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Ready or not: Liga MX, MLS launch headlong into expanded partnership

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Don Garber tells Sounder at Heart that the expanded format will improve the relationship between North America’s biggest leagues.

Miki Turner

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — You could be forgiven for thinking MLS commissioner Don Garber and Liga MX president Mikel Arriola are joined at the hip these days. After spending time in New York on Tuesday to announce major changes to both Leagues Cup and Concacaf Champions League, the pair were in Las Vegas 24 hours later, watching the Seattle Sounders and Club León contest the finale of Leagues Cup.

The tournament itself is a work in progress, which in a way mirrors the relationship between the heads of the respective leagues. Arriola has only been in his role as president of Liga MX since the start of 2021 while Garber has been with MLS for closer to two decades. While the relationship between the two leagues has undoubtedly gotten stronger over the past 10 years, there is still a transactional feeling about the partnership: Both sides think they can get something from the other.

Garber and the league owners have long coveted the soccer loving Hispanic fan living stateside, which follows Liga MX with a passion but looks askance at MLS, if they give it a thought at all. For Liga MX’s part, they have the passion and eyeballs, but not necessarily the financial stability that is the hallmark of MLS’s single-entity system.

So when Garber and Arriola spent some time with the local media prior to kickoff Wednesday, the duo were aimiable and friendly towards each other, though it was pretty clear they are all about what the other could bring them, much like two cartoon wolves drooling over the last drumstick on the table. Nowhere was that more clear that when Arriola was asked by Garber what it was about MLS that intrigued him, much like a spouse fishing for a compliment from their significant other.

“The first thing is governance, the financial balance, the corporate governance and the economic control that this league has is one of the best practices in the world,” Arriola said. “MLS is growing 20% per year, in terms of the value of the teams. The last 10 years, we [Liga MX] were growing 5% per year. We think it’s a very good idea to grow together and generate more for our partners and more growth for our players.”

Ah, romance.

For his part, Garber made no secret about how long MLS has been pursuing a closer relationship with Liga MX. For whatever reason, Liga MX wasn’t that into them, even as recently as 15 years ago.

“We’ve been talking to Liga MX for years about how this could come together.” Garber said. “We had Superliga in the early 2000’s and that evolved into expanded Champions League. For the last three or four years, we’ve been meeting together ... talking about product, what could we do together to make the North American version of the sport more competitive and more important in the world of global soccer.”

It’s refreshing in a way, then, that both MLS and Liga MX are up front about their intentions and expectations. At least nobody can be surprised after the honeymoon phase ends. It may not be the most romantic of relationships, but at least everyone knows where they stand.

“We know we have a great market here, and we know we have a great partner here,” Arrioa said. “I think the evolution of the story is that we were able to accomplish something for the fans and the players. Doing that in a united way will set a great example for the world, because this is the first time in history that two professional leagues are working together in a great yearly event in a modality very close for the World Cup. It’s a win-win situation.”

MLS and Liga MX may be past the courting stage, but there is a long way to go before they make things official. In the immediate future, there are more than a few “i’s” to dot and “t’s” to cross before Leagues Cup expands in 2023. While it appears that Liga MX will delay the start of their season to accommodate the month-long tournament, MLS will have no such luck, as July represents nearly the halfway point of the regular season.

“We think it makes sense to take a break for Major League Soccer,” Garber said “We haven’t made any decisions to reduce the number of games. Everybody’s talking about fixture congestion. We will figure out the right way to have a competitive calendar that’ll make sense for our players, make sense for our fans, and will both prioritize our league competition and prioritize Leagues Cup.”

Listening to Garber, it was pretty clear that the priority was getting the Leagues Cup expanded, and they’ll reverse-engineer how they resolve the issues that come about, including fixture congestion, roster construction, scheduling and even whether the conferences should continue to play each other, particularly when MLS expands to 30 (or 32) teams.

“What is it that we want to think about adjustments to our competitive format,” Garber said. “There’s so many different things, but the journey starts with a small step. That small step is not fully played out until 2023.”

The next step might involve a call to the MLS Player’s Association, since it will be the players that will bear the brunt of the additional games and travel. MLS currently plays a 34-game schedule, and weather considerations have always condensed the timeframe in which those games are played. Additionally, as salary-capped league, MLS has long been conservative on increased spending, even moreso in the aftermath of the pandemic, where they twice squeezed signifiant concessions from the union.

The month-long tournament could see players increasing their workload by 2-6 games meaning additional strain on their bodies, particularly give the budget rules that limit the ability for teams to acquire sufficient depth.

“The leagues are trying new things [and] it was nice to have the chance to win an international trophy,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said after Wednesday’s game, lighting pressing some proverbial brakes. “I don’t know how all of sudden we’re adding tournaments on top of Open Cup and other things, too. Our union’s going to probably have to discuss some things about that.”

Garber acknowledged concerns about the increased strain the tournament could place on the players, but was fairly noncommittal about a potential solution, especially when that would likely include expanded rosters and increased compensation. In other words: More money, something league owners will likely be loathe to commit to in world where a pandemic has decimated revenues.

“We’re going to have to figure out a way to make it right,” Garber said. “It’s been a priority to us to be more competitive against Liga MX. That hasn’t proven to be as successful for us over an extended period of time. We’ve got to figure out the right roster approach.”

It would be fair to wonder where all of this is leading, and one of the roads inevitably leads to talk about a full merger between the leagues — FIFA restrictions notwithstanding. Garber, while never outright dismissing the idea, clearly thinks the closer the two leagues get, the better. So they may not ever fully consummate the marriage, but perhaps living together and pooling resources is the next best thing.

“There’s been talk about a merger, that’s a business idea,” Garber said. “The real opportunity is, how could you have inter-league play. That’s what fans cared about, that’s what our respective owners cared about [and] that’s what our partners cared about. That’s what we’re going to be able to launch in 2023.”