Leagues Cup: MLS stars with ties to Liga MX


The expanded 2023 Leagues Cup commences this weekend across the United States and Canada, pitting 29 MLS teams against 18 Liga MX clubs in a World Cup-style tournament that pauses both competitions over the next month.

Before setting off, here’s a look at 10 players - in no particular order - plying their trade in Major League Soccer with history on either side of the border.

The Mexican midfielder who once graced The Guardian’s Top 100 footballers list has three goals and nine assists this season for the Houston Dynamo, who are currently ninth in the Western Conference. Herrera joined MLS in 2022 after nearly a decade in Europe - first Portugal (FC Porto) then Spain (Atlético Madrid) - where he became one of the most successful Mexican nationals to ever play across the Atlantic. That stint included 35 goals across 245 games for Porto, 52 UEFA Champions League appearances and a comment from Pep Guardiola that, “Physically he is very strong. He seems slow, but he is very powerful.”

Rather poetically, Herrera will face Santos Laguna - his opponent in his Liga MX debut with boyhood club Pachuca back in 2011 - and should Houston advance to the knockout stages as the second-place team in South 2, they’d meet Los Tuzos in the Round of 32.

Nearly six years ago, LAFC signed Carlos Vela as their first-ever Designated Player ahead of their inaugural 2018 season. It proved to be a masterful stroke, with the Chivas academy product becoming an instant sensation after more than a decade in Europe (most recently with Real Sociedad). Vela put together arguably the most dominant single season in league history in 2019, earning Landon Donovan MLS MVP honors thanks to his 34g/15a output and in 2022 helped the Black & Gold complete the league’s eighth MLS Cup-Supporters’ Shield double.

Another key member of LAFC's 2022 championship-winning squad, Cristian Arango's massively successful stint with the Black & Gold (30g/7a in 54 regular-season appearances) ended suddenly this offseason when he was transferred to Pachuca. His time with Los Tuzos was short-lived, however, and after contributing 5g/2a in 11 Liga MX games, Chicho returned to MLS ahead of the Secondary Transfer Window as a club-record signing for Real Salt Lake.

Chicho and RSL are still in their honeymoon phase, with the Colombian notching a goal and two assists in his first three appearances. His arrival also coincides with the club's impressive form that has them on a nine-game winning streak (6W-0L-3D), good for third place in the Western Conference. They also have a US Open Cup semifinal showdown with Houston scheduled for Aug. 23.

Pulido began his career with Tigres UANL, but joined Sporting Kansas City in a club-record transfer from CD Guadalajara (where he scored 41 goals in 117 appearances across all competitions) in 2019. After missing all of last season with a knee injury, Pulido is in red-hot form, scoring 9g/1a over his last nine league games as SKC sit in 11th place in the West. Sporting were drawn in Central 3, where they’ll face Supporters’ Shield leaders FC Cincinnati and Pulido’s last club, Chivas.

Before Peruvian striker Raúl Ruidíaz was winning MLS Cup (2019) and Concacaf Champions League (2022) titles with the Seattle Sounders, he was a leading scorer in Liga MX with Morelia. Having notched 41 goals in 73 appearances across all competitions with Los Canarios, winning Apertura 2016 and Clausura 2017 Golden Boot honors in the process, Ruidíaz transitioned seamlessly into MLS, contributing 63g/11a in 111 regular-season games since joining in 2018.

The Argentine-born Armenian international joined the Columbus Crew in 2019 as a Designated Player, migrating to MLS after scoring 23 goals in all competitions for Tigres UANL. A 2020 MLS Cup champion with the Crew, Zelarayán’s attacking threat and experience in CCL (he reached three finals with Tigres) will be relied upon as Columbus navigate a tough group, playing breakout MLS expansion side St. Louis CITY SC and continental juggernaut Club América.

One of head coach/sporting director Bruce Arena’s earliest signings, Gustavo Bou joined New England from Club Tijuana in 2019. Arena has since described Bou’s impact, saying: “Gustavo has been an essential part of our team since his arrival in 2019 and he has proven to be among the league’s most prolific attacking players.” With 42 regular-season goals and counting, Bou could add to those numbers as the Revolution face a surmountable group that also includes Atlético San Luis and the New York Red Bulls.

Acosta has made a name for himself across two separate MLS clubs - most recently FC Cincinnati. His first star-appearance in the league took him to the nation's capital, where he featured prominently for D.C. United as he scored 24 goals in 126 appearances. A short stint with Atlas in Liga MX followed before he signed with Cincy ahead of the 2021 season. He’s since become the face of the franchise that pulled a remarkable turnaround last year after three straight Wooden Spoon-finishes.

Things are only getting better in 2023, with the Orange-and-Blue enjoying an eight-point lead atop the Supporters’ Shield standings. The 29-year-old Argentine native, whose 20 goal contributions (12g/8a) so far this season earned him the captaincy for this season's MLS All-Star squad, is reportedly nearing United States citizenship and a possible path toward USMNT eligibility.

Minnesota United could very well make a surprise Leagues Cup run, and they’d do so equipped with the defensive talents of former Pachuca center back Miguel Tapias. Despite a brief loan spell with Zacatecas, the 26-year-old spent most of his youth and professional career with Los Tuzos. Since joining the Loons this season, he’s featured prominently, starting all 21 of his league appearances, scoring a goal along the way while displaying his defensive versatility and strong aerial game.

Chilean striker Felipe Mora joined the Portland Timbers after a spell in Liga MX with both Pumas and Cruz Azul. Having scored 19 goals across all appearances with Pumas from 2018-2020, Mora joined Portland in 2020 in an initially-seamless transition featuring 18 league goals in his first two seasons and a now-legendary stoppage-time equalizer against New York City FC that sent MLS Cup 2021 into extra time (NYCFC would emerge victorious on penalty kicks). With multiple knee operations halting his progress in recent seasons, Mora is just now getting back to fitness.