By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 3, 2023) US Soccer Players – With the group stage over and the knockout rounds underway, we now have an early picture of what the full-sized Leagues Cup looks and feels like. Even setting aside the massive injection of buzz provided by the arrival of Lionel Messi at Inter Miami just before it kicked off, the tournament has provided an interesting summer spectacle for the continent.
With so many unknowns around the full event, some analysis and adjustment is inevitable. Here are a few observations from the group stage.
International experiences help players and teams
One of the boldest elements of the Leagues Cup concept centers on involving all of the clubs in it, not just those who finish at or near the top of their domestic league or win a cup competition. While it sets aside the best against the best idea, it also broadens both the data points and the experiences of international play.
We might otherwise be unlikely to see the likes of Mazatlan, Juarez, or Charlotte FC testing themselves against foreign opposition. There’s real value there for both collectives and individuals, especially with the MLS stretch run looming just a few weeks away. Vancouver Whitecaps coach Vanni Sartini made note of this after his team dramatically knocked off the LA Galaxy 2-1 to advance to a knockout date with mighty Tigres UANL.
“We use this tournament for two main things, well, I would say three. One, try to go as far as we can, so let’s try to win,” he said. “The other two things are, we already qualified for the Champions (Cup) winning the Canadian Championship, and we want to do a better job than we did this year, where we were like, was our first dance. So the more experience we have against very strong Concacaf teams, the better it is. And the third thing is that every game, including this game, I hope that it’s going to be a good training for our playoff season.”
MLS has closed a gap, but there’s more than one gap
MLS executives surely hope to use Leagues Cup to highlight how much ground they’ve made up on Liga MX. After many years of lopsided results in favor of the Mexican league in Concacaf Champions Cup/Champions League play, US and Canadian clubs have gradually, painstakingly, grown more competitive on that front.
Last season’s liguilla finalists Chivas lost to both FC Cincinnati and Sporting KC. One could also point to score lines Minnesota United beating Puebla 4-0 with ten men and New England and Philadelphia routing Atletico San Luis and Queretaro 5-1, respectively. Yet that would ignore the more complicated reality that Liga MX is even less of a monolith than MLS.
The ‘gap’ between the two leagues is increasingly a less useful framing than the gap between Mexico’s elite and everyone else. Monterrey dispatched both Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders, both respected Western Conference contenders, by a combined score of 7-2. Tigres rarely looked troubled in their group stage wins over Portland and San Jose. Club America’s 4-1 loss to the Columbus Crew was the exception, and it came after the Aguilas’ impressive 4-0 win over St Louis City.
Financially flush and driven to succeed, Liga MX’s gigantes tend to run way ahead of the pack domestically and in Concacaf play. It’s up to Major League Soccer’s best to prove they can keep pace as the knockout bracket unfolds.
Messi and the midseason factor
With all 47 of MLS and Liga MX’s member teams taking part and various coaches opting for different approaches to the event, there’s been a spectrum in terms of what each match looks and feels like. What’s clear is that Leagues Cup can offer a fresh start amid even the most woeful league campaigns.
Inter Miami came into this event last in the MLS table, riding a lengthy winless skid. Messi and his fellow July signings Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba have completely changed the tone around the club, and Leagues Cup provided a clean slate at the perfect time. With three straight wins, the Herons suddenly look like a completely different team and are now rated tournament favorites by some.
The previously struggling Chicago Fire and New York Red Bulls have also gotten a big boost and may continue to reap the benefits when league action resumes. Timing this event at the tail end of the summer transfer window helps here, too, giving newcomers a chance to make a splash before having to reckon with the standings consequences of what had already transpired before their arrival.
The schedule crunch
Speaking of timing, it’s still hard to tell whether this new gambit will make long-term sense for this juncture in the calendar. Extreme heat has been a factor in multiple locales and could magnify the wear and tear of a deep tournament run.
The likes of Cincinnati and Miami will also run up against the remaining US Open Cup fixtures in a couple of weeks. Conversely, teams that don’t qualify for the Leagues Cup knockouts suddenly have a lengthy midseason break, with some coaches giving their squads an entire week off as a result.
Will those divergent schedules affect the competitive balance in the coming months? Does it really make sense to shoehorn this thing into this period, or might it make more sense as a winter event in warm-weather locations going forward?
Matches in Mexico are much needed
Location has been and will continue to be a central talking point around Leagues Cup. No one is surprised that all matches are at US and Canadian venues. US-based fans of those Mexican clubs are a key demographic being courted, after all.
But if organizers want this tournament to be taken seriously right from the jump, and the hefty prizes on offer suggest that they do, some adjustment is necessary. Every single statement-type win for MLS vs Liga MX will inevitably carry an asterisk because there’s no return leg or home-field advantage to speak of, even when Liga MX supporters turn out in numbers like the Chivas faithful did in Kansas City.
If MLS wants to tell the story of rising parity with its southern neighbors, it must show that those encouraging results aren’t limited to its own stadiums. If Leagues Cup wants to be a compelling broadcast product, not just an in-stadium experience, holding games at atmospheric sites like Estadio Azteca or Tigres’ Estadio Universitario would serve that goal as well.
More from Charles Boehm:
- USMNT fall 2023 look ahead
- MLS, Liga MX step into new territory with 2023 Leagues Cup
- Rundown of European-based USMNT players’ 2023/24 season outlooks
- The USMNT handles Saint Kitts and Nevis as Gold Cup Group A plays out
Photo by Nashville SC