By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Mar 14, 2018) US Soccer Players – Every decade or so, the bigwigs at MLS and Liga MX think it is a good idea to join forces and present a new-look product to the masses. And without fail, the new-look product wears away fairly quickly without much fanfare.
Later this year, the brand-new Campeones Cup will commence as Toronto FC will host either Apertura 2017 champs Tigres or the winner of the Clausura 2018 season, which will culminate in May. The new initiative will also feature a future All-Star Game between MLS All-Stars and Liga MX All-Stars, although that part is still in the planning stages.
While it may seem interesting at a glance, the only interesting aspects about this will be to see how soundly this is all rejected by fans on both sides of the US border and how quickly it will fall apart. MLS has for years tried to capture the attention of the Liga MX fan living in the United States. The league has mostly failed in those attempts. This too will undoubtedly fail as well.
Liga MX fans are hard-set in their ways. While they care passionately about their clubs and the league, games outside of league play are historically hit-and-miss. Concacaf Champions League games are of interest, and Copa MX matches have fared probably better than expected. Still, the significance of league play supersedes any other competition by a great distance.
Also, Liga MX fans based in the United States have traditionally rejected MLS, which they see as an inferior product despite the growth of the league. Trying to bank on those fans tuning in to watch a Campeones Cup match or follow the proposed All-Star Game is asking too much.
The league would do well to look at its own history to see that. MLS and the Mexican Soccer Federation trotted out the SuperLiga competition in 2007 in an effort that brought together both leagues but also conveniently included the LA Galaxy and its hot new item in David Beckham. Now, the SuperLiga perhaps exceeded expectations on the field. SuperLiga games were very interesting and memorable. The Galaxy’s loss to Pachuca in the 2007 final was an unbelievable game that had everything – catastrophic injury to Beckham, a brilliant stoppage-time equalizer by Chris Klein, a Landon Donovan miss from the penalty spot.
Such drama was the norm throughout the tournament’s history, but ultimately the leagues opted to end it after the 2010 edition.
In 2001, Mexican and American clubs played in the Concacaf Giants Cup. While the tournament was not something created by MLS and Mexican soccer officials, it nevertheless featured both leagues prominently. The hope was to feature those giant clubs bringing in fans and drawing attention. It didn’t work. A paltry 3,127 turned up to watch the final between Club America and DC United at the LA Coliseum in August 2001.
That tournament only made one outing. The SuperLiga at least lasted four seasons, but it took its toll on MLS teams. Eliminating the tournament helped alleviate some of the congestion MLS teams faced during the season, and this move threatens to harm that once again. The season is already congested enough, with MLS mostly shutting down during international breaks and taking time off during the Gold Cup and World Cup group stage, depending on the year.
While this fledgling competition will feature only one MLS participant this year, it could easily expand to include more. One simple format would be to make it a four-team tournament and bring in the previous year’s MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield champions to compete against the Liga MX champions from the previous two seasons. Teams could play home-and-away series beginning in August. The final could also be a two-leg series, all of which could conclude in September.
Or perhaps the league could get creative and figure out how to bring Liga MX to cities such as Los Angeles or Houston in the late summer/early fall. They could stage meaningful league games to try and capitalize on local fans’ dollars and attention.
By the time the league gets into September, MLS clubs focus is on the season and getting into the playoffs. Despite what the league says, MLS games in the last two months are much more meaningful than games in the spring and early summer. Teams have figured out their identity and are looking to collect points and secure a spot in the playoffs by the time Labor Day comes around. Intentionally wrecking that for the sake of an initiative with Liga MX seems ill-advised.
That was one of the issues with the Concacaf Champions League group stage. It took a lot of attention away from MLS clubs from 2008 through 2016. MLS clubs had to play four or six group-stage games from August through October, right when clubs were preparing for a late-season playoff push or trying to fight for the Supporters’ Shield.
Still, that was an actual competition with history and tradition. In fact, CONCACAF ought to return to the 16-team, four-group format it had in place from 2008 through 2012 as that was a true competition with a legitimate group stage and final rounds. With four MLS teams and four Liga MX teams taking up half of the slots, each group had one MLS team and one Liga MX side.
Those games are where MLS will gain respect with Liga MX supporters by winning in Mexico on a regular basis. New York’s 2-0 win at Xolos and 5-1 series win over the Tijuana club on Tuesday and Toronto FC’s 4-4 aggregate victory on away goals are steps toward that respect.
If an MLS team can win the Concacaf Champions League for the first time, that will also help garner respect for the league. Creating new initiatives and competitions against Liga MX won’t.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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(Logo courtesy of MLS Communications)