National Writer: Charles Boehm

What we learned: 5 takeaways from Leagues Cup 2023


With Saturday’s Leagues Cup Final between Nashville SC and Inter Miami, a tournament of unprecedented scale (three countries spanning many thousands of miles of diverse geography and culture) and scope (47 entrants, one entire month of league play paused) will reach its end.

Perhaps, then, we can draw a few conclusions about this newfangled entrant on the Concacaf scene, even if it’s only the first run of a fully-expanded iteration spanning the entireties of MLS and Liga MX.

Yes, this thing will evolve plenty in the months and years to come. Let’s dive into what we’ve witnessed to date so far.

Chaos is a ladder… to a good time

This event has been quirky, messy and unpredictable in so many enjoyable ways. As our own J. Sam Jones phrased it this week: “Everyone got together and decided to ask and answer the question, 'What if we crammed a whole MLS season worth of wild into a one-month tournament?'”

Sam delved into this angle of the tournament as adeptly as anyone possibly could, so make sure you read his journal of the 2023 Leagues Cup’s craziest developments.

If you paid any attention to it at all, you probably have your own favorite such moment.

There was Lionel Messi’s jaw-dropping verbal assault on Orlando City SC’s César Araújo, and Nashville’s surreal penalty shootout resurrection amid pitch invaders during their Round-of-16 upset of Club América. And, yes, a very lost raccoon plunged through the pressbox ceiling at Real Salt Lake’s America First Field during a storm delay.

Or perhaps you think the pick of the litter was Nahuel Guzmán’s actual-magic-tricks mind games during Tigres’ Round-of-32 shootout win over Vancouver Whitecaps FC – a vintage display of the zany ‘Nahuelismos’ that Liga MX and Concacaf Champions League viewers have been marveling at for many years. Whatever the case, most Leagues Cup matchnights gave us high-octane fun, especially during the knockout stages and the straight-to-penalties shootouts that decided all draws.

Granted, there were signs of growing pains in the first edition of this dramatically-expanded competition. Coaches and players have bemoaned officiating decisions, weather delays and travel complications. It remains to be seen how the varying workloads of teams who made deep runs vs. those who exited early might impact the remainder of their league campaigns.

Yet a still-new concept aiming to win over hearts and minds showed it’s got some drama to offer, and both Miami and Nashville can attest to the value of a fresh start and a new adventure in midseason.

The gap between Liga MX and MLS has closed – with three large asterisks

I’ll be the first to acknowledge this is just one edition of a tournament that just arrived on the scene, with a format that doesn’t yet quite match the balanced test posed by Concacaf Champions Cup (nee League) with its home/away legs and long trips across the continent. Over the decades, Mexican clubs crafted a clear track record of beating US and Canadian opponents more often than not across CCC and CCL history.

But what once resembled a massive, yawning gap is no longer. Over the past month, the kind of lopsided scorelines once common when MLSers played Liga MX adversaries were just as likely to cut in the other direction, like 7-1 LAFC over Juárez, FC Dallas 3-0 Necaxa or the Columbus Crew's 4-1 statement win over América.

In the words of ESPN’s Hérculez Gómez, who is well-positioned to comment having played in both leagues as well as CCL during his distinguished playing career: “MLS’s middle class has overtaken Liga MX’s middle class.” And that’s a massive step forward.

But Mexico’s elite may still constitute an echelon unto themselves. The high-performance cultures, big fanbases and sheer spending power of América, Monterrey and Tigres make them perennial contenders for any competition they’re in, and it took monumental efforts by Nashville to knock them out of Leagues Cup. MLS partisans can lament this institutional excellence, or simply set a target on it as the new standard to aim for.

The “Miami model” is already a thing

Inter Miami CF’s run to the final represents a drastic, head-snapping turnabout from their last-place league form heading into the tournament, especially compared to the slow-burn success stories that have been more common in MLS like Philadelphia and Nashville. The addition of the planet’s greatest living soccer player has an outsized impact on that renewal, of course.

Beyond being the GOAT, Messi may just be the GOAT Designated Player. Even when accounting for small sample size, an incredible nine goals and four assists in his first six matches with the Herons poses that kind of trajectory. But their ongoing undefeated run has also coincided with the arrival of deep-midfield maestro Sergio Busquets, and Jordi Alba’s contributions (1g/2a) in his first three starts have been significant, too.

After Tuesday’s semifinal loss against the Herons, Union boss Jim Curtin predicted that IMCF’s new U22 Initiative trio of Diego Gómez, Facundo Farías and Tomás Avilés will eventually further tip the scales in Miami’s favor – “I mean, these are real players, so yeah, they're only going to get better,” he said – and added that he expects them to keep investing in their squad to the fullest extent possible.

The scale and swiftness of IMCF’s resurgence based on a raft of midseason acquisitions, combined with the hype and audiences that have accompanied it, seem to already be shifting the wider paradigm about who and what’s possible.

“An inflection point, maybe a tipping point,” Nashville SC GM Mike Jacobs told on Wednesday. “When you see investments being made in players with that kind of profile, when you see the ability that one, two or three players have in changing the fortunes of a franchise, my guess is you're going to see ownership groups take really critical looks at how they invest, and how teams are built.

“The same way that our league has evolved from year one to today, I think you are going to find that this summer could be a really critical time in our league’s present and our league’s future.”

Nashville may finally have their capstone

As inspiring as Miami’s basement-to-behemoth glow-up has been, splashing out on the world’s greatest and a couple of his favorite colleagues is not really a realistic option for everyone else in MLS. That’s why processes like Nashville’s slow build – which, mind you, has up to now undergirded a far more competitive start to life in MLS than their 2020 expansion siblings down in South Florida – bears inspection.

The Coyotes built sensibly from the back forwards, anchoring their squad around Walker Zimmerman and his sturdy backline colleagues. Once playmaker Hany Mukhtar settled in, a recipe of organized defending, incisive transition play and dangerous set pieces took shape. Yet there was a nagging sense of potential left on the table as NSC labored for years to find a suitable running partner for Mukhtar.

Enter new Designated Player striker Sam Surridge, signed from Nottingham Forest for a reported $6.5 million fee last month. The Englishman has scored in each of his first three appearances (he’s played just 117 minutes total), two of them clutch tallies to help deliver victory over Liga MX giants in Club América and CF Monterrey, both assisted by Mukhtar.

Those are two of several data points suggesting the chemistry between them that NSC hoped for is jelling rapidly. If those continue to stack up, it makes the Coyotes a legit MLS Cup threat.

Take nothing for granted in the stretch run ahead

Perhaps those who didn’t advance particularly far in Leagues Cup will take silver linings from it. The earlier they bowed out, the more rest and recovery they got during what’s usually a very hectic time of year, and now the final sprint for postseason places looms. But some flaws in good teams got exposed, and several strugglers showed signs of optimism.

FC Cincinnati remain eight points clear atop the Supporters’ Shield standings, yet have to regain momentum after falling to Nashville on penalties in the Round of 32. That Shield race may have some twists left in it – and remember that the Knifey Lions host Messi and Miami in a US Open Cup semifinal this Wednesday, which could bring a boost or a body blow. The Seattle Sounders and LAFC have at times resembled two of the few clubs who could go toe to toe with Cincy, though even they face some troubling questions as they work to refresh aging cores without sacrificing title ambitions.

St. Louis CITY SC were enjoying rare and unexpected levels of success in their expansion debut, but didn’t survive the Leagues Cup group stage. Will they pick up where they left off, or do reality checks await? The New England Revolution have often looked like an elite Eastern Conference contender, yet are currently absent head coach and sporting director Bruce Arena, who is on administrative leave pending a review into allegations that he made insensitive and inappropriate remarks last month.

And these are just a few examples. If you liked Leagues Cup, stay tuned, because the wildest few months of the MLS calendar are about to begin.