What the new Leagues Cup and expanded Champions League means for MLS

Written By Harrison Hamm on September 23, 2021

In a change nearly unprecedented in the world of soccer, MLS and Liga MX have made a move toward playing more games against each other. In an attempt to increase the quality of the region, they have expanded the Leagues Cup so that it includes every team from both leagues and takes up a summer month, with regular schedules pausing.

It’s hard to think of a comparable in global sports.

Why the move?

The reasoning for this drastic move isn’t hard to see — it is mutually beneficial for these leagues to play more games against each other. The higher quality and competitiveness that this will breed should help the leagues grow as destination spots for the world’s better players. The interest that this will generate given the popularity of Liga MX in both Mexico and the United States will be great for MLS.

Adding tournament-style games in the middle of the season disrupts the monotony of the summer and gives every team something big to play for. This is especially helpful for MLS, a league with no relegation. The bad teams that would normally be stuck battling around the red line for a single-game playoff chance or playing out the stretch with no chance at the playoffs would have incentive to assemble the best possible team for July or August or whenever this tournament will be played.

In addition, the best teams will get to challenge themselves against the highest quality in the region more often. We’ve seen how Europe and South America have improved in quality with the frequency and meaning of the Champions League and Copa Libertadores (plus the lesser tier continental competitions below them). The Leagues Cup will foster legitimate rivalries between Mexican, American, and Canadian teams.

What are the downsides?

The potential pitfalls here likely revolve around scheduling and the meaning of the trophy. This tournament, which will first take place in 2023, will have to deal with summer international tournaments, which usually take up June and July (depending on the year) and could cause player fatigue. Plus, the global international calendar is in flux right now and could look different in a couple of years.

There could be the inevitable feeling that this tournament isn’t everything to play for. It interrupts the regular season, which might still be the priority for teams in both leagues.

MLS now has five major trophies to play for: the Concacaf Champions League, Leagues Cup, MLS Cup, the Supporters’ Shield, and the US Open Cup. How should we think of the best team in MLS at the end of the year when different teams will likely have won different tournaments? That answer will get less clear.

But the legitimacy of the Leagues Cup is already there. It is sanctioned by Concacaf, and crucially, there are three Champions League spots at stake. The winner gets a bye to the round of 16. Additionally, pausing the regular season to lean into this “World Cup-style” tournament ensures that teams will go all in. There will be no squad rotation or fixture congestion concerns.

An improved Champions League

The biggest part of all of this is the revamped Champions League, which will follow for the first time in 2024. The CCL, which has always been structurally flawed, will expand to include 27 teams from around the region. It will have no group stage and instead start with a 22-team first round, after which five teams with a bye will enter for the round of 16. Every round will feature a two-leg aggregate series until the final, which will be a one-off game played on a weekend.

Having a healthy, competitive Champions League is the most important thing for a continental organization. This revamped CCL does a better job of involving the entire region. Other new regional tournaments (the Concacaf Central American Cup and the Concacaf Caribbean Cup) will increase big games for teams from smaller federations and allow any club in the region to theoretically qualify for the CCL.

That means it’s not only Mexico and the US that will benefit from this arrangement — clubs from Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala and Panama will also benefit. More continental games was the biggest thing missing from this region, and that has been solved emphatically. With the North American jointly-hosted 2026 World Cup looming, it’s perfect timing.

In the meantime, the Seattle Sounders will play Club Leon tonight in the Leagues Cup final, the second-to-last edition of the current format. Those types of big games will come faster and harder in the years to come.

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