There was considerable irony in the timing of the announcement. On the very day that Major League Soccer and Liga MX made public a new partnership between the U.S.-Canadian and Mexican leagues, possibly resulting in a whole slate of new competitions, MLS teams were to defend their leads over their Liga MX brethren in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.
That’s ironic because these new competitions — a future All-Star Game, a head-to-head battle of champions, and possibly a larger North American tournament — will only serve to dilute the already anemic interest in the Champions League.
And it’s ironic especially because the Champions League has vexed MLS teams for as long as it has existed in its current format. In nine completed editions, Liga MX teams have lifted the big trophy nine times. Seven of those times, both teams in the final were Mexican. Real Salt Lake reached the final in 2011 and the Montreal Impact did in 2015, but both of them squandered promising outlooks following the first legs.
This has all been fairly painful for MLS, which is unequivocal in its ambition of nestling itself among the world’s best leagues, yet has failed to overcome its only regional competitor — which doesn’t itself enjoy a reputation of being an elite circuit globally.
This season, however, things are looking good to break that wretched stretch. With three MLS teams facing Mexican opponents, all three carry leads into the seconds legs of these quarterfinals, which are to be played Tuesday and Wednesday. The Seattle Sounders are 1-0 up on Chivas. The New York Red Bulls managed a 2-0 away victory at Xolos. And defending MLS champions Toronto FC have a 2-1 lead over Tigres.
If all those leads should hold, that would guarantee at least one MLS team in the final, either facing another MLS team or Mexico City juggernaut Club America.
MLS teams have had a hard time of it in the CCL for various reasons. The timing of the knockout stages is inconvenient, kicking off before the MLS regular season does. Mexican teams tend to be savvier in knockout formats. And the stateside clubs aren’t helped any by the stringent salary cap rules, which see to it that most big Mexican clubs retain a spending power gap of at least 2-to-1 over the MLS sides.
Perhaps the lack of MLS success helps explain the failure of the CCL to break through in any kind of meaningful way in the U.S. Few MLS fans care. And the competition doesn’t seem to move the needle south of the border either. It doesn’t help that much of the tournament is spent watching MLS and Liga MX teams rolling over minnows from other CONCACAF countries.
The Champions League isn’t even aired by an English-language broadcaster in the U.S. as it culminates this spring — for the second season in a row. So even if MLS finally delivers, few will see it, as only Univision’s secondary UDN is airing the games.
It’s a missed opportunity. Consolidating the region’s biggest and best soccer leagues into a meaningful competition should be rather feasible. Yet an earlier attempt at that failed, when the North American Super Liga was shuttered after just four editions in 2010. That event included four teams from each league, playing a group stage and knockout rounds to crown a champion — three of them Mexican and one the New England Revolution, although three finals went to penalties.
So now the leagues will take another stab at it, with a future MLS-Liga MX All-Star Game and a new Campeones Cup pitting the champions of the respective leagues against each other in September.
“Major League Soccer is proud to come together with Liga MX for this unprecedented partnership,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in a statement. “Together, we have a vision to elevate the popularity of our game to even higher levels in North America. We are excited to have the MLS champion take on Liga MX’s top club in the Campeones Cup this year and build further programs in the years to come.”
“For Mexican soccer,” echoed Enrique Bonilla, the Liga MX president, “accepting the invitation to this project is a fantastic opportunity to meet our vital goals with a long-term vision. First, it will allow us to grow closer to our fans in the United States and Canada, who are passionate about their Liga MX clubs. Second, it establishes a strategic alliance between the two leagues to exchange experiences and implement best practices throughout both organizations, which will organically assist the growth of soccer in the region.”
It makes the world of sense, even if a cynic might say this pact between Mexican, U.S. and Canadian leagues is curiously timed with the three also in a bid for the 2026 World Cup and eager to display their unity — and it won’t have been missed that all the announcement statements mention this fact.
The Campeones Cup will take place Sept. 18 at Toronto FC’s BMO Field, where the local club will take on a kind of super champion from Liga MX, where two champions are crowned each year — one each for the Apertura and Clausura seasons. They will first face off in a Campeon de Campeones game in May, cleverly creating a double-whammy of high-stakes games for Liga MX.
The timing might seem awkward, coming four months after Liga MX ends and a full nine months after the culmination of MLS, and more than half-way into its new season. But then the Campeones Cup falls right between the All-Star Game and the MLS Cup Final on the MLS calendar, without distracting from the Liga MX playoffs in May or November and December. Nor does it fall in the MX off-season, which would handicap it much the way MLS has been in the CONCACAF Champions League.
The risk of this new Campeones Cup event, especially if it’s followed by a larger tournament, which is quite conceivable, is that it could take much of the already-dim shine from the Champions League. Yet while that would hurt the region’s smaller leagues, it’s understandable that the North American soccer circuits are — or someday will be — going it alone.
Ten seasons into the Champions League, the competition has made no strides in finding a place in the public consciousness. If anything, it has regressed without a major TV carrier. Even dedicated MLS and Liga MX fans largely seem lukewarm on it. And, ultimately, the development of the rest of the region isn’t the responsibility of its biggest leagues but that of CONCACAF. While Garber told ESPNFC that he supports the Champions League and doesn’t seem to want to compete with it, it could nevertheless become collateral damage.
And if MLS and Liga MX want to harness the momentum of their steady global ascent, closer ties, even to the detriment of other leagues, might well be a price worth paying.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.