History is made. On this, a paradigm-shifting day for soccer in our region, I say that both factually and philosophically.
Here are the facts:
The reimagined, region-building Concacaf Champions League and vastly expanded, soon-to-take-over-an-entire-month-of-our-summers Leagues Cup collaboration between MLS and Liga MX are truly historic endeavors. Two leagues are joining forces every single year, complete with a true tournament format, and there’s a prolonged pause in their own regular seasons to accomplish it. There’s a reason the news is sending ripples throughout the soccer world.
As for the philosophical side of things, history is made, emphasis mine, and someone must muster the vision and conviction to make it.
Credit where credit is due to the leadership at Concacaf, MLS and Liga MX. Victor Montagliani, Don Garber and Mikel Arriola understood that you can’t just talk about making Concacaf a deeper, more competitive and compelling region. You can’t just talk about challenging Conmebol and UEFA in the global soccer hierarchy. You’ve got to make history, and they have.
If you’re still on the fence, here’s what Sounders general manager and president of soccer Garth Lagerwey texted me when I reached out for his thoughts on the brink of Wednesday night’s Leagues Cup Final between Club Leon and Seattle (10 pm ET | ESPN2, UniMas, TUDN).
“Good for the league. Ambitious. Hard things are worth doing.”
Indeed they are. And the biggest winner here is those of us who love our clubs, our leagues and our region. We get a late summer and fall stocked with cup competitions with serious stakes. In the spring, we shift to a Champions League that’s equitable and sensible when it comes to qualification and paced to keep the stakes high and our interest piqued from Round One through the final.
The only negative is that we have to wait until 2023 for all this to kick off. I can’t wait. In the meantime, here are some quick thoughts as I, alongside you all, process the news.
We don’t yet know exact scheduling windows – the international calendar is in a state of flux these days – but I can tell you that July and August are historically slow months in MLS terms. The highs of opening day are long gone, and the playoff races don’t seem to heat up until right about now in mid-September.
Leagues Cup changes all that. Every team, literally all soon-to-be 29 from MLS and all 18 from Liga MX, starts out equal and nobody can afford an off day. It’s like March Madness for North American soccer fans, just in the late summer when the rest of the sporting calendar is relatively slow. It’s another trophy worth fighting for during a period of the year that needed brightening.
No need to worry about the strength of the lineups, either. There aren’t any other games to siphon off resources or prioritize. You either go for it and play your best players in Leagues Cup or get eliminated early, frustrate your supporters and lose some momentum heading into the stretch run. The choice is simple, and the games ought to reflect the stakes (CCL qualification) and quality on the field.
The key here is that every game matters more. League games lead to regional cup qualification. Cup qualification gives ambitious teams more high-level games and another trophy to chase. Performance in those cup competitions (Leagues Cup, Central America and the Caribbean) leads to CCL qualification.
Thanks to the home-and-away format throughout the Champions League proper, the playing field is even and there aren’t any throwaway group games. Every single minute, play and result matters and it all leads to a worthy CCL champion and Club World Cup representative.
Now, about eliminating Free Space…
How is MLS supposed to catch up to Liga MX as a league when most teams and players don’t get regular opportunities to test themselves against their neighbors in competitive games? That goes for coaches, too. Preparing for and coaching against Liga MX (and other Concacaf) managers is a different beast.
As for CCL, we’re used to five clubs qualifying. There is now the possibility (key word!) that 10 of 27 Champions League qualifiers could come from MLS. Now, that’s not likely – it’d require MLS to win Leagues Cup … and also come in second and third – but I think it’s reasonable to expect that we’ll get at least seven berths a year (four automatic, two for U.S. Open Cup and Canadian Championship and at least one via Leagues Cup … shuffle Leagues Cup, USOC and CanChamp depending on the year).
More players, managers and teams are going to be exposed to regional competition. In fact, every single one will thanks to the expanded Leagues Cup. That’s good for the quality of soccer we watch week to week, and it will also give us a better approximation of the quality of the leagues in the region on a head-to-head basis.
This tweet fired off during Sounders-Santos Laguna basically sums up my position on Leagues Cup and the new-ish CCL.