By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 20, 2023) US Soccer Players – Yes, it’s the highly-anticipated North American club debut of Lionel Messi. Yet Friday also marks a new frontier for MLS and Liga MX as the newly expanded Leagues Cup begins, encompassing all 47 clubs across the two entities in a venture with limited precedent in this region.
The tournament kicks off with Friday’s five matches at MLS venues in Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Austin, Frisco, and Vancouver. That’s the opening night of a first phase in which everyone will play two group-stage matches to determine who advances to a straight knockout bracket. The group stage is divided into 15 regional groups of three teams apiece. Reigning MLS Cup champions LAFC and Pachuca, the Liga MX club with the most points across the 2022 Clausura and Apertura campaigns, have received byes to the knockouts. All matches will take place at MLS venues.
What’s the outlook for this (mostly) new competition? While questions abound, including and especially among the players who will compete in it, here’s three areas of focus to track as it gets underway.
What’s at stake?
Organizers are betting that the natural, longstanding rivalry between US, Canadian, and Mexican teams at both club and international levels will add intensity and spice to this product. Also, the top finishers in Leagues Cup will earn berths in the Concacaf Champions Cup, the expanded and rebranded Concacaf Champions League that debuts next year. The runner-up and 3rd-place finishers qualify for the first round of the Champions Cup, while the Leagues Cup winner will enter the Champions Cup in the round of 16.
A fast track to international competition is one way to underline the value of Leagues Cup to fans and players alike. Financial rewards are another. It’s been reported that nearly $40 million in total prize money has been allocated for Leagues Cup. Teams will earn for every match they win and round they advance to, with the winner said to be receiving about $2 million. When you factor in the opportunities for Champions Cup prize money that Leagues Cup achievement can unlock, there is significant reward. That matters when it comes to infusing value in another addition to an already-congested calendar.
“Definitely, you’ve got to incentivize the players to add more games into an already tough season,” LAFC defender Ryan Hollingshead told USSoccerPlayers this week. “You’ve got to incentivize the players and make it worth it for them. And so I think they’ve done that. I don’t know the monetization, I don’t know exactly the numbers. But I know that it’s important to get the guys to believe in it. And at the end of the day, as much as we complain or get excited or whatever, at the end of the day, you get on the pitch and you’re a competitor. So every time you get out there regardless of what the circumstances are, you get out and you try to win.”
How will Leagues Cup be received?
One of the biggest changes to the North American soccer calendar in years, Leagues Cup is the subject of both intense hype and widespread uncertainty. Its rollout has drawn a wide spectrum of reactions. For some, it’s just another set of games shoehorned into an already-busy season. Others value the chance for prize money, international matches, and the high-stakes vibe of knockout situations.
The two leagues addressed the fixture congestion concern in part by deciding to pause their domestic schedules for a month to focus on Leagues Cup. That means that teams who don’t advance deep into the knockout phase will get some rest during the hottest weather period of the year, while those who do will be rewarded for it.
“It’s going to be different, right? We haven’t experienced it before, the league’s been trying to add this in. And I think it’s going be good for their following, good for the overall growth of the league,” said Hollingshead. “I think guys have mixed feelings about it. And at the end of the day, though, it’s another chance to compete against a good level, a league that has given us problems in the past. And so it’d be a good chance to test ourselves again.”
Giving Leagues Cup center stage could prove a positive evolution on SuperLiga, a similar concept that ran from 2007-10 and failed to catch fire, hampered in part by the need to squeeze it into midweek dates in midseason.
“It’s interesting, I think, to try new things. It’s always good,” said Nashville SC star Hany Mukhtar after Wednesday’s MLS All-Star Game in Washington, DC. “It’s good for the league. It will be interesting to see the level of Liga MX.”
Who are the leading contenders?
That would be Club America and LAFC reflective of their domestic league strength. Close behind are the Monterrey powerhouses Tigres UANL and CF Monterrey. Then there’s Chivas, off to a 3-0-0 start in the new Liga MX Apertura campaign and are led by a coach with ample MLS knowledge in Veljko Paunovic, former boss of the Chicago Fire.
Inevitably, individual teams will be influenced by their particular circumstances. Miami, for example, is mired at the bottom of the MLS table, riding an 11-match winless skid. Yet with Messi and Sergio Busquets headlining a batch of new reinforcements under new coach Tata Martino, they can face Leagues Cup with something approaching a clean slate.
“I’ll try for Leo, Busi and other players like Diego Gomez to adapt quickly to the league, that they get to know it,” said Martino on Thursday. “On the other hand, we have to understand that what we’re starting tomorrow is a complete different league where we are in the same position as all the other teams competing in it.”
Conversely, the likes of St Louis City SC are flying high in league play and have motivation to continue that, especially with the contributions of their younger players having shown that there’s roster depth to put to use. The stretch run of the MLS calendar is close at hand, to boot.
“I think everybody’s trying to figure out what it’s going to be like,” said St. Louis center back Tim Parker. “We’re in a good run of form, St. Louis. So for us, it’s about continuing that run of form and there’s 10, 11 games left in the year after Leagues Cup. So we’re looking forward to just kind of carrying that over.”
Can Messi’s timely arrival push Leagues Cup from curiosity to hot property? That’s got to be part of the best-case scenario for MLS and Liga MLS leaders. No one’s quite sure, though, which could make the next month fascinating to watch.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Rundown of European-based USMNT players’ 2023/24 season outlooks
- The USMNT handles Saint Kitts and Nevis as Gold Cup Group A plays out
- Preview: USMNT opens Gold Cup defense against Reggae Boyz
- USMNT extends Mexico streak, prepares for Canada
Photo by Inter Miami