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Leagues Cup: the annual tournament of the CONCACAF

Leagues Cup

Is the MLS and Liga MX competition a great idea or a bloated event in the middle of the soccer season?

If there is one thing you can expect from Major League Soccer, it is something about the league’s season format will change from year-to-year. In most seasons, the last six to be exact, MLS has expanded its number of teams and will do so again in 2023, with the introduction of St Louis City SC (Perhaps the worst badge in MLS history).

Along with a new team, MLS is considering a change to its playoff format, making an extremely convoluted configuration that would likely make any casual soccer fan lose interest after day one.

Yet, MLS isn’t done with making alterations to the league in an attempt to confuse soccer fans for the upcoming season. In January, the American and Canadian league, along with Mexico’s Liga MX, announced the format for the third edition of the now-annual Leagues Cup tournament.

If you haven’t heard about the Leagues Cup before, it is completely understandable. MLS is a league trying to find its footing in an overcrowded sports landscape in North America. In addition, it is working to find a niche in the world of professional soccer.

Driving fan interest is paramount for MLS, yet its decision to continue with a tournament most fans may not care about and double down on the competition makes little sense to many of the hardcore soccer fans who want a great product to follow. Of course, MLS rarely cares about its hardcore fans and (As I’ve claimed for years about MLS, only wants to attract casual fans and the casual dollar).

What is the Leagues Cup?

The Leagues Cup was introduced in 2019, to create an (artificial) competition between MLS teams from the US and Canada, and Mexico’s Liga MX. The launch of the Leagues Cup came hot on the heels of the US, Canada, and Mexico having their united bid to host the 2026 World Cup accepted by FIFA.

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The Leagues Cup is a way to draw on the excitement of the next World Cup and grow soccer interest in North America further with a club tournament. Sure, it makes sense to build on the excitement of the World Cup and raise interest in the sport among fans.

Yet, the Leagues Cup comes at a price for the MLS season, which is played from spring to autumn. The Leagues Cup tournament 2023 will be made up of all 29 MLS teams and the 18 Liga MX clubs for a total of 47 teams battling for a trophy that is secondary to any prize on offer from the two leagues. It is also secondary to the CONCACAF Champions League trophy.

Some newer soccer fans in North America may not realise MLS and Liga MX did a combined tournament before. The ill-fated SuperLiga last from 2007 to 2010, with four editions. Mexican clubs won three of the four tournaments and the SuperLiga was scrapped due to a lack of interest from fans and clubs.

How will the Leagues Cup 2023 work?

According to the Leagues Cup 2023 website, the tournament has been reimagined by placing all 47 MLS and 18 Liga MX clubs into the competition. Reimagined simply means the leagues are trying to make every last cent from the tournament.

The Leagues Cup will take place for an entire month, as all MLS fixtures will be stopped during the time, allowing teams to compete in the Leagues Cup. In addition, Liga MX will have their games stopped giving clubs the chance to focus on the tournament. The Leagues Cup will begin on July 21 and finish on August 19.

The Leagues Cup finalists and third-place finisher will all qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League, and they could qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup.

The group stage of the tournament will see each team play twice. The top two teams in each group will advance to the round 32. The group stage matches cannot end in a draw, and penalty shootouts will be used to decide which team progresses to the next stage. In case of a draw, the teams will both receive a point, and the team that wins the penalty shootout will earn an extra point.

How has the Leagues Cup done previously?

The Leagues Cup may muddy the waters of the MLS season amongst fans in the US and Canada, but it has been well received. It seems that a lot of the soccer fans that greeted the tournament with open arms were Mexican soccer fans or Mexican-Americans starving to see Liga MX teams in the US.

In August 2022, Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium, home of the NFL’s LA Rams and LA Chargers, hosted a doubleheader of soccer, giving MLS and Liga MX an idea of what the Leagues Cup tournament could offer. A reported 71,189 fans packed the stadium to see LA Galaxy play Chivas de Guadalajara and Club America play Los Angeles FC.

Cynically, it isn’t difficult to see why the doubleheader showcase attracted so many fans. For one, Mexico’s two most famous and most well-supported clubs were involved with the game. Secondly, the matches were held in Los Angeles.

East Los Angeles has the highest percentage of Hispanic people living in the US. Many of the individuals of Mexican heritage in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas would potentially have been attracted to the games, especially with Chivas and Club America playing. Will games featuring the likes of Minnesota United and Mazatlan FC produce similar crowds?

Will the Leagues Cup damage MLS?

It is difficult to believe the Leagues Cup tournament won’t harm MLS in the future – if it lasts beyond the 2026 World Cup. The league will take an entire month off during the summer, a time in which many families may seek out local professional soccer matches for something to do. MLS is expecting fans to be educated enough about their local professional soccer to understand the complexities of the various cup and league competitions.

Yet, the Leagues Cup provides many of the fans in the US and Canada, most of whom are likely casual fans, with a competition they may not care much about. MLS is muddying the waters, taking soccer fans’ attention away from the league, which should be exciting at this time of the year and placing it on a tournament against Mexican clubs. The Leagues Cup is really just an exhibition tournament with a month of exhibition matches to bring in money for both North American leagues.

For MLS clubs, it feels like this is a no-win situation in the long term. Yet, for Liga MX, having the chance to play against MLS clubs and show their superiority is ideal. In addition, the extra revenue the Liga MX teams make should be of benefit.

One of the arguments many soccer executives and some fans in the US make is that more soccer in the country is a good thing. Unfortunately, too much soccer is a problem the world is experiencing right now with the rise in international club and national team competitions. The US soccer landscape is awash, with teams of various levels playing across the country. In actuality, there is too much soccer in the US. It just feels like there isn’t enough because of sports leagues like the NFL, MLB, and NBA taking so many of the headlines.

Rather than MLS putting on a month-long exhibition tournament featuring all of its teams, the league needs to get its house in order. The 2023 season will see an ungodly number of teams (29) and a playoff format that could attempt to replicate the World Cup.

There is so much good MLS has done over the years, yet the people at the top seem to get things wrong when it comes to growing the sport for fans. Instead of trying to be different, making the league more like the top competitions in Europe could see MLS become the league executives have always dreamt it becoming.

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