’s no reason to think Morris has any chance of making an appearance before the MLS playoffs at the very earliest. Stefan Frei, who’s also listed as eligible, probably won’t play either. More notable are the inclusion of Tacoma Defiance players Obed Vargas and Alex Villanueva, who will apparently be eligible through some sort of loan.

Is this different from the old North American SuperLiga?

You’re not wrong in thinking there are a lot of similarities. Although they fussed with how teams qualified for SuperLiga, the selection process they ended up with for the final two versions of that tournament was the same as this one, all the games were played in the United States, and it took place during the Mexican offseason.

The main difference, I suppose, is that the two leagues are a little more evenly matched now than they were then. When the SuperLiga existed (2007-10), an MLS team had never won a competitive match in Mexico and the respective payrolls were in different stratospheres. While Liga MX still dominates in CCL, at least MLS teams are competitive and the salaries among starters are on par, even if the Mexican teams still spend much more on their entire rosters. It should also help that the winner of this tournament will eventually get a spot in CCL, but that doesn’t go into effect until next year.

Is that enough to make a difference?

Just how different these tournaments are perceived is still very much to be determined, and that’s kinda up to you. The first version of the Leagues Cup was a bit of a farce. The MLS participants were basically chosen at random and many of the teams openly fielded reserve-heavy lineups. Attendance was very mixed — drawing announced crowds between 10,000-22,000, only one MLS team advanced out of the first round, and the final was between two Liga MX teams. I think this year’s tournament is probably going to be a little bit better and the prospect of playing the final in brand new stadium on the Vegas Strip does sound appealing, but without a CCL berth on the line it also feels a bit empty. The Sounders announced a crowd of about 17,000 for the first game, but would probably need another strong walk-up crowd to equal that in this one.

Either way, there’s reason to think this tournament has some promise. Herculez Gomez recently told us that he’s bullish on its potential, and folks in Mexico seem to be taking it seriously too.

I will say that I’m a believer that more collaboration between Liga MX and MLS is a good thing. I think, at worst, it’s a chance to expand the visibility of MLS to Latino fans and compete for a trophy at the cost of some potential fixture congestion. At best, it could be a lot of fun and the first game was very much that. Time will tell how big of a deal it ultimately ends up being.

*This post updated throughout on Sept. 13 after originally publishing on Aug. 10.

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