About a year after the tournament was first announced, details of the expanded Leagues Cup were finally revealed on Thursday and, well, it’s a lot.
From a top-line perspective, all 47 Liga MX and MLS teams are scheduled to play 77 games spread out from July 21-Aug. 19, 2023. Both leagues will place their seasons on hold during the tournament, which will come directly on the heels of the Concacaf Gold Cup that is scheduled to run June 29-July 16.
All of the games will be played at MLS stadiums in the United States and Canada, with hosting rights determined by the 2022 Supporters’ Shield standings.
The MLS Cup champion and the Liga MX Clausura or Apertura winner with the better combined record over both tournaments will receive a bye into the Round of 32, with the other 45 teams split up into 15 three-team groups. The top 15 remaining MLS teams in Shield standings will host each of the groups. The top 15 remaining Liga MX teams will be seeded by their regular-season standings, with higher seeds matched up with lower MLS teams. Finally, the two remaining Liga MX teams and 13 remaining MLS will be teams drawn into groups and distributed geographically. Two groups will end up with two Liga MX teams while the rest will have two MLS teams.
The seeded MLS teams will host two matches, the unseeded MLS teams will host one match and matches between two Liga MX opponents will be played at “select” MLS venues. Games that end in a tie will go straight to a penalty shootout where the winning team can earn an additional point, the same format employed by MLS NEXT Pro this year.
The top two teams from each group will advance to the Round of 32, where they’ll be joined by the Liga MX and MLS Cup winners. From that point forward, it’s a straight knockout tournament with the games hosted by the highest-seeded MLS team. The final and third-place matches will also be hosted by the higher-seeded MLS teams, or at a “select” MLS venue should the game involve two Liga MX sides.
Every MLS team is guaranteed to host at least one game, the vast majority will play at least two and some of them will play as many as seven games during the course of the tournament.
The winner of the tournament will get a direct spot in the expanded 2024 Concacaf Champions League Round of 16, while the second- and third-place finishers will go to the Round of 32.
While MLS has at least created a format that appears to be reasonably compelling, there are some pretty notable drawbacks. The first is that by coming directly on the heels of the Gold Cup, it almost ensures that the league will be forced to play through that entire tournament. Teams like the Sounders routinely lose 5-7 players for the Gold Cup.
Compounding that problem is that the length of the Leagues Cup means as many as 15 MLS teams could be left without meaningful matches to play for at least two or three weeks, while others stack as many as five additional matches onto a 34-match regular-season schedule, Concacaf Champions League which could add as many as eight games, U.S. Open Cup that could add up to six more games and even up to three FIFA Club World Cup matches. That’s before we even get to the MLS playoffs, which consist of as many as four games, and they’ve not even made any formal announcements about ending Campeones Cup or the All-Star Game.
While it’s unlikely any team would max out their games, it’s at least theoretically possible that the busiest MLS teams would play 63 competitive matches over a full season while the least busy could play as few as 37. For comparison, Liverpool maxed out their games played last year and finished with 63.
As it currently stands, the Sounders would be guaranteed to host just one game while likely being drawn into a group that would be hosted by either the Portland Timbers or one of the Los Angeles teams.
Why are they doing this?
There will be plenty of people who feel as though this is an unnecessary distraction and the kind of thing that “against modern football” types decry for both legitimate and silly reasons. But both Liga MX and MLS have made clear that they believe this sort of thing is mutually beneficial and there are plenty of reasons to think it will be popular, even if it’s a bit divisive.
MLS will finally get to tap into the sizeable Mexican-American market that they’ve struggled to appeal to. This is a big part of why Apple TV was willing to fork over $2.5 billion for broadcast rights over 10 years. But Liga MX is also looking for ways to appeal to those same fans. It’s estimated that more a third of Liga MX fans live in the United States, and this promises to grow that number.
Liga MX president Mikel Arriola said last week that he believes the tournament will help Mexico's top flight become one of the top 5 leagues in the world.— Cesar Hernandez (@cesarhfutbol) October 6, 2022
Noted that of the league's 157 million fans, 60 million live in the U.S. https://t.co/ogdvJjdEUv #LigaMXeng https://t.co/ty4LNHVGNL
In case there’s any doubt about the interest in these games, look no further than this summer’s “showcase” games that weren’t even official competitions. The LA Galaxy-Chivas de Guadalajara match drew a combined audience of more than 1.5 million people while LAFC-Club America had about 500,000.
For context, MLS’s average national TV audience has hovered between 200,000-300,000 for the better part of the past decade and MLS Cup averages about 1.5 million.
Leagues Cup matches have not been as much of an in-stadium draw — the Sounders averaged about 15,000 in their two games in 2021 — but many of the 2023 games are being included in season-ticket packages.
I’ve long been pretty skeptical of this tournament, but for all its drawbacks I do see the appeal.