By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Jul 22, 2019) US Soccer Players – The rivalry between the United States and Mexico shifts to the club game this summer. MLS and Liga MX launch the first Leagues Cup later this week. It's a tournament featuring four clubs each from those leagues starting in MLS venues before a Las Vegas finale on September 18.
Both leagues are keeping the Campeones Cup, the separate game featuring defending MLS champion Atlanta United FC against Club America. The famed Mexican club defeated this season’s Liga MX Clausura champion and last year’s Campeones Cup winners Tigres UANL to qualify for the match, set for August 14 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
"An intense rivalry is developing between Major League Soccer and Liga MX clubs, and Leagues Cup will provide thrilling competition while further elevating the profile of the game in North America," MLS Commissioner Don Garber told reporters. "We have no doubt that the support for the historic, first-ever Leagues Cup final from the passionate soccer fans of Las Vegas and surrounding region will be tremendous and the atmosphere at Sam Boyd Stadium will be electric."
While there is no talk of US and Mexican clubs sitting out the Concacaf Champions League, both the Leagues Cup and Campeones Cup will feature some of the most talented teams and players from the region’s two powerhouse nations. Some of you may think this is another meaningless tournament like the SuperLiga a decade ago that gets in the way of the games that really matter. Not true. This is an opportunity for MLS teams to test themselves against Mexican clubs, one that they shouldn't waste.
There will be no such conflict this time. The Leagues Cup and Champions League do not overlap and do not even necessarily feature the same teams. What it does do, however, is create more competition. That's good news for MLS teams, or at least it should be if they want to break Liga MX's streak of Champions League wins. Friendlies aren’t the answer to this problem, but tournament-quality games can be. With a trophy on the line and the leagues as organizers, this shouldn't be a series of glorified friendlies.
The Concacaf Champions League takes place at a time when MLS teams are in preseason form and the Liga MX’s clausura tournament has already been underway for two months. That creates a disparity of form that often leaves MLS in a tough position. The Leagues Cup, on the other hand, will feature a flipped scenario. This is MLS teams in midseason form against Liga MX clubs who have just one Apertura league match under their belts.
The eight-team, single-elimination tournament – four from MLS and four from Liga MX – will include the Los Angeles Galaxy, Chicago Fire, Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake. Liga MX’s four reps are Club America, Cruz Azul, Tigres UANL and Club Tijuana. The big question is whether the disparity in form is the main reason why MLS teams just can’t compete with Mexican clubs in the Champions League each year. Does it have more to do with finances? Is there a big talent gap? The Leagues Cup, depending on how seriously MLS teams take it, will start to answer these questions.
The inaugural tournament officially opens Tuesday with the quarterfinal clash between the Chicago Fire versus Cruz Azul at Toyota Park. The marquee game of the round will be the Galaxy, fresh off their hotly-contested El Trafico against rivals LAFC, hosting Club Tijuana later that evening. Certainly having a player of the experience and name recognition of Zlatan Ibrahimovic will help this nascent tournament, both when it comes to media attention, TV ratings and at the gate.
While the four Mexican clubs enter based on recent results, MLS went with invited teams not based on their records this season or last. MLS, in an announcement last Thursday, said the Leagues Cup would expand to 16 teams next summer. The eight MLS teams to qualify would be the top four of the Eastern and Western conferences at the end of the regular season that don't qualify for the Concacaf Champions League.
Before you think the Leagues Cup is the North American version of the breakaway league the big European clubs have talked and dreamed about for years, it is not. The tournament has the official blessing of Concacaf and is part of a larger effort to create more club competition throughout the region.
"Concacaf is committed to continuing the development of competitions that will further unite the confederation and provide more opportunities to develop players and connect passionate fans across our region,” Concacaf President Victor Montagliani said last month. “Alongside our own expanded regional club competitions… the Leagues Cup organized by Liga MX and MLS further strengthens our sport in our confederation and is a precursor for future collaboration between Concacaf, Liga MX, MLS and other key stakeholders."
How this tournament plays out on the field and the response from the fans in the stadiums and watching on TV is a major moment for both leagues. They're trying to show that an older idea has now found its time.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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- Q&A with USMNT player Jordan Morris
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