But while I may not have watched the games this time around, I definitely have an interest in where this all might lead.
MLS is growing each and every year. League-wide attendance is on-pace to break 8,000,000 for the third year in a row. With ESPN+, ESPN, Univision, and Fox Sports signed on as broadcasters, there are more games on tv and available to stream than ever before. Not to mention there are billionaires lined up for the chance to buy their way into the league to the tune of $200 million. It's that JJ Evans/Jimmy Walker life for Don Garber these days: good times.
And still, the league knows they have yet to truly succeed. That's because MLS TV ratings are still dwarfed by the volume of eyeballs that tune into English Premier League and Liga MX matches. The most-watched club soccer match on earth in 2018 was the UEFA Champions League final, with 3.02 million viewers. The second, third, and fourth most watched games were all Liga MX matches (two Cruz Azul-Club America matches and a Chivas-America game) that each pulled between 2.3 million and 2.5 million viewers. By comparison, the MLS Cup Final had 1.76 million viewers.
You get a better snapshot of the situation by looking at the television viewership numbers from one two-week stretch in which all three leagues: MLS, EPL, and Liga MX were in full swing, like April 16 to 29, 2018. Here's the deets, c/o Worldsoccertalk.com.
In other words, Liga MX games have four to ten times the TV ratings of MLS games. Right now, MLS owners may be satisfied turning a modest profit on their product. But if they can figure out a way to harness the interest of US-based Liga MX fans, that flow of cash will suddenly increase from a trickle to a firehose.
For a long time, MLS has tried to nibble at the edges of the other more popular leagues , Liga MX and EPL, by importing stars from those leagues to MLS like Wayne Rooney, Giovani Dos Santos, Steven Gerrard, Carlos Vela, and of course the OG MLS game-changer, David Beckham. And while all those additions increased the profile of MLS, the gains were typically constrained to in-stadium attendance when a team like the LA Galaxy appeared in your town. However successful MLS has become since Becks and Posh Spice came to LA in 2007, the EPL and Liga MX have stayed far, far more successful.
This is how we arrived to this point - the point where MLS is playing Liga MX in a strange little half-baked midseason tournament that the league has dropped like an anvil into the middle of the 2019 season. The four MLS teams that participated this year, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston and Salt Lake, all have huge Latinx fanbases. The four Liga MX teams are among the leagues most popular teams and have 34 league championships between them collectively. (Although, to be fair, Chivas has twelve and America has thirteen. Xolos Tijuana has just one.)
In other words, MLS is tired of waiting for the slow conversion, fan by fan, of Mexican-Americans to MLS. They're cutting to the quick and giving Mexican league fans the chance to see their favorite team, right here in the US, while handing over their dough to MLS for the priveledge.
I can see two good things and three bad things about this arrangement. First, the good.
If MLS and Liga MX promote it right, and frame the competition with adequate seriousness, it will be a financial boondoggle for the league. It will fill stadiums and increase TV viewership in ways that will position the league well for a boffo TV deal with ESPN or another cable and streaming suitor the next time the contract comes up, it will ultimately improve the viability of the league, increase salaries for players, and attract better players that will make for better football. An increased connection between MLS and Liga MX might ultimately pave the way for a bold new future for both leagues. Mexican teams know there's big money to be made in the United States: that's why El Tri regularly plays just as many exhibitions each year in the the US as it does in Mexico, selling out 80,000 seat stadiums along the way. MLS knows that the potential fanbase increases exponentially when your Saturday match is between Orlando City and Monterrey, instead of Orlando City and Colorado Rapids. The bold new future might be an expanded Leagues Cup that both countries really take seriously, or even an eventual merger of the two leagues. A merged league would be so large - with more than 40 teams - that it would almost certainly necessitate two tiers of participation. In other words, the best path towards promotion and relegation, a dream for many MLS supporters, probably runs through a merger with Liga MX.
There are some serious concerns too. Firstly, there's the problem we saw this past week of of MLS fans being outnumbered in their own stadia. We had ageless wonder DaMarcus Beasley equalizing against Club America last Thursday, running to the corner flag, and celebrating to a shower of boos *in his home stadium* in Houston. It was a bad look. As USMNT fans who have gone to the Rose Bowl when the Yanks play Mexico can attest, being an "away" fan in your own country kinda sucks.
Then, there's the question of whether MLS teams can even manage to put out a decent XI for these additional matches. Nobody wants to see a bunch of mediocre USL loanees and reserves scrapping in contest against Mexican youth players in senior team kits that have just been called up for the trip north. And we saw a little bit of that last week, as the LA Galaxy went with a Zlatan-and-Dos-Santos-less lineup against Xolos Tijuana, and the 11th place Chicago Fire, who effectively have nothing to play for, still put 7 regular starters on their bench against Cruz Azul. If Leagues Cup takes on the aura of a crappy third-rate tournament that nobody takes seriously, it's not gonna work.
MLS teams might need to get a little larger and a little deeper in order to rotate their squads for multiple competitions. If Leagues Cup is going to become a thing, MLS should consider adding a fourth DP slot, increasing the amount of TAM to increase the number of key role players on each team, and expanding official rosters to 32 players from their current limit of 30.
The last problem is the suggested format of the tournament itself, which is kinda nonsensical.
Increased competition for MLS and Liga MX is inevitable and smart and will certainly be profitable. But it remains to be seen whether Leagues Cup will ultimately turn out to be a critical stepping stone on the way to a brighter future for both leagues, or, like the old Superliga that was dumped in 2010, just another false start of unfulfilled expectations.