By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Feb 22, 2019) US Soccer Players - Major League Soccer has a long way to go before it can say it has maxed out its potential in the United States and Canada. Despite rampant growth in the last decade and reaching 27 confirmed teams, no one believes that MLS is bumping up against the ceiling of what’s possible.
That doesn’t guarantee a place among the world’s top leagues, or predominance over American football, baseball, or basketball. However, it does make MLS an attractive investment for some very rich people looking to get into professional sports ownership. The NFL, NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball are exclusive clubs with few available memberships. MLS expanded with abandon and has enough positive business indicators going for it that demand is still growing.
Liga MX might be tapped out in terms of growth, but it doesn’t nearly have the headroom that its sister league to the north possesses. Soccer is Mexico’s biggest sport by a wide margin. Though a questionable business decision here or there has undermined the product on occasion, soccer is king from Tijuana to Veracruz. The top Mexican clubs are among the richest in the Americas.
One league with ample chance to expand, both in the number of clubs and fans. Another with strong cultural underpinnings and a healthy dose of financial clout. What the two share is a problem that is a function of geography and circumstance. No matter what either does, there is no realistic way for MLS or Liga MX to climb the ladder and join the world's elite.
It’s mostly about math. Barring a collapse of European soccer or a sudden, inexplicable shift in the interests of Americans sports fans, the path to competing globally is blocked for both of North America’s major competitions. If there’s a solution to a problem that executives on both sides of the border are talking about with increasing frequency, it might be an unconventional one.
The idea of combining forces and raising the profile of Mexican, US, and Canadian teams through cooperation is gaining steam. The full expression of that cooperation would be a combined league.
Any talk about a combined league is extremely speculative and lacking in detail. The most recent example of the idea getting a public airing came on Wednesday when Santos Laguna president Alejandro Irarragorri expressed a desire to see the Mexican league and MLS pulled closer together.
"For me, the similarities that Mexico has with the north are greater than towards the south and I'm a loyal believer that we should consolidate our alliance with the MLS and make a really strong league that can compete with Asia, Europe or anywhere," he said. When pressed as to whether that meant a combined league, Irarragorri said, “A North American league? Why not.”
FIFA’s rules on domestic competition would seem to preclude such a league from sanctioning by the game’s world governing body. FIFA is typically strict with rules dictating that a league be made up on teams from a single country.
MLS received a waiver to add Canadian teams because that country did not have a national first division of its own. That same waiver was given to the A-League to admit Wellington Phoenix. Monaco, a principality and too small to host a first division league of its own, has a club in the French Ligue 1. A pair of Welsh teams, Swansea City and Cardiff City, participate in the English system because of a historical precedent that predates FIFA’s statutes.
Considering the pass MLS gets on the three Canadian teams, would FIFA give the green light for a massive combined league involving three different countries? Even if the Canadian Premier League establishes itself enough to convince Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver to join (an unlikely, but possible, scenario), FIFA would still have to grant approval to a competition combining teams from countries with no history of cross-border mixing in any major sport.
FIFA’s sanctioning settled, the combined league would have to work out the format of the competition. MLS is up to 27 teams, with 28 a certainty. Liga MX has 18 clubs, with a promotion and relegation system that works via a points-per-game average over the course of six apertura and clausura tournaments. That’s a total of 46 teams.
How could a 46-team competition work? Would the league split into American and Mexican divisions? Balancing the divisions would demand the mixing of teams. Separate regular seasons, perhaps with a combined playoff tournament, might not maximize the potential of a combined league. Any system that mixed or separated Mexican teams from one another or American/Canadian teams from one another might hurt existing rivalries.
It’s a lot to consider, making it difficult to imagine the idea ever getting past the concept stage. Agreeing on format and scheduling, not to mention how to manage salary budgets and logistics would be a gargantuan task. MLS might have to ditch single-entity to make it work. Or Mexican clubs would have to agree to restrictions on spending.
Why the idea is worth considering is simple. Whatever the barriers, Liga MX and MLS officials will continue to explore their relationship and ponder deeper partnerships because it’s the only clear path to one day competing with Europe and South America on the world stage. Not on the field, but in the business of soccer.
UEFA’s Champions League is the biggest soccer property on the planet and is likely to remain unchallenged for the title for the foreseeable future. South America’s Copa Libertadores has history and passion but isn’t a massive revenue generator outside of CONMEBOL.
What Irarragorri and his contemporaries obviously see is an economic boost for North American soccer through the combined power of the US market and Mexican passion. UEFA doesn't invite teams from outside Europe to their competitions. South America does, but it's a logistical hurdle. Creating a path outside of the current convention is the best chance at pulling into the race for attention worldwide.
It’s an optimistic view, to be certain. Beyond the issue of red tape and format, jamming the United States, Canada, and Mexico into one Frankenstein league would be fraught with problems. At the very least, anything pitting MLS and Liga MX teams against one another outside of the Concacaf Champions League will undermine that tournament. A culture clash between fans would need careful management. The difference in language would make marketing the league a complicated affair. Imagining the FMF and US Soccer sharing oversight of a league is mind-bending.
The globalized nature of soccer means that no club, league, or federation is ever content to occupy a small corner of the world and nothing more. While there’s a pertinent question worth asking about whether Liga MX and MLS need to chase the dream of competing with the likes of Europe and South America, it's simpler than that. As long as soccer’s leadership is looking for ways to do so, ideas like a combined North American competition won’t ever really be off the table.
Is it likely? Probably not any time soon. That doesn’t mean we won’t hear about it.
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Photo courtesy of MLS Communications