Whether you’re thrilled, leery or somewhere in between about the new and dramatically expanded Leagues Cup format unveiled this week, one element seems clear: It stands to have a dramatic impact on MLS – its clubs, players and fans alike – over time, well above and beyond the competition itself.
That was one theme among a sampling of MLS coaches and executives MLSsoccer.com polled in the wake of Tuesday’s big announcement that every club in the league will join their Liga MX counterparts in a month-long midseason tournament starting in 2023, notably chasing three Concacaf Champions League spots during the regular season pause.
Here are a few of their questions and observations as everyone gets their heads around this striking new development.
First and foremost, Leagues Cup expansion represents a tall task for every team, player and coaching staff in MLS. Up to now the league’s participation in international competitions has mostly been limited to its most successful members, with MLS representatives in CCL and this year’s Leagues Cup qualifying via the previous season’s league tables.
Opening the tent to everyone presents intriguing opportunities, but dangers as well. With their savvy managers and talent-rich rosters (and academy systems), an off night against a Liga MX foe can lead to not just defeat, but hefty defeat, even if a summer event blunts the scheduling advantage they’ve long enjoyed in CCL editions held in late winter and early spring.
“Whenever an MLS team is going up against a Mexican team, you’re challenged by the time of the year and how deep your team is,” said LAFC coach Bob Bradley, whose side fell to Tigres UANL in the final of last year’s Champions League. “But for me it's always clear, you want to put a good team on the field, you want to test yourself, you want to go after the opponent, try to win. And we've seen that happen a few times.
“I think everybody knows that Mexican teams are deep, talented, and so in order to have a really good, competitive game, you've got to go there with the right guys and the right mentality.”
Sporting Kansas City manager and technical director Peter Vermes took a decidedly pragmatic approach to his club’s involvement in this year’s Leagues Cup, starting a youth-driven XI in the quarterfinal round vs. eventual champions Club Leon and duly suffering a 6-1 thumping, a decision he described as inevitable due to injuries and a crowded schedule. But he’s enthusiastic about the changes for 2023, starting with the pause in league play that it includes.
“I’m really, really, truly excited about the competition. I think it's going to be really interesting,” Vermes told MLSsoccer.com. “Not just that it provides so much experience for the clubs, the teams, the players. It changes the focus and to actually get the focus on something like that, which is pretty cool, without having the impact of having to play league games at the same time as that competition … it's going to provide a completely different way of looking at things.”
He did caution that all this further complexifies the task of roster construction and management, which is already a juggling act with salary budgets, league regulations and acquisition mechanisms, scouting, data analysis and so on.
It’s also an extra layer of logistics for the two leagues themselves, with many details still to be nailed down and made official in the coming months. Still, there’s a widespread belief that this is a logical and necessary next step to push along MLS’ improvement, even if it’s accompanied by some humbling results.
“A new competition on such a level is something that helps us to stretch our players, to challenge our players, to give some more exciting competition for our fans and the people in North America that are starting to get connected with the game,” said Vancouver Whitecaps FC sporting director Axel Schuster, noting the looming and likely transformational arrival of the 2026 World Cup and how Leagues Cup “fits exactly into this story” of watershed growth.
“In my experience in Europe,” added the German, “there's nothing better than to play cross-border competitions against somebody you don't know that well, or you don't know exactly what to expect, how a team really is, how strong, and to prepare for that, to challenge yourself to compete with that. And of course there’s nothing better than to win such competitions.”
Schuster is bullish on MLS' ability to gear up for this new era, pointing out that “this league has already proven that it can get new versions and new formats of competition done” like the MLS is Back Tournament. But he and his fellow CSOs (chief soccer officers) await the full rundown of budget levels and roster rules that they’ll have to work with in order to put their best foot forward.
Commissioner Don Garber stated that the regular season will remain a 34-game slate and Leagues Cup is likely to add at least three and possibly as many as seven matches to each team’s calendar. So some decision-makers are already projecting a need for additional roster slots to handle the load, and/or a liberalization of regulations on when and how clubs promote players from their second teams and academy sides.
Others point to Liga MX’s abundance of Designated Player/TAM-caliber talent and advocate for more spending at those levels by ‘23. Has the MLS academy system matured to the point that homegrowns and other youngsters can provide the necessary depth? That’s another subject for debate.
For many years clubs competing in CCL have received extra allocation money to strengthen their rosters for that additional lift. The full outlook for ‘23 remains to be seen, though Leagues Cup will undoubtedly be a factor in squad-building.
“I think for sure you’ve got to start now, preparing for that over the next, basically two to three [transfer] windows,” said Vermes of that task.
His Orlando City counterpart Oscar Pareja, who led FC Dallas to the CCL semifinals in 2017 before a stint in charge of Liga MX’s Club Tijuana, sounds characteristically confident in the untapped abilities of the young or unproven players further down MLS rosters.
“Especially in this moment where the boundaries are getting more open, it is important. I like it,” he said of the expanded Leagues Cup. “As well as extending or changing the calendar and the way we schedule the games, it will provide the opportunity to play some more players that sometimes during the year we haven’t played as much. So that volume of games, it will not just create the interaction among the clubs, between the countries, but also it gives the opportunity to showcase other players.”
Schuster, too, alluded to MLS’ parallel process of evolving into a selling league.
“I think we are almost there to compete with the Mexican teams on that level, and we have a comparable quality,” he said. “We also have now to think what the next step was because you see us selling players for very, very nice transfer fees to Europe. I think we’ve sold more players for more value to Europe than Liga MX in the last two, three years. So I think the next step up for the league is very interesting, and the next step cannot be only to compete with the Mexican league – it's about making the next step on the ladder of world soccer.”
How a month-long Leagues Cup might affect the length, timing and rhythm of the overall season is one of the biggest topics of speculation, and it unfolds amid a wider global discourse about the future of the sport’s calendar.
Much like its slate of member clubs, MLS’ schedule was slowly, steadily lengthening before the sweeping disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the 2020 campaign starting earlier than any before it and this year’s set to run through MLS Cup on December 11. It’s also growing more crowded. The U.S. Open Cup will return to American clubs’ dockets next year. Up north, the Canadian Championship has already resumed. And the summer of 2023 will also include the next edition of the Concacaf Gold Cup.
But Schuster argues that North America is still well behind global norms in this respect.
“In reality we are still not playing any amount of games that's comparable to those teams that in Europe play European competitions,” said the Schalke 04 and Mainz alum. “If you ask players, there's nothing else they like that much than to play games. And if you have a normal week and you play Saturday-Saturday, for example, on the Tuesday – or if you have played Sunday, on a Wednesday – you have a very heavy day, you often train twice and you put in a lot of load.
“So I think the games themselves will not be the problem, it’s more about the logistics around the travel … We have to be smart, to work all together to maybe find the solution around that, that this doesn't become too heavy.”
Pushing preseason or the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs deeper into winter runs up against climate challenges in cool-weather markets; conversely, the Leagues Cup’s summer timeframe can be extremely hot in others. Then there’s the ongoing challenge of international windows, which MLS has had to play through for much of its existence but has more recently begun to offer teams some chances to schedule around.
“Right now sometimes you can elect to play through some of the windows and take other windows off,” said Vermes. “They’re not scheduling playoff games during international breaks, which obviously makes a lot of sense. But then maybe you have to play through some of the summer ones or some of the ones early in a calendar year so that you could accommodate the congestion of the schedule. So I would say it's probably a combination of that and also probably having to play a little bit longer in the season.”
As Schuster notes, the MLS offseason remains significantly longer than those of the top leagues that it compares itself to, which many consider having knock-on effects for player development. He also made an apt analogy to the Qatar 2022 World Cup.
“I think there is enough time to play those competitions,” he said. “We have two years to find a way to sort that out. I only want to remind everyone, a few years ago, everyone said ‘It is impossible to play a World Cup in December because all the European calendars will not work and there was no chance that you can fit in a World Cup at the end of the year.’ And next year we will see that easily fits in and that all calendars can work around that. So calendar is always something we discuss, and nobody ever will be happy with the calendar. But I'm pretty sure it will work.”
Meeting the challenge of this new Leagues Cup – and seizing the opportunities that go hand in hand – will not be easy. But it’s also easy for MLS clubs to find motivation in the brave new world that it represents.
“For me this is a challenge, a challenge we have to accept, a challenge we have to work on, where we have to be smart and to find the best solution. And I'm absolutely up for it,” said Schuster. “There's nothing more boring than to do 10 years in a row always the same. So I love to work in this league because this league is still moving forward and changing things.”