By J Hutcherson (Sep 1, 2020) US Soccer Players – In an era where a few days can feel like a few weeks, it might seem like a long time ago when Liga MX officials began to talk seriously about eventually merging with Major League Soccer. That idea is nothing new, with Liga MX accounting for the highest club soccer TV ratings in the United States and leading the list for most popular clubs in the region. How MLS single-entity might blend with the owners-first model in Liga MX is a good question. Still, the concept of one massive regional league is certainly interesting.
Both leagues have stressed cooperation for years now. The SuperLiga might not have worked as a proof of concept in the late 2000s, but more games that count between Liga MX and MLS clubs wasn’t likely to go away. Neither was the idea that it should be the two leagues in control rather than Concacaf. Enter the Leagues Cup, with the year-old tournament set for expansion this season. Instead, it joined the list of canceled competitions courtesy of the coronavirus. While it’s a safe assumption that very few fans are pining for it, what the Leagues Cup represents is a chance for both leagues to grow.
Liga MX’s long history of playing games that sort of count in the United States includes the old catchily titled Pre-Pre Libertadores that started in the late 1990s. The idea was to give the massive fan bases in the US an opportunity to easily see more than friendlies. That idea still resonates across the board for American soccer promoters. No matter the initial level of interest, a steady diet of friendlies eventually exhausts a market. Eventually, there needs to be something to play for.
Concacaf itself saw that when it turned the Champions Cup into the Champions League. The original carbon copy version of the UEFA model had a group stage to give the region a set number of games. Unfortunately, the dropoff in Concacaf is significant. The usual suspects were going to end up in the knockout round regardless of attempts to include representatives from overmatched domestic leagues. Concacaf reconsidered, starting the bigger leagues in the knockout round. Returning to that old SuperLiga model, MLS and Liga MX decided to put together their own tournament and championship.
The Campeones Cup exists almost in spite of the Champions League. Winning the Champions League means entry into the FIFA Club World Cup. Winning the Campeones Cup means a team is nominally the best in MLS and Liga MX. That may or may not mean the same thing, an interesting scenario for the region’s two biggest leagues to embrace.
For the Leagues Cup, it’s as much about showing that games between mid-tier teams from both teams not only count but can draw interest. In these ridiculous times, “interest” replaces “crowd,” but the idea is the same. Fans of the clubs involved have to care first, bringing in a general audience that decides the tournament is an actual competition.
A look at FIFA’s attempts to make its Club World Cup count tells that story at the highest level. Squeezing in the tournament in December and entering the likeliest winners at the semifinal stage sends a clear message to everybody else. The now postponed revamp may or may not address any of that while asking a simple question. Why should FIFA extend its reach into club soccer in the first place?
It’s a simple answer. UEFA’s success in turning the Champions League into the biggest club competition on the planet. Other confederations and eventually FIFA itself saw a way to add or revamp club competitions following Europe’s lead. The problem is Europe has leagues worth of high-profile and high-earning clubs. It’s the reason why UEFA’s Champions League has no need to stress that it has the best players and clubs in world soccer.
That’s the hard ceiling for everybody else, including the always ambitious league of choice in North America. Major League Soccer can conveniently forget about dates it set for dominance, but the message is still clear. Eventually, the most lucrative sports market in the world should have one of the top soccer leagues in the world. That’s also not a new idea, but the cavalcade of half chances and blown opportunities shows the difficulty of turning that into reality.
Why the Leagues Cup will be any different is something plenty of people are already asking. By design, it leaves out the best teams in both leagues. Those already obligated by the Champions League don’t play in the Leagues Cup. Instead, MLS sends the next four from each conference with Liga MX doing similarly from its two seasons. Those 16 teams enter into a straight knockout tournament hosted by the MLS teams. Had the 2020 season played out as scheduled, we would’ve seen the semifinal round last weekend with the final set for September 16.
Instead, we wait on the Leagues Cup like so much across sports. One of the more interesting ideas to emerge from the initial discussions about Liga MX and MLS growing so close was that it might be a hedge against a European Super League. The Super League idea had its regular ebb and flow cycle leading into discussions about changing the UEFA Champions League. At base, it’s the same simple argument. If it’s the clubs creating these lucrative competitions, why don’t they just breakaway and run things themselves?
Were that to happen, it resets expectations for domestic leagues across the world. Suddenly, there’s one big league with everybody else slotting in behind. There’s no need for a Champions League, Club World Cup, or anything else run by the current governing bodies if the biggest clubs and players have moved on. Where that would leave MLS and Liga MX is likely already enough of a problematic scenario to have a few discussions.
Should the Leagues Cup eventually show that the SuperLiga was an idea ahead of its time, we may get an indication. A Super League, especially if it’s closed or has limited promotion opportunities, shuts off the rest of Europe. That resets what those domestic leagues can do without the revenue flowing in as heavily for broadcast rights and sponsorship. In that environment, simple geography may favor a Liga MX and MLS partnership. If a player isn’t likely to sign for a Super League team, there may be better offers in North America. That could build better leagues here, regardless if it’s one or two.
The threat of a breakaway Super League may be the nightmare scenario for the existing stakeholders in Europe. For North America, it could end up being the entire region’s biggest opportunity.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- FIFA, UEFA, and playing games during a pandemic
- Is there such a thing as an MLS contender?
- Preview: The 2019-20 Champions League quarterfinals
- MLS is Back is full of surprises, whatever that means
Logo courtesy of the Leagues Cup