How to fix, save and restore the prestige of the Copa MX
Where does the Copa MX tournament go from here? While competitions like the CONCACAF Champions League and the Liga MX have dominated the headlines in recent weeks, little has been said about Mexico's domestic cup competition. In fact, for many who are currently reading this right now, it might come as a surprise that the 2018 Clausura edition of the Copa MX is already over.
Without much fanfare or attention, Necaxa defeated Toluca 1-0 in last Wednesday's cup final. Following countless arguments, articles and TV clips over the continental Champions League and whether the gap is truly closing or not between Liga MX and MLS, the Copa MX title match was eventually left forgotten by a majority of soccer media and fans.
To be fair, this is understandable. Due to Champions League duty, the absence of Mexican giants like Chivas and Club America left a gaping hole in this season's Copa MX. The eye-catching Champions League run by two of the best MLS squads further helped steal that mid-week attention, and with plenty of drama occurring in the more prominent UEFA Champions League tournament as well, many were likely feeling burnt-out once the Copa MX final rolled around.
The fact that there is no longer a Copa Libertadores spot left to fight for doesn't help much either. Necaxa is the worthy champion and should be given plenty of credit for accomplishing this feat, but something still feels missing without an opportunity to take part in the Copa Libertadores. Of course, Los Rayos will still have a Supercopa MX match against Monterrey in Los Angeles this July, but those preseason clashes tend to appear more as a friendly than a fierce title battle.
Looking back at the cup competition itself, you'll find few Liga MX fans who are thrilled by the group stage of the Copa MX. If the final was overlooked, just imagine the disregard Mexican soccer supporters have had for group stage matches that feature second-division sides.
The Copa MX needs to change, and despite the fact that we probably won't see any alterations soon, here are some ideas that could help drastically improve the competition.
Eliminate the group stage
In its current design, there are nine groups with three teams each. Each group is set as a round-robin tournament with home and away legs, meaning each team takes part in four games during the stage. Keeping in mind that the group winners and the seven-best second-place teams go through to the next round, it's fairly easy to qualify for the knockout round while only prioritizing a couple of matches.
Instead of having this tedious group stage which stretches out over two months, the Copa MX should immediately be switched to a knockout format similar to the U.S. Open Cup. Seedings and scheduling would have to based on the varying and adequate number of Liga MX and Ascenso teams involved but in general, Liga MX teams would host the Ascenso clubs in the first round.
Keeping in mind that there likely won't be enough second-tier sides to match-up with the first division clubs, some Liga MX teams might have to immediately face each other. This would add more weight to each clash and provide a bigger chance of an upset in favor of the Ascenso clubs.
If possible, the incorporation of some MLS clubs would make it much more fascinating to follow as well. Both Liga MX and MLS recognize the value and attention of a cross-league battle and by adding in a few clubs from north of the border, the Copa MX would suddenly become must-watch soccer for countless fans in both countries.
Make victory worth something beyond a trophy
All that said, there still needs to be a carrot on the end of the stick here for the competing Mexican clubs. Bragging rights aside, without a place in the Copa Libertadores, there needs to be something much more valuable worth fighting for. That's where the CONCACAF Champions League can step in.
At the moment, both the champion and runner-up of each Liga MX tournament qualify for a place in the Champions League. Instead of a league runner-up, the winner of each Copa MX tournament could be rewarded with a spot in the Champions League instead.
If an invited MLS side were to win the Copa MX, the Mexican club with the best finish in the domestic competition would then be given the Champions League invitation instead. This would not only give more significance to the Copa MX, but would also provide an avenue to the Champions League for Ascenso clubs.
The downside to change
The aforementioned ideas undoubtedly create an exciting proposition but to be fair, there would also be some set-backs. With no group stage, there would be fewer games for backups and young Mexican players to be take part. It's already tough enough to find minutes in the regular season and with fewer opportunities in the Copa MX, it would decrease playing time for those on the fringe of every squad.
If MLS clubs were included, scheduling would likely prove to be a headache for all involved. In Clausura editions of the Copa MX, the cup competition would have to kickoff closer to February or March to help coincide with the start of the MLS season. Mexico's promotion/relegation situation is in flux as well, which could also lead to more confusion with the scheduling and design of the competition.
All that said, without a doubt changes need to be made to the Copa MX. Regardless of the potential negatives, there's a number of ideas that could help boost the design and attention of the cup competition. If nothing changes, it wouldn't be a shock if another Copa MX final passed by without making much of a splash.
Cesar Hernandez covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @cesarhfutbol.