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How to Strengthen Cross-Border Ties Between U.S. and Mexican Pro Soccer

Last fall, Liga MX and MLS announced a revamped version of the Leagues Cup that includes a month-long competition involving all 47 teams in the two leagues. It’s a step forward in the collaboration across North American soccer.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

You’d be forgiven for not knowing what the Leagues Cup is. The annual series featuring eight teams—four from Liga MX and four from Major League Soccer—hasn’t garnered much enthusiasm since it began in 2019. It has the feel of an exhibition tournament awkwardly placed on the calendar, lacking the history and high stakes necessary to make it a credible competition. The Leagues Cup was in many ways more significant for what it represented: the possibility of a union between the two largest professional leagues in North America. Consolidating Liga MX and MLS makes a world of sense. It would bundle the popularity and prestige of the Mexican league with the commercial power of the American and Canadian markets.

In reality, however, such a conscious coupling would be entirely impractical.

“I’ve heard for so many years that the two leagues should merge and I never believed that that was achievable,” says MLS commissioner Don Garber. “[It] would be unbelievably complicated … almost too overwhelming to even consider.”

Here, for your records, is an incomplete list of why it would be so complicated:

  • MLS owners spend as much as nine figures in expansion fees (the league’s newest club, Charlotte FC, reportedly cost $325 million) for a guaranteed place in a top-tier league, from which their teams could not be relegated; Liga MX, whose owners mostly spent only a fraction of that to acquire their teams, suspended its relegation/promotion model in 2020 for five years.
  • The Liga MX and MLS seasons operate on different calendars—MLS runs from late February to November because of prohibitively cold winters north of the Mason-Dixon line.
  • The leagues structure their TV deals differently. MLS sells them as a bundle, airing in 190 countries, whereas individual MX teams sell their own rights, to far fewer countries.
  • Once MLS grows to 30 teams, as it is expected to in the next few years, a combined league would comprise an unmanageable 48 clubs—and, again, MLS teams can’t be relegated, so creating two tiers isn’t an option.
  • MLS players have limited free agency; MX players theoretically have full free agency but vestiges linger of an old “gentlemen’s pact”—the wonderfully named pacto de caballeros—between the owners not to poach out-of-contract players.
  • Players’ unions work differently, and operate on different collective bargaining agreements and contract structures.

But if a merger is utterly impractical, finding opportunities for further collaboration between the two leagues is more feasible and mutually beneficial. That’s why, in September, Liga MX and MLS announced a revamped edition of the Leagues Cup. Debuting in 2023, the new format will incorporate all 47 teams from the two leagues into a month-long competition in July and August. The MLS season will take a hiatus for that month, while MX is in its offseason then. The timing is intentional—it’s when World Cups and regional national team tournaments have concluded, but European soccer leagues haven’t kicked off yet. The NBA, NHL, and NFL seasons also won’t have started yet. The only other games in town will be Major League Baseball, the WNBA, and the NWSL.

The expanded Leagues Cup is a play for TV money, domestically and abroad, because MLS’s long-term strategy relies on creating broadcast rights worth substantially more than the $90 million it currently collects annually. It’s a play for the betting market, which will be short of wagering options in the late summer. It’s a play to maximize the benefits of the 2026 World Cup, which will be held in the three nations covered by the Leagues Cup: the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

And it is, of course, a play for more revenue: Liga MX’s clubs can get in front of their U.S.-based fans on a regular basis, and MLS teams can boost their exposure, therefore increasing the value of their players in a global transfer market.

“As we, at MLS and our ownership, have looked at it, the benefit to both leagues through a closer association from the on-field competition that would be created and the revenue opportunities that would come from that,” says Garber, “we can achieve that with Leagues Cup without changing the structures of our leagues.”

The potential of a Mexico–United States partnership isn’t lost on the sport’s power brokers. In March 2021, FIFA president Gianni Infantino essentially endorsed a merger of the country’s two professional leagues. “I think the potential in the United States and Mexico is enormous, each country by itself. But, of course, if you could bring those two together that would be incredible and that could quite well be the best league in the world,” Infantino said, contradicting a longtime FIFA directive that discouraged domestic leagues from crossing borders—although MLS already plays in three Canadian cities. “Any discussion in that respect is interesting, and we see that in a positive light.”

While Infantino’s notion did not rock the region, it underscored the obvious benefits of further aligning the two dominant leagues in North America. The MLS market has the money, but MX has far more fans in the region—its TV ratings in the United States consistently outperform those of MLS and even the English Premier League.

“We have a unique phenomenon among both countries,” says Liga MX president Mikel Arriola. “Mexico is a net exporter of soccer, considering that we have 60 million fans in the U.S.” By Liga MX’s metrics, its U.S.-based fans watch twice as much Mexican soccer as the average fan in Mexico.

It isn’t just that the leagues add value to each other. It’s that they offer an access point into the U.S. and Mexican men’s national teams’ rivalry, one of the fiercest in the sport. “We have been working almost since the beginning of the league to create interesting and exciting competitions between our two leagues that could, in many ways, both mirror and capture the passion of the rivalry on the national team side with the USA and Mexico,” says Garber.

Several cross-border competitions between the leagues have come and gone. At present, the domestic champions compete in a one-game Campeones Cup and, this summer, a team of Liga MX stars will face the MLS All-Stars for the second year in a row.

But the Leagues Cup could take a cross-border partnership to the next level. “It’s the realistic compromise,” says ESPN analyst Hérculez Gómez, a former U.S. national team striker who played for five MLS and four MX clubs.

There is no shortage of soccer fans in the United States; it’s just that their gaze is mostly aimed south of the border or to Europe. Paradoxically, it is easier and cheaper to be a fan of European club soccer stateside than it is in lots of European countries—between three streaming services, you can catch most every major European league for about $20 a month Stateside, whereas assembling all the requisite premium services and bundles needed to watch those same leagues in Europe can easily run north of $100 a month. This has always been a major roadblock for Major League Soccer’s success. So is the existence of time zones—once MLS games kick off in the afternoon, you might have already watched a handful of games from England, Germany, and Spain, say, and be sick of soccer.

In that sense, globalization has been working against MLS. But in the Leagues Cup, the two leagues may have created a product that can offer some counterweight to the heft of European club soccer. After all, no other regional club tournament really commands a major global audience, not even South America’s historic but chaotic Copa Libertadores. There appears to be a void waiting for something to expand into it.

A spirit of consolidation has been coursing through soccer for some time. Professional soccer, after all, is what happens when capitalism is left to its own devices. That’s what the blink-of-an-eye existence of the European Super League was: an attempt by the oligarchs to shut everybody else out. The flaw was not in the concept; it was in the execution. There will, at some point, be another Super League, and it will not likely be bungled a second time. In the face of all that economic might, only strategic mergers offer any hope of quick advancement for a fairly young league, like MLS. It’s why several Scandinavian federations have been discussing a common league for what seems like forever. It’s why the Dutch and Belgian leagues have had those same conversations.

And that’s why MLS and MX had the full support of CONCACAF, the regional governing body for North and Central America and the Caribbean, to expand and officialize their Leagues Cup. “We wanted to make our club ecosystem more relevant and empower the regions,” says CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani.

He is sanguine about the likelihood that the potential riches from this competition would widen the gap further between the two leagues and everybody else in the region. “I think you’re always going to get that,” Montagliani says. “It doesn’t matter what continent you’re talking about—big clubs are big clubs and they’re always going to be favored. That’s the reality of football and we know that.”

MLS has often and loudly proclaimed its ambition to become one of the globe’s top soccer circuits. And to get there, the financially skittish league will need to start paying players a lot more money. Last season, the league’s total guaranteed salaries sat somewhere between nearly $10 million and $20 million per team. It’s a respectable range, and an awful lot more than most teams spent only a few years ago, but it’s significantly less than all but one Premier League team—Moneyball-ish Brentford.

Mikel Arriola, too, has a clear vision for Liga MX: annual double-digit growth in his clubs’ payrolls, because he equates the size of payrolls to teams’ on-field performance—and the analytics back him up on that. Over the past decade, the Mexican league’s payrolls have grown by about 5 percent a year, Arriola says, and that isn’t quick enough to close the gap with Europe’s legacy leagues.

“The only way to grow is to generate more quality in players in the teams,” he says. “So I think the increase in the value of our TV rights is going to be very correlated to the quality of the teams and the players.”

This, reckons Arriola, is another good reason to piggyback on MLS’s rapid gains in the player market. “The rhythm of growth of MLS is quite higher,” he says. “We’re growing around 5 percent a year and MLS is growing around 20 percent a year. No league in the world has this rhythm of growth. So that is a very [strong] combination.”

Between the two component leagues, he estimates, the Leagues Cup will have a combined payroll of some $2 billion. That would put it behind only the Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, France’s Ligue 1, and Germany’s Bundesliga among domestic leagues, Arriola says.

Which raises a bigger question: Could the Leagues Cup come to overshadow the MLS and MX leagues proper? And, more pertinently, is that kind of the point? Just as the UEFA Champions League outranks Europe’s domestic leagues in the eyes of most fans and clubs, a successful Leagues Cup with a global footprint—and a prestige and urgency that eclipses the leagues that spawned it—might not only achieve the lusted-after growth but elevate those leagues by association.

The Leagues Cup might be a kind of Trojan horse, except that everyone involved seems to understand what is lurking inside of it. And they all seem fine with what will happen when the Greeks climb out at night and open Troy’s city gates.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a longtime national soccer writer who has worked for ESPN, Yahoo Sports, and Fox Sports. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times. Three of his stories were notable selections in the Best American Sports Writing anthology. He was born in the Netherlands and remains an Ajax and Oranje fan, but he doesn’t really feel like talking about either right now. He teaches at Marist College.