By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Sep 22, 2021) US Soccer Players – The Covid-19 pandemic destroyed any semblance of what the 2020 MLS season should have been. No soccer for months. Abbreviated, travel-restricted schedules. Empty stadiums. As understatements go, let’s just say that it wasn’t ideal.
However, if there was any hint of lemonade that came out of the truckloads of lemons 2020 threw at MLS, it was the MLS Is Back Tournament. The oddly-named event helped usher soccer back into the American sports landscape, albeit in a strange manner. All games played out in the same Orlando venue, either very early in the morning or late at night.
The tournament, though, was rather exciting. Featuring a group stage followed by a knockout round, nearly every match was intense, emotional, and filled with great moments. Without downplaying the reason it happened, in some ways, it is unfortunate that the league cannot hold it every year. The MLS Is Back Tournament showed that there are unique ways to package soccer to make it better for the viewer. Enter the revamped Leagues Cup.
What Liga MX and MLS are planning is not the Leagues Cup as we know it. That’s the one concluding later tonight when Leon plays Seattle in Las Vegas. Instead, what the two leagues announced on Tuesday is a significant change in scope and profile.
The revamped Leagues Cup is intriguing and could potentially deliver quality and entertaining soccer in a unique format. It’s actually a bit groundbreaking and shows what thinking outside the box can look like.
As it stands, the current setup has a hard time shaking the idea that it’s simply a glorified series of friendlies. Sure, bragging rights are at stake, as well as a trophy. For participating teams, though, life gets back to normal once the tournament ends for them. That means returning focus to the league schedule.
In some ways, MLS Is Back had the same fate. During the regular season, is there room for a standalone tournament obligating all of the league’s clubs? Apparently, the answer to that is yes.
Beginning in 2023, both MLS and Liga MX will pause for about a month to allow for the Leagues Cup tournament to take place. That alone will force fans of both MLS and Liga MX to pay attention. If they want to watch their favorite MLS/Liga MX clubs in action, the Leagues Cup will be the only way for that to happen.
While it has the same name, this won’t be the current format. For starters, this tournament will feature not just a knockout round but a full-blown group stage. We only have the broadest concept for the revamp right now, so how that might work is still not clear. We learned from MLS Is Back how intriguing group stage soccer can get over a short-run tournament. Expecting more of that from the Leagues Cup isn’t much of a stretch.
We know that 47 teams will participate. One of the reasons tournament organizers pointed to for holding this tournament was to try and capture the excitement of the 2026 World Cup, set for Canada, Mexico, and the United States. That tournament will feature an expanded field of 48 teams, which means perhaps the Leagues Cup will add one more team from somewhere to match the World Cup’s setup. The 2026 World Cup will feature 16 groups of three teams apiece and a knockout round after. It’s possible then that Leagues Cup will adopt a version of that model, though it will take 32 days to complete the expanded World Cup.
Unlike the current version of Leagues Cup, the revamped version will have quite a bit at stake, most notably three spots in the Concacaf Champions League. That likely means teams will just need to reach the final to land a spot, and even a semifinal berth could lead to the Champions League.
That’s the upside, but we already know how important buy-in already is for the current version of the Leagues Cup. All it takes is a few coaches letting us know that the real emphasis is the domestic league for the same questions to arise. Any team getting creative with its roster downplays the importance of the competition, even if it’s by itself on the calendar.
Obviously, MLS and Liga MX can address that by adopting rules requiring representative elevens, but we don’t know how that might work. After two versions of the Leagues Cup, we know what can disrupt the tournament. We also know that adding additional tournaments comes at an interesting time.
FIFA is pushing ahead with the biennial World Cup and significant changes to the international calendar. If there is a summer window devoted to either the World Cup or confederation championships with built-in time off following those tournaments, where does the Leagues Cup fit? Once again, we don’t know what soccer’s stakeholders will eventually choose to do with the World Cup idea or the calendar. For now, both are constraints for launching a new club tournament.
What we already know is that Concacaf is fully onboard. The confederation has already announced a revamp of its own, reconfiguring the Champions League changes set for 2024. It will be a smaller tournament from an earlier announcement of a larger field and full group stage. Announced alongside the Leagues Cup on Tuesday, the plan is for 27 teams playing out over five rounds. 22 teams play through the opening round, joining five teams in the second round of 16.
Where that tournament set for 2024 fits into the schedule is another question in what’s becoming a long list. That we only know so much right now speaks to the changing scope of soccer worldwide, in Concacaf, and in the North American zone. Things are changing. Now, we wait to see how the Nations League fits and its importance to clubs across the two biggest leagues in the region.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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