Will MLS show it can compete with Liga MX in upcoming Leagues Cup?
On Tuesday, the latest attempt to stoke the MLS/Liga MX rivalry will take place with the inaugural matches in the Leagues Cup. In each of the four games, an MLS side will go up against a Liga MX counterpart, with the winners progressing to the semifinals to be held on Aug. 20. The final will take place in Las Vegas a month later.
Frankly, it's difficult to take the budding competition seriously, at least in this initial go-round. The timing, in the midst of the MLS season and at the very beginning of the new Liga MX campaign, is curious. The choice of MLS sides -- the LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, Houston Dynamo and Chicago Fire -- looks entirely random as well, though qualification for next year's tournament is more concrete. The concept has also been tried before with a tournament called the SuperLiga that ran from 2007-10, one that was abandoned amid expansion of the CONCACAF Champions League.
There's also the fact that the games are being crammed into a time of year when fixture congestion is already an issue for MLS teams and the weather is borderline scorching in many of the league's cities. MLS participants like Houston and RSL are fighting for their playoff lives. For a team like RSL, the playoff six-pointer next weekend at FC Dallas will take far greater priority than Tuesday's game against Liga MX powerhouse and reigning 2019 Clausura champions UANL Tigres.
Then there's the overwhelming fact that competitive matches between Liga MX and MLS clubs strain the definition of the word "rivalry." MLS has long been trying to gain the attention of its older and more well-established sibling, with little success. According to ESPN Stats & Information, starting with the 2012-13 edition of the CONCACAF Champions League, there have been 54 games between MLS and Liga MX sides: Liga MX won 28 times, 12 matches resulted in draws and MLS won the remaining 14. Only three times in the current decade has an MLS team so much as reached the CCL final, losing every time against Liga MX opposition.
While Toronto FC did come agonizingly close in 2018, falling to Chivas de Guadalajara on penalties, the 2019 edition of the tournament was a step backward. In five matchups between MLS and Liga MX, only Sporting Kansas City managed to prevail in its round of 16 matchup against Toluca. SKC was later humbled in the semifinals 10-2 on aggregate by Monterrey.
So why will this competition be any different? And while there is consensus that MLS is closing the still sizable gap on Liga MX clubs, what needs to happen to close it further?
Seattle Sounders FC GM Garth Lagerwey is among those taking more of a long-term view about the tournament. Such a competition will provide the players who participate in it with the opportunity to play against a higher standard of competition. It's also a chance for people who are already fans of the sport to see what MLS teams have to offer.
"It adds to the credibility of our league if you can beat Mexican teams," he said. "If, in fact, these games will be scheduled in a more favorable period of the year, hopefully you win more of them and you add respect to the league. If we can get the folks who watch Liga MX to watch MLS more regularly, that's just basic math. That would lead to better ratings and will hopefully generate more revenue for our franchises."
Not everyone is on board. The tournament's arrival has been met with a shake of the head by the MLS Players Association. MLSPA executive director Bob Foose noted that a bonus structure for players taking part in the tournament has yet to be agreed, and there are practical concerns as well.
"On the one hand, we understand and support the desire to build new properties that get attention and have value," said MLSPA executive director Bob Foose. "That's good for us. Competition between our clubs and Mexican clubs obviously is something that we need over time on a serious level to continue to build the sport. On the other hand, the league and the owners haven't done what they need to do about schedule congestion, travel conditions, or about carefully planning and thinking through what they do."
Does MLS have an edge this time around?
The timing of the new tournament does provide MLS teams with some advantages. The time of year for the CCL, basically at the start of the MLS season in late winter and early spring, does MLS teams no favors. By comparison, Liga MX sides are about 8-10 games into the second half of their league calendar.
"It's very difficult from a physical perspective and a mental perspective when players have to be up and ready to play in that competition and we haven't even played a game in MLS yet," said SKC manager Peter Vermes. "We're already in a must-win competition."
The opposite will be true in the Leagues Cup, with MLS teams deep into their season as their Liga MX counterparts are just starting out. The fact that all of the games will be held on U.S. soil will help as well.
Such factors will not minimize the significant structural differences between Liga MX teams and those in MLS. The largest is what the teams spend on their respective players and how that impacts roster depth. Lagerwey estimates that on average, Liga MX sides spend double that of their MLS counterparts. The data accumulated by the web site Transfermarkt is a bit more favorable to MLS, with the average market value of players on Liga MX team coming out to $42.7 million while the average for players on MLS teams checks in at $26.7m. This still represents a sizable gap, connected to the financial constraints MLS places on itself when it comes to salary caps and the rules about how money can be spent.
"I wish we could spend here what they spend in Mexico," said LA Galaxy GM Dennis te Klose, who previously served as the director of national teams for the Mexico Football Federation. "I think if you look at the Champions League games, which I think is a good measure, if you have a few guys out, and there are some injuries, or there are a few things that go a little bit on the downside for the MLS clubs, I think there is more depth and there are more quality players available for the Mexican teams to replace or come up with tactical variations or in different spots."
Leagues Cup fixtures:
- Chicago Fire vs. Cruz Azul, 7/23, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN+)
- LA Galaxy vs. Club Tijuana, 7/23, 11 p.m. ET (ESPN)
- Houston Dynamo vs. Club America, 7/24, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN+)
- Real Salt Lake vs. Tigres, 7/24, 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN+)
All of this points to a need for MLS to further loosen the purse strings if it is to really compete with Liga MX clubs. That will no doubt be a part of the upcoming CBA negotiations between the MLSPA and MLS. But Foose also feels steps can made even before such discussions begin, especially as it relates to the level of influence the MLS league office has on how money is spent.
"In our system, we're only constructing a roster one way, which is the way that MLS has dictated that you do it," he said. "The Mexican clubs have the freedom to construct their roster in the way that they think makes the most competitive sense. They can have a roster where the highest-paid player makes twice what the 20th-highest paid player makes. The way we do it is more like 20 times higher. I for one would like to see what our teams could do with the freedom to spend the money the way they want to spend it in order to be competitive.
"I think we're past the point where there's any benefit -- that's if there ever was any benefit -- of having centralized planning like that."
An upside for young players
There is more to closing the gap than just importing players from the top down and increasing spending. There needs to be an emphasis on developing players from the ground up as well.
Te Klose praised MLS's increased focus on youth academies as well as the continued recruitment of young international players from abroad. This needs to continue and Efrain Alvarez, the 17-year-old Galaxy academy product, looks to be a player who could benefit from a competition like the Leagues Cup. However, te Klose notes that Mexico has also been making this a point of emphasis. MLS is still playing catch-up, though te Klose wouldn't go so far as to say MLS should emulate Liga MX in mandating that teams give a certain number of minutes to youth players.
"You can't copy and paste things that are very productive or successful somewhere else," he said. "You need to understand what your needs and your market are, and what your idea or philosophy is locally, and then maybe you can take advantage of certain things that have worked outside.
"I'm not sure if on every team [mandating minutes] would be positively welcomed, that you need to play young players."
The extent to which a tournament like the Leagues Cup can be a puzzle piece in terms of MLS teams catching up to Mexico is still to be determined. Interest in the SuperLiga waned to a degree, with crowds routinely failing to crack 10,000 in the last two years it was held. Yet there is cautious optimism that the Leagues Cup will help lift the collective boat of MLS.
"I have no doubt there's short-term pain with fixture congestion, squad rotation, things like that," said Lagerwey. "But if you want to get where you want to go, this [tournament] is potentially a step in the right direction."