Last September’s inaugural Leagues Cup final, played in Las Vegas between Cruz Azul and Tigres, didn’t draw much of an audience beyond the 20,132 fans in a stadium left largely untouched by soccer since the NASL days, when an ageing Eusebio played for the Las Vegas Quicksilvers. And yet there was an underlying significance to the fixture.
The final may have been contested by two Mexican teams, but this was the first real product of a partnership between Major League Soccer and Liga MX. Announced in March 2018, the new alliance brought together the three countries involved in hosting the 2026 World Cup and spoke of “a vision to elevate the popularity of our game to even higher levels in North America.” The single-match Campeones Cup, annually played between the champions of both leagues, was formed, but it was the Leagues Cup, a tournament involving an invited group of MLS and Liga MX clubs, that planted the biggest sign post.
Liga MX and MLS are rivals fighting for some of the same fans, players, coaches and all the rest, but there are increasing signs of a tightening relationship that raises the prospect of the two leagues becoming one.
“It’s probable that the possible creation of a North American ‘super league’ is best for MLS in the short term and for Liga MX in the medium term, but over the long term it is best for both and the potential to add value and create jobs is immense,” Atlas and Santos Laguna owner Alejandro Irarragorri wrote in a statement last month. “Without doubt it is an alternative that should be explored and analysed.”
The prospect is tantalising. A North American super league would be a behemoth, an unavoidable presence in a sporting landscape, in the US and Canada at least, that has often ignored soccer. The “ultimate dream,” as MLS commissioner Don Garber stated earlier this year, is “a league that is combined in some way.” There appears to be growing will on both sides to, at some point in the future, come together, with Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla admitting in late 2018 that a merger is “a possibility”.
Does MLS need to unite with Liga MX to become the continent’s predominant division, though? Mexico’s top flight remains the strongest in terms of sporting quality, but MLS is closing the gap. The last few years has seen American and Canadian clubs target the best talent from Central and South America over ageing stars from Europe. MLS is now a league full of Carlos Velas, not David Beckhams.
Then there’s the financial aspect. Seventeen MLS clubs were recently included in Soccerex’s Football Finance 100, which ranks soccer’s most bankable teams. For context, just three Liga MX clubs made the list.
Liga MX would point to its strength on MLS’s own patch as case for a merger. For all that MLS has grown in the last decade, the Mexican top flight remains the most popular soccer league in the USA, both in terms of supporter numbers and TV viewing figures – more people watch Liga MX on a weekly basis in the States than the Premier League.
Of course, it’s not just in North America where the merits of a pan-continental league have been debated. Many within the game view the creation of a European Super League as inevitable, a notion made all the more realistic with the recent tightening of the European Club Association’s grip on the Champions League. Indeed, it increasingly feels like the elite are closing themselves off from the rest of the sport and that goes against the grain of European soccer’s inherent mobility.
A North American super league wouldn’t have this problem. MLS is already a closed shop, with expansion slots handed out on commercial, not sporting, merit, while Liga MX has suspended promotion and relegation for the next five years due to concerns over the financial viability of clubs in Mexico’s second tier. There is a different sporting culture in North America. The creation of a pan-continental division with no way in other than by cash wouldn’t come with the baggage it would in Europe.
In practical terms, a merger of Liga MX and MLS would surely see the creation of a pyramid structure. MLS comprises 26 teams, with the introduction of Austin FC and Sacramento Republic, as well as franchises in Charlotte and St Louis, set to bring the league to 30 by 2022. Liga MX has 18 member clubs following the disaffiliation of Veracruz at the end of last year, meaning a combined division would have to accommodate 48 teams. It’s difficult to envisage how that could possibly function without splitting into regional divisions – similar to the NFL, NBA and MLB – or two separate tiers.
The differing schedules of the two leagues would also present an obstacle. Playing through the winter, as Mexican teams do in a split-season format, would be impossible in many northerly Canadian and American markets. The historic instability and volatility of Mexico’s top division might also make MLS somewhat uneasy after the growing pains of its first decade and the boom-and-bust of the old NASL.
A merger would almost certainly kill the Concacaf Champions League, at least in terms of its relevance, which might unsettle Fifa, whose approval would be required. Concacaf already seems to be preparing for a turf war, this week announcing its intention to expand its Champions League.
Then there’s the issue of travel – MLS players are already pushed to their limits on commercial flights across Canada and the USA. The folding in of 18 Mexican destinations, the most southern of which is nearly 1,000 miles from the nearest MLS venue, would make things worse. How would the MLSPA react to an accentuation of an already prickly issue for players?
This is before the challenge of MLS absorbing Liga MX’s privately owned and operated clubs into its single-entity structure is even broached. It’s highly unlikely MLS would willingly loosen its grip on the umbrella it holds over its member clubs and so some concessions would be required on the Mexican side for a true merger to work.
And yet despite all the many reasons for a Liga MX-MLS unification not to happen, momentum continues to build. The creation of the Campeones Cup and Leagues Cup may just be the start. The 1994 World Cup prompted the creation of MLS. It’s possible that the 2026 World Cup and its byproducts could propel the North American domestic game into a new era.