MLS, Liga MX bosses hope new partnership will elevate North American soccer

Don Garber - speaks at a joint press conference with Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla

NEW YORK—The new partnership between MLS and Liga MX might begin with a single game, but its architects envision it developing into something much bigger than an annual date between two the top teams in North America.

Following Tuesday's announcement of a long-term partnership between the two leagues, MLS Commissioner Don Garber and Liga MX President Enrique Bonilla held a media roundtable to elaborate on their vision for a program that starts with – but will extend well beyond – the forthcoming Campeones Cup, an annual one-off match that will played between the MLS and Liga MX champions starting in September.

“I think this is the beginning,” Garber told reporters. “What it’s really about is, ‘How can we work with Liga MX and Liga MX work with MLS to grow the game in North America? How could we use this partnership as a way to elevate the World Cup bid, which is a partnership between the United States, Canada and Mexico?’”

Beyond the competitive aspects of the partnership, the program will include youth and grassroots programming as well philanthropic activities. Taken together, the hope is to launch a partnership that is not just enticing to existing fans of the game, but helps bring new ones into the fold.

“Besides the rivalry that we have in Concacaf, which we’ll still be having, the main issue is to give the best of each league so we can have better football, a better show so that the fans that we have naturally here in the States and in Mexico can be added with new ones,” Bonilla said. “The only way that we can have new fans, the only way that we can grow, is joining and giving the best of each league to the benefit of football.”

In addition to the Campeones Cup, the on-field portion of the program will eventually feature an MLS vs. Liga MX All-Star Game. That game has not been finalized, though Garber noted that he and Bonilla “made a commitment to make it happen.”

The proposed All-Star Game is based on a concept that is part and parcel of the U.S. and Canadian sports landscape, but has not taken off in the rest of the world. The two league bosses were adamant that the proposed game would appeal to fans on both side of the border.

“I am absolutely convinced that if we have an All-Star Game where the best players selected by media, fans and their league play against ours in an incredible, sold-out huge stadium you’re going to see people in Mexico pay attention, particularly if it’s a great match,” Garber said. “I think if we have an All-Star Game against the Mexican all-stars, it’ll be the equivalent of the USA-Mexico qualifying match – playing it in huge football stadiums and putting it on network television, it should be massive.”

Said Bonilla: “It will include something that in the other All-Star games doesn’t exist, [which is] rivalry. We’re going to fight this as if it was the World Cup, and the best players of Liga MX would like to be the winners of the game against the MLS, so it’s going to be no friendly game at all.”

All this, of course, is not to diminish the continuing rivalry between MLS and Liga MX teams in the Concacaf Champions League. That rivalry will continue this week as three MLS sides look to hold firm after a series of historic first-leg wins against Liga MX teams in the quarterfinals, and both Garber and Bonilla saw that rivalry growing even as the competition between the two leagues expanded to other venues.

“I think it’s going to elevate it,” Garber said. “[This partnership's] whole purpose is to serve as a vehicle to make the Concacaf Champions League more valuable, to give it more exposure, to show that the two largest leagues within the confederation can have a special moment, if you will, that will just add value to and importance to these games that are taking place today and tomorrow. 

“Concacaf is supportive of it and we’re all trying to do the same thing, which is to elevate our sport and the competition within the region.