By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 20, 2019) US Soccer Players - The first-ever edition of the Leagues Cup, a competition designed to pit Major League Soccer clubs against clubs from Liga MX of Mexico, came to a rousing if somewhat confounding, conclusion on Wednesday.
First, a hearty congratulations to Cruz Azul, the tournament's inaugural winner. The 2-1 victory for La Maquina over Tigres prompted very real celebrations among the fan base of the club. That's in large part because Cruz Azul has a long history of coming up short in finals. Winning a trophy of any kind, even one that didn't exist when 2019 began, matters for the Leagues Cup champion.
Beating Tigres is sweet as well. The Monterrey-based club is among the richest and most successful in the region. They just recently played for a Concacaf Champions League title against in-town rival Monterrey. Typically it's Tigres who wins things, not Cruz Azul.
More than 20,000 fans showed up to Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas for the match, many of them there to support Cruz Azul. That number is just about half of the capacity of the venue. It points to both the popularity of Liga MX teams in the United States and the quick launch of the Leagues Cup.
20,000 for a final of a tournament no one has any frame of reference for is good. A half-full stadium for a match with two Mexican powerhouses following a strange mini-tournament is not quite as good. As first impressions go, it could have been better.
It's worth noting that both teams took the game fairly serious, fielding teams that came close to full-strength. The need to win and the quest for bragging rights runs strong through Liga MX teams. They can justify treating a new tournament seriously, even if it's something of an inconvenience.
What we need to see now is MLS teams following Liga MX's lead. There isn't a strong history of MLS clubs giving competitions outside of the league much of their attention, at least not until the later rounds. Considering the nature of the Leagues Cup, getting past a Mexican opponent to start the tournament will be a difficult task no matter what kind of teams the MLS participants field. The tournament, therefore, risks becoming one-sided to the point of ridiculousness.
Holding the final in Las Vegas itself opens up a host of questions about how fans in three different countries are supposed to think about the competition. It all felt more like a second-tier college football bowl game than a major soccer championship. The vast majority of bowl games don't matter, either. They're glorified exhibitions that convey a trophy and the title of "champion" to the winner and yet don't register outside of the ardent fanbases of the teams involved.
Liga MX and MLS don't have much reason to pander to the traditionalist soccer fan in North America, to be fair. If the buildup to the Leagues Cup final felt like the Las Vegas Bowl, but that may not matter in terms of legitimacy. MLS and Liga MX can tie themselves in knots trying to play to a group of fans who aren't likely to be moved by anything new when it comes to soccer. Or, they can do the prudent thing and promote, promote, promote. By the time the Leagues Cup matters to fans on a larger scale, few will remember the early days.
If the Leagues Cup ever matters to fans on a larger scale, that is. There's no guarantee of that and this year's inaugural version doesn't necessarily predict an exciting future. This one was haphazard and rushed. MLS threw out a group of four random teams with no competitive reasoning. The Galaxy was the only MLS team to win a game. Even they would have probably preferred a quick exit so they could better concentrate a difficult league season.
With that in mind, it's difficult not to see the Leagues Cup as MLS biting off more than it can chew. The lesser resources available to MLS clubs makes competing outside of MLS a difficult proposition. The rush to piggyback on Liga MX's popularity in the United States lead to a half-baked competition that does not have a natural place in the rhythm of the season. That might only serve to remind a watching public of the significant gap between Mexican and MLS teams.
If the Leagues Cup is simply more games to toss onto the pile for the next broadcast rights deal, with a bonus audience via the Mexican participants, it should trouble MLS fans. What's good for MLS as a single-entity might not be good for its member clubs, at least in the short term. It's tough to draw a direct line between Leagues Cup participation and improved performance in MLS. At least right now.
The Leagues Cup, silly as it seems now, could be a worthwhile competition over the long run. If the best MLS teams in a given season qualify for the Champions League and MLS sends the next eight teams to the Leagues Cup, the tournament would effectively become the North American version of the Europa League. That might even make the MLS regular season more important if clubs covet the chance to play in the Leagues Cup and a chance at an international trophy.
For now, the Leagues Cup is just another representation of the binary between Liga MX and MLS. What makes similar competitions in Europe and South America work isn't just the variety of countries involved. It's the individualized nature of the clubs who show up in them year-after-year. League vs league is a tougher sell, especially when only one league plays in the semifinals.
Will we remember the first year of the Leagues Cup, when Cruz Azul overcame its history to knock off Tigres and leave Las Vegas with the trophy? Maybe, but it's going to take more than adding teams and games to a tournament schedule and hoping all involved take them seriously.
More From Jason Davis:
- Jesse Marsch's win
- The magic of playoff implications
- Another step forward for Austin FC
- LAFC with and without Carlos Vela
Graphic courtesy of Leagues Cup