By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 13, 2021) US Soccer Players – “I think as an organization we always try to put front and center winning as our No. 1 objective. So obviously this is a competition that we are participating in and we’re going to try to give everything we have. I feel that we’re going to put a team on the field that has the ability to win and we’ll do our best in the game.”
Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes said those words on Monday, a day ahead of his club’s quarterfinal match against Club Leon in the second edition of the League Cup. Two days later, after his club suffered a 6-1 defeat to the Mexican club at Children’s Mercy Park, Vermes had a different tone.
“We’d like to win everything that we play in. But unfortunately when you’re playing seven games in 22 days… the reality is that I’m not going to risk guys that have high loads. I’m not going to risk them. I’m just not going to. And so obviously, it was a very young team in a lot of respects. And that is what it is.”
This is the Leagues Cup. The new(ish) competition pitting Liga MX clubs against MLS teams began this week with four matchups, all knockout games played in the homes of the MLS teams. Sporting Kansas City’s humbling loss was the first of those games and brought up questions about the tournament and its purpose.
Despite his pregame assurances that his club was taking the competition seriously, Vermes chose to field a young, inexperienced team against Leon. As he explained postgame, the MLS schedule made doing anything but that a questionable choice. If Sporting wants to maintain its spot atop the Western Conference standings, that simply had to come first.
It would be easy to blame Vermes, and many certainly have. For the fans at Children’s Mercy Park on Tuesday, the product on the field failed to meet the basic standards they’ve come to expect from their team.
Sporting’s rout only looked worse after the Seattle Sounders fielded an almost full-strength lineup and delivered a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Tigres that same night. Where Vermes picked saving the legs of his starters in light of a rough stretch of games, Sounders boss Brian Schmetzer opted for the strongest group he could play.
The move “paid off” in that the Sounders advanced to the semifinal round. Their reward is another midweek tilt coming in September, a further schedule complication for a team stretched thin in recent weeks by injury and international call ups. Schmetzer, for his part, believed it was incumbent on Seattle to put on a good showing for the home fans.
“Our team, I didn’t have to say anything before the game. We are blessed to have great players. This club has always spent money on the players who fit the culture of the club,” he said. “We’re a humble club, we work, we try to achieve great things and we’re always trying to win. That is part of why our decision to put a strong lineup out there tonight against a very good Tigres team, it was important for us, it was important for this club.”
Seattle’s schedule both before and after the Tigres match isn’t as brutal as Sporting’s. Schmetzer still would have been justified in rolling out a weakened lineup and saving his first-line player for the Cascadia derby this Sunday in Portland.
As it stands, there’s no right or wrong approach to the Leagues Cup. Major League Soccer wants it to matter, so it’s in the league’s best interest for clubs to take it seriously. A competitively balanced tournament makes for a better product to sell to everyone, including sponsors and potential new fans.
Because that’s what this is all about. The prestige of the Leagues Cup isn’t going to come in just its second iteration. That doesn’t mean the organizers aren’t giving it a try. Following the lead of Concacaf’s Gold Cup final, MLS and Liga MX booked the Leagues Cup final into the same venue. Allegiant Stadium outside of Las Vegas has lots of seats to fill. After Orlando Ciy became the third MLS team to bow out at the quarterfinal stage, the guarantee of at least one Liga MX club will certainly help.
This tension between MLS’s marketing efforts and the task of the coaches and players in the league is unlikely to go anywhere any time soon. We know there’s plenty of will to make the Leagues Cup a fixture on the North American soccer calendar. There’s even reason to believe that it’s only the beginning of a much deeper competitive relationship between the two leagues. An imagined merger of the top division of the United States and Mexico gets mentioned, sometimes by the president of Liga MX Mike Arriola, on a semi-regular basis.
For now, MLS and Liga MX are content to test the waters with a small, strangely timed tournament that will test the resolve of coaches on both sides of the border. Liga MX teams hate to lose to MLS sides, but they also have decisions to make about the importance of the new competition. Winning the Leagues Cup won’t make up for a poor Apertura campaign.
What is the Leagues Cup, exactly? For now, that’s a very good question.
More From Jason Davis:
- One club players are a rarity for a reason
- LAFC, Minnesota, and Portland measure ambition in the West
- Cade Cowell, Henry Kessler, and Gold Cup opportunity
- Louisville City’s lesson
Photo by Howard C Smith – ISIPhotos.com