Explaining the Leagues Cup and How it Affects MLS and Liga MX

| October 5, 2021 1:29 pm PDT

The Leagues Cup has only been around for two editions, over three pandemic-hit soccer seasons. But the big news is there has been a huge overhaul that will begin in 2023.

The revamp is designed to raise the profile of MLS and Liga MX around the world – as well as improve the entire CONCACAF club system.

Those are some big goals. But MLS seems desperate to make the US soccer league more of a player in the global game – and this is just the latest idea to achieve that aim.

It feels more as though Liga MX is going along with the ride to see if it works. But how will this new competition change the game in the US and Mexico?

I’m going to take a look at what The Leagues Cup is, the history – and future – of the tournament, and whether these plans are a good thing for US and Mexican soccer.

A Brief History of The Leagues Cup

There have been several tournaments over the years that have attempted to bridge MLS and Liga MX.

The idea behind them tends to be that US teams were never very good on a global scale but had the marketing ability to punch above their weight. While the level of play in Liga MX was much higher, the clubs were not as well known outside Mexico.

The Leagues Cup is just the latest incarnation of a tournament that brings together the best teams in the CONCACAF region.

That is probably a little unfair on sides from the rest of Central America, but the bigger clubs tend to come from these two nations.

The first Leagues Cup took place in 2019 with four clubs from each league taking part on an invitational basis. This gave the competition a pre-season friendly vibe and it was not looked on as a serious trophy to play for – apart from by the two associations who wanted it to be so much more.

In a sign of what was to come in subsequent editions, a Mexican side lifted the trophy with Cruz Azul beating Tigres in the inaugural final.

The Leagues Cup is an annual competition but the 2020 event was cancelled because of the COVID pandemic.

There was a slight tweak to the qualification rules though, with the best MLS teams that failed to make the CONCACAF Champions League making the cut.

The 2021 Leagues Cup went ahead in August and September of this year, with just one of the four MLS sides making it to the semifinal stage once again.

Seattle progressed from the last four though, before losing 3-2 to Leon in the final.

The Leagues Cup Finals
Year Team Score Team
2019 Cruz Azul 2-1 Tigres
2020 Cancelled
2021 Leon 3-2 Seattle Sounders

The All-New Leagues Cup

After the first two editions of The Leagues Cup were treated largely with indifference in the US – and with little awareness of the tournament outside the CONCACAF region – it was announced that there would be big changes for 2023.

MLS still seem to think that this competition can boost global recognition of the US game – and that an extended format is the answer.

The 2023 League Cup will involve every single top-flight club from MLS and Liga MX. That means there will be 30 from the US and Canada (allowing for the expected expansion team) and 18 from Mexico.

They will play in a World Cup-style group stage before a series of knockout rounds. The top three teams at the end of the tournament will then qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League.

Both leagues will set aside two months in the summer for the competition to play out. This will cause a break during the MLS season and probably delay the beginning of the Liga MX season.

The Leagues Cup could still end up being regarded as a pre-season friendly tournament for Mexican clubs. But the scheduling does show that both associations are serious about making this an important part of the soccer calendar in this part of the world.

How Will CONCACAF Soccer Benefit?

As with most things going on in the CONCACAF region, The Leagues Cup is designed to improve soccer in the run up to the 2026 World Cup that is taking place in the US, Canada and Mexico.

CONCACAF as a governing body will benefit from the attention the revamped tournament brings (or that is the hope), as well as improving its own Champions League competition.

Both MLS and Liga MX have been at pains to explain that the new Leagues Cup has been organized in full consultation with CONCACAF.

MLS seem to have realized that it needs to be taken seriously by Mexico – and Mexican soccer fans in the US – to become fully accepted.

There is a feeling that it is a lesser league in the eyes of European soccer fans, so building up its reputation in its own backyard must be a positive step. Whether this tournament is the answer to that is debatable though.

Liga MX clubs will benefit from the money it brings into the game in Mexico. But most of the teams are still more talented than their MLS counterparts.

There isn’t the brand recognition as much, but Liga MX is higher up in FIFA’s ranking of domestic leagues. The idea must be that players from both countries will get better from the improved competition The Leagues Cup brings.

The Future of The Leagues Cup

Both MLS and Liga MX representatives have publicly stated in the past that they foresee a combined North American League in the future that brings together the cream of the clubs from the region.

That could be a problem though, considering the franchise system that the MLS runs.

There will not be many franchises that will be happy playing in a second tier – and the whole lack of promotion and relegation in the US has been a major tension point for years.

Another factor will be the increased number of games involved in an already bursting at the seam’s soccer calendar.

Tiredness and fatigue have already been raised as issues by players in the last year or so after postponed competitions were crammed into the season – and this will force yet more games on those same players.

Holding a Leagues Cup tournament that involves all top-flight clubs from the US and Mexico seems like bringing in the ‘North American League’ by stealth. It will be interesting to see whether its newfound popularity – or lack of – is a factor in a complete overhaul of the league system in both countries in the next few years.

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Dan Roberts
Dan Roberts

Dan Roberts is an experienced freelance writer specialising in sports and sports betting. He is particularly knowledgeable about world soccer, but also writes about football, basketball and cricket.

As a fan of Nottingham Forest, New York Knicks, Minnesota Vikings and New York Mets, Dan has not had much to celebrate recently.

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