24 Thoughts: Inside the expanding MLS-Liga MX partnership

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Doug McIntyre’s MLS column, 24 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.

This week and next, the burgeoning relationship between MLS and Liga MX — its older, richer, more popular and more competitive counterpart in Mexico — will be front and center.

The new Leagues Cup that pits teams from North America’s top two circuits against each other kicked off last month to mixed reviews. But Wednesday’s one-off, hard-fought and highly entertaining Campeones Cup clash between Atlanta United and Club America — easily the best-supported clubs from the U.S. and Mexico — offered a glimpse of what fans and suits on both sides of the border believe the partnership can become.

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The rivalry will resume next Wednesday, when the LA Galaxy, the only MLS team to advance to the Leagues Cup semifinals, takes on Cruz Azul for the right to play either America or Tigres in that tournament’s inaugural championship. Next season, the competition doubles in size to 16 teams.

“As you heard me and people in the league say for a long time, we have a real focus on being competitive against the Mexican first division,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told Yahoo Sports last month. “We’re constantly trying to join forces in a wide variety of ways.”

Club America defender Bruno Valdez (left) battles Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez during the second half of Wednesday's Campeones Cup. Atlanta won the match 3-2. (Dale Zanine/USA Today)
Club America defender Bruno Valdez (left) battles Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez during the second half of Wednesday's Campeones Cup. Atlanta won the match 3-2. (Dale Zanine/USA Today)

24 Thoughts

1. The interview with Garber happened just after the first round of Leagues Cup games. It was a long conversation, and Garber’s thoughts on the competition didn’t make it into the Q&A we ran before the All-Star game, where Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla was Garber’s guest. That doesn’t mean the commish didn’t have a lot to say.

2. In short, the two leagues feel that by joining forces, they’ll be in a better position to measure up to not just Europe’s elite soccer leagues, but also North America’s “Big Four” sports: the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball.

Obviously MLS wants to expose its product to the millions of Mexican soccer fans stateside, consumers who have made Liga MX America’s most-watched futbol property. Between the end of the SuperLiga in 2010 and the debut of the Campeones Cup debuted last year, the CONCACAF Champions League — an event Mexican clubs have utterly dominated — was the only proving ground.

3. “We are committed to CONCACAF and helping to build the CONCACAF Champions League, and obviously there’s MLS-Liga MX competition within that,” Garber said. “We continue to talk to CONCACAF about how we all can work together to try to build on the rivalry of the pro leagues that could begin to mirror the rivalry that exists between the United States and Mexico national teams.”

4. There’s plenty of work to do to get there. While a crowd of 40,128 showing up on a weeknight to watch a new event is nothing to sneeze at, that figure was still a couple thousand fans less than the least-attended MLS match in Atlanta this season. And a good percentage of those in the building were clad in the visitors’ yellow. The four Leagues Cup games played so far averaged just over 15,000, well below the MLS mark of more than 22,000 per match.

“It is the first year, and it takes time to build,” Garber said. “But we are committed to making that tournament and making the competition between the two leagues really important.”

5. To that end, Garber suggested that MLS could penalize teams that don’t take matches against Liga MX sides seriously. The regular season has been the priority for MLS teams and fans alike. Sandwiched between crucial Western Conference contests versus LAFC and the Portland Timbers, the Galaxy didn’t even dress Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Jonathan dos Santos —its two best players — for its Leagues Cup win over Club Tijuana. The Chicago Fire, Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake also fielded reserve-heavy starting lineups in their Leagues Cup losses. “We understand that we’ve got enormous scheduling challenges,” Garber said. “Like everything with us, nothing is easy.”

6. After it was reported earlier this year that the Fire were mulling a rebrand ahead of their return to Soldier Field next season, multiple sources close to the club told me that a name change was unlikely to happen. But when former Fire general manager Peter Wilt wrote an impassioned open letter on the subject (complete with the hashtag #SAVETHEFIRE) before Garber said he didn’t “have a strong preference” one way or another, it was fair to wonder if the momentum had swung yet again.

Peter Wilt was the Chicago Fire's general manager from its inaugural 1998 season until the end of 2005. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
Peter Wilt was the Chicago Fire's general manager from its inaugural 1998 season until the end of 2005. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

7. After doing some digging, the word is that the Fire name is likely to be retained. Still, as the club’s first GM, I was curious to hear Wilt’s thoughts on the direction of the club overall.

8. Wilt was heavily involved in the process that eventually led the Fire from Soldier Field to its own 20,000-seat home in suburban Bridgeview, although he was fired before the move was completed in 2006. How does he feel about the club leaving SeatGeek Stadium and returning to a mammoth NFL arena it never come close to filling despite winning an MLS Cup, three U.S. Open Cups and one Supporters’ Shield in its first six seasons?

9. “I think it’s a good move,” said Wilt, who still watches every Fire game he can. “Generally, I think being in the city you represent is better than being outside of it. But we all hope Soldier Field will be a short-term solution and a stepping stone to a facility of their own that they can control and will be more intimate.”

10. Wilt believes that club’s struggles to lure fans to Bridgeview is less about its remote location south of the city and more about the product on the field. “I think the Bridgeview stadium has been a success at various points throughout its now 14-year history,” Wilt said. “That success has generally correlated when the team has played well. International soccer and concerts have done well.”

11. “The stadium itself is wonderful — the sight lines are great,” continued Wilt, adding that Tim Leiweke, the former chief of AEG, then the owner of both the Fire and the MLS flagship Galaxy, thought it was better than the latter’s venue in Carson, Calif., now known as Dignity Health Sports Park. “He personally felt that it was.”

12. Like most Fire fans, Wilt is still hoping Chicago can eke into the playoffs. He believes they can beat any team in the league on a given day, with one exception: Bob Bradley’s LAFC. Wilt gave Bradley his first professional head coaching job when he hired the former D.C. United assistant to helm Chicago’s expansion team in 1998.

13. “He’s made me and other executives look really good through the years,” Wilt said of Bradley, who became the first American to coach in the English Premier League in 2016. In the mid 1990s, getting an MLS job was tough for Bradley. His hometown MetroStars, now the New York Red Bulls, passed on him on three different occasions before Wilt took a chance on the former Princeton University boss.

14. There were only 10 MLS clubs before the Fire and now-defunct Miami Fusion entered in the first round of expansion. Wilt visited with all of them, seeking out best practices. “For the most part, from nine teams I learned what not to do,” he said. D.C. United was the outlier. “They were a first-class organization, and Bob Bradley was an important part of that. I wanted to take some part of D.C. United’s success and bring it to Chicago.”

15. What sold him on Bradley? “The first in-person interview with him I had, it was almost as if he was interviewing me,” Wilt laughed. “He wanted to make sure that we were going to be set up for success. Things like the training facility, in particular. It needed to be a place that would be dedicated to our team, not a place where players would have to take their personal belongings home every day. That seems almost ludicrous now, but there were teams in the early days of MLS that were doing that. He was focused on little things and big things that would create an environment for the team to be successful.”

16. LAFC will almost certainly finish this season with the most points in MLS history. The Red Bulls set a new standard just last year, surpassing Toronto’s total from 2017. (Atlanta, which beat the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals and went on to win MLS Cup, equaled TFC’s 69 points in 2018.) If any single stat speaks to the league’s improving quality, it’s that one.

Still just 19, Paxton Pomykal of FC Dallas has emerged as one of the top two-way midfielders in MLS this season. (Kelvin Kuo/USA Today)
Still just 19, Paxton Pomykal of FC Dallas has emerged as one of the top two-way midfielders in MLS this season. (Kelvin Kuo/USA Today)

17. At 19, Paxton Pomykal has enjoyed a breakout season for FC Dallas, starting 16 of FCD’s 26 games and making the All-Star roster. Had the Texas-born midfielder not spent a good chunk of May and June representing the United States at the U-20 World Cup in Poland, he would’ve played more.

“It’s been a blast,” said Pomykal, who made just eight appearances over his first three seasons as a pro. “The biggest difference is just I’m getting on the field and I’m playing. In the previous two years I didn’t see many minutes and I didn’t get a lot of time to showcase what I can do.”

18. Pomykal has performed so well in a two-way role that he seems destined to make the jump to Europe soon, perhaps as early as this winter. Several of his fellow U.S. U-20s have made news across the pond recently. Tim Weah just debuted for French runner-up Lille. Sergino Dest recently broke into Ajax’s first team, while Alex Mendez signed on with the Champions League semifinalists. I was curious if that makes Pomykal more eager to join them overseas.

“I’m a pretty level-headed guy,” he said. “So for me it’s not the hardest thing to focus on just the tomorrow and make my goals short-term. Obviously in the future, whatever happens happens.

“I’m happy for them,” he said of his U.S. teammates. “They’re my friends. For Alex to make a move like that, I’m just over the moon for him.”

19. With former Philadelphia Union sporting director Earnie Stewart taking on the same role with U.S. Soccer after just one year as the general manager of the men’s national team, it sure sounds like Tab Ramos (currently the fed’s U-20 coach and youth technical director) isn’t part of the USSF’s long-term plans despite a highly successful tenure.

20. Then again, maybe the timing is right for Ramos to move on. HIs record at the youth levels would seem to make him an ideal candidate for the top job at talent-rich Real Salt Lake, a position which opened up when the club fired Mike Petke last weekend.

21. A decade ago, one of my former editors liked to call the old English Premier League Review Show “the best hour of sports on television.” The MLS Review Show on YouTube — runtime: 26 minutes — is produced by the same folks, and comes complete with in-house commentary from well-known British announcers like Gary Taphouse. It’s awesome. Check it out.

22. How have the Red Bulls been able to stay above the playoff line all season with Bradley Wright-Phillips sidelined by injury for much of the campaign? The emergence of Red Bull II product Brian White, who has nine goals, is the easy answer. But Chris Armas’ team has also been scoring by committee; of the 28 players who have appeared in at least one match for the team this season, 17 have found the net.

23. When MLS finally tweaked its playoff format to reward the teams that did better over the course of a marathon regular season, the move was widely and rightly praised. Will that still be the case come November?

24. Because as righteous as it is to give the team that earned it over seven months the right to host an elimination game against a lower seed, the margin for error gets a whole lot slimmer in a one-and done. What if a key player is injured? What if there’s a flukey red card in the first five minutes? I know those clunky best-of-three games (or first to five points) series in the league’s early years were a scheduler’s nightmare. I know they’re not coming back. Yet it’s hard to argue that the team that deserved to didn’t usually advance.

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