LOS ANGELES — Expect next year's MLS All-Star Game presented by Target — pitting the league's best against, for the first time, the biggest stars from Liga MX — will be a happy celebration of the growing partnership between North America's two great soccer leagues?
Well, sure, that's part of the point, but there's a rivalry involved here, and Enrique Bonilla, the man in charge of Mexico's top-flight league made that clear when the matchup — next July 29 on LAFC’s home field — was announced Wednesday morning at Banc of California Stadium.
Bonilla, Liga MX's executive president, began his speech by praising in English the “alliance between two of the most important leagues in the world” and calling it a “privilege” to be invited to take part in the signpost event in Major League Soccer's 25th-season festivities.
Then he switched, momentarily, to Spanish.
“Now I want to make clear and say to all the fans in Mexico and the United States: We come to win,” he said. “We come to ruin the 25th anniversary party. We come with the best we have, and we're going to win.”
It drew laughter, but he's not kidding. The leagues might work together, but there's a pecking order, and the Mexicans aren't going to roll over for their partners up north.
“I always consider the MLS a rival, except in the office,” Bonilla said to close a session with media an hour later. “On the pitch, they are our rivals, and they will always be our rivals.
“And we will always win.”
MLS Commissioner Don Garber isn't so sure about that — and there could be a few Mexicans working against their countrymen, with MVP Carlos Vela from the home team and Jonathan Dos Santos from archrivals LA Galaxy good bets to see the field — but the kind of fire stoked by such a matchup is one of its selling points.
“In order to be one of the top leagues in the world,” Garber said after the event, “we need to be super-competitive with the Liga MX.”
Mexican clubs have gotten the better of MLS's teams in the CONCACAF Champions League, and they fared better in last summer's inaugural Leagues Cup. There's been more parity, at least in the first two years, in the Campeones Cup, a showdown between each league's champion. The first fits within the foundation of the relationship between the leagues, the latter two are product of that accord.
The All-Star Game, first discussed, Garber said, “two or three years ago,” is another step forward.
“The relationship between our leagues is continuing to form, and recently it's really taken on a lot of energy,” Garber said. “We are expanding the Leagues Cup — you'll hear more about that — the success of the Campeones Cup in Atlanta, with [40,000] people and good television ratings, really launched us into believing the relationship could grow. And then we just said why don't we celebrate our 25th season, put a little cherry on the cake, and have something that I think will be a wonderful event.”
MLS's All-Star Game has been played under several formats — East vs. West for most of the first decade, All-Stars against a European club from 2005 on — and Mexico has been involved once before. The Galaxy staged the 2003 game in Carson, a 3-1 victory over Guadalajara.
It’s fitting that this particular All-Star Game, the first in Southern California since that 2003 showdown, is coming back to Los Angeles. It’s the most Mexican of major U.S. cities — only Mexico City has a larger Mexican-heritage population, and several Mexican clubs, Guadalajara and América most of all, have massive fan bases in Southern California. Liga MX holds its annual awards ceremony, showdown between Apertura and Clausura champions, and Supercopa in L.A.
“For us,” Bonilla said, “the city of Los Angeles is special.”
There is no certainty the format will be revisited — “Let's just do one at a time, and then we'll worry about it,” Garber said — and details on team selection will be announced later. Bonilla said a fan vote in Mexico would play a role in Liga MX's squad.
“The importance [of this game] is our fans — the MLS fans, the Liga MX fans here in the States — deserve to have a game like this,” Bonilla said. “Now are [working] together bringing the Campeones Cup, bringing the Leagues Cup [to the United States]. They are official tournaments.
But this, bringing the best of both leagues to a field and giving to the fans, I think it's the most important thing we can do together, besides any official tournament we can play.