By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Apr 15, 2020) US Soccer Players - Economic setbacks have certainly hit North American soccer clubs during the COVID-19 global pandemic. With no games on the schedule, no fans are attending matches nor watching on television. That means there is no revenue coming in as the stadiums sit idle. Losses seem particularly difficult for lower-division clubs who have to fight for attention with limited resources.
That economic setback has led to a sudden halt to Mexico's Liga de Ascenso, as the league canceled the remainder of the Clausura 2020 season. Liga MX's second-tier struggled financially as clubs dealt with a lack of funds to pay their players' salaries even in good times.
Of course, the cancellation may seem like a mere formality. Playing any sort of season would have been difficult due to the uncertainty the pandemic has presented in all walks of life all across the globe. According to reports, though, the cancellation is the first step towards the end of Liga MX's promotion/relegation system. Rumors have swirled that Liga MX is heading in this direction. The shutdown might give the Mexican Soccer Federation enough time to make this change without having to also run a league.
Scrapping relegation could cause a ripple effect across the northern border. Liga MX and MLS have long been entangled with one another. Since the mid-1990s, MLS has been trying to court Mexican soccer fans. They brought in topflight internationals, then added a team that was an extension of a top Mexican club. They put tournaments together to bring Liga MX teams stateside for meaningful games.
A mega-league across North America might seem like an idea worth exploring. While there are certainly some enticing parts of such a league, each country and league needs to meet its own needs first instead of chasing the almighty dollar.
Still, with the potential end of Liga MX's relegation system, the foundation for a North American league exists. Liga MX's goal is 20 clubs without having to worry about continually changing teams. The league can implement that system and have some stability to make sure that it works. Adding two teams to bump the current 18-team league to 20 might seem like a simple task, but the teams must be strong enough to compete. The additional teams might be ghastly, without the fear of relegation to spark competitive play. Liga MX might create a situation where quality goes noticeably down.
More than the play on the field, the league would need some sound financial investors. That includes seeing those investors in action for several years before venturing into uncharted waters with partners who are unfamiliar with running a soccer club. Several relegation-free years could give Liga MX a better understanding of itself, potentially helping to lay the groundwork for a mammoth merger.
If such a league ever comes to fruition, the federations and leagues must have a positive working relationship. Coordinating such an endeavor could be a nightmare even if all sides agree on the idea and move forward with it.
For starters, the league would feature 50 teams, 20 from Liga MX, and 30 from MLS assuming expansion stops with the announced markets. The most obvious benefit would be the addition of Mexican clubs. Liga MX teams have long dominated the region. Having them as competition would only help raise the level of play within the league.
Liga MX clubs not only bring quality, but they also bring in supporters. MLS stadiums would sell out to see the likes of Club America, Chivas de Guadalajara, Pumas UNAM, or Cruz Azul play in person. The Texas teams would find new rivals in northeastern Mexico. Club Tijuana would have natural rivals with the LA Galaxy and LAFC so close in proximity. Club America and New York City FC would be an interesting rivalry since they're big-money teams in big cities. Toronto FC could rekindle their rivalries with Tigres and Chivas, clubs they faced on their march to the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League final.
Structuring the league in a way that works is where the sleepless nights could come into play. For starters, MLS and Liga MX are not on the same calendar. MLS plays from late February to November while Liga MX starts in July and finishes in May, with a slight break in December and early January. Does the league go with one calendar? That would most certainly mean adopting the MLS calendar due to weather issues across the northern part of the USA and Canada in December and January. Or is there a hybrid system that would allow for games in what is now the leagues' respective offseason? That could mean year-round games, which would surely oversaturate the market and would complicate whatever system the league would utilize to crown a champion.
That would just be on the surface. Underneath would be financial issues like splitting television revenue and travel issues as well as competitive obstacles. Are there two conferences with 25 teams apiece? Is there a Major League Baseball-like split of leagues? Also, how does youth development fit into this model? Would Liga MX teams be subject to a salary cap and Designated Player rules? Or will MLS abandon such rules, letting the teams compete in an open market?
There are some intriguing aspects of a potential North American super league, but each country should think about what is best for its own league and country. For Mexico, that means considering the importance of promotion and relegation. That's part of fostering soccer in its lower leagues and in places like northern Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula, where soccer is not as popular as it is in other parts of the country. That's the hard work still to be done.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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