For most of its existence, Major League Soccer has struggled to tap into the passion, and especially the TV ratings, of the Mexican and Mexican American fan base.
The league imported Mexican stars such as Jorge Campos, Rafa Márquez, Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Claudio Suárez; created tournaments such as the Leagues Cup, Campeones Cup and short-lived SuperLiga to compete against Mexican teams; and even played 10 seasons with a Liga MX-affiliated franchise in Chivas USA. None of that had the desired impact.
So MLS will try another approach Saturday when the Galaxy (2-1-0) and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, Mexico’s all-time leading scorer, face off against LAFC (1-0-2) and Carlos Vela, the league’s single-season scoring leader, before a socially distanced crowd of 7,193 at Dignity Health Sports Park and a national TV audience on Fox.
If both men play, it will be the most significant meeting of Mexican stars in league history.
“Having iconic players like Carlos Vela, Javier Hernández and other Mexican national team standouts in the headlines throughout Mexico has a significant benefit toward increasing the fan base for Major League Soccer and deepening the engagement of our current fan base,” said Dan Courtemanche, MLS’ executive vice president of communications.
“It's a priority for Major League Soccer to showcase Saturday's match and have it in prime time on the East Coast.”
That showcase could lose much of its luster if Vela, whose 52 career MLS goals are most by a Mexican player, is unable to participate. Vela, who came out of LAFC’s opener with a quadriceps injury after 22 minutes, has only recently returned to training, and coach Bob Bradley said his status would be a game-time decision.
With or without Vela, MLS is making inroads with Latino viewers, especially those in the younger demographics who don’t remember the league’s halting early years. And they are drawn now not just by Mexican internationals like Vela and Hernández, but by young South Americans such as LAFC’s Diego Rossi and Atlanta United’s Ezequiel Barco, and the presence of former European stars like Inter Miami’s Gonzalo Higuain and Blaise Matuidi.
But the league still has a lot of work to do.
The most-watched MLS game in the season’s first three weeks — the Galaxy’s opener with Inter Miami — drew a combined 558,000 viewers on ABC and ESPN Deportes. Yet that was 155,000 less than Liga MX games are averaging in the U.S. on the Spanish-language Univision/TUDN network, according to Nielsen. And Saturday’s marquee matchup may not win over many more hearts and eyeballs since it will kick off at the same time as the Liga MX single-elimination playoff game between Atlas and Tigres on Univision/TUDN.
“There’s still not a big fan base for MLS,” Alejandro Gómez, a veteran soccer journalist, said in Spanish from Mexico City. “It’s still not an event Mexicans follow, much less going up against the start of the Liga MX playoffs.”
But, Gómez added, Vela and Hernández, whose league-high five goals in three games has been big news in Mexico, may be the exceptions to that rule.
“They’re two players who define a generation. They’re players that people like,” he said.
Those who do tune in could see history because the former teammates, who came up through the Chivas player-development system together, haven’t played against one another since a 2013 Champions League game, when Hernández was at Manchester United and Vela was with Real Sociedad.
Hernández, who missed the Galaxy’s three games with LAFC last season, said Thursday that he hopes Vela plays.
“I don’t know if Mexico is going to care about that or not,” he said. “[But] this one has more special meaning in a way. We grew up together in Guadalajara. We played together in two World Cups.
“Obviously I always want to face the best teams, the best players. It’s always great when Vela and the best players in the MLS are available, are doing good. That elevates the level of this league. It will be amazing if he can play.”
Galaxy coach Greg Vanney, who has watched MLS chase Mexican and Mexican American fans since its inception, agreed.
“It’s an important fan base for the league and for our communities and even the players,” he said. “This is another great opportunity for two teams with two fantastic players who come from Mexico to compete and a rivalry for Los Angeles. Those are definitely prominent sort of headlines.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.