An MLS-Liga MX super league is the future. Here's how it could work

Extraordinary circumstances spur change. Lasting change. And perhaps the first concrete example of coronavirus-related disruption in sports arrived late last week: Liga MX, Mexico’s top soccer league, voted to scrap its promotion and relegation scheme for five years.

The decision sparked furious debate throughout Mexican soccer, with prominent players pushing back and fans disturbed. They see greed, and impending institutional demise. Some, including legendary defender Rafa Marquez, have argued that the move to a closed system will allow MLS to surpass Liga MX and become the preeminent soccer league in North America.

But in reality, it is just the opposite. It’s a move toward the MLS model. It’s an acknowledgement that MLS franchises, despite smaller and less passionate fan bases, are more attractive investments than Liga MX clubs right now. And it’s an implicit statement that most soccer powerbrokers worldwide are afraid to make, but that many would agree with: There’s logic in MLS’ Americanized structure. And Liga MX, apparently, is ready to fall in line.

Alejandro Irarragorri, a Liga MX owner, laid out the case on Saturday. He wrote that MLS “has been growing in an orderly, slow, but constant way in all senses: commercially, infrastructure, financial structure, reach and sports. Its fundamentals are solid, its market very large, relevant in purchasing power and growing in taste and appetite for soccer. Today, MLS clubs have a much higher annual turnover than our league.”

MLS, in other words, has many things that Liga MX craves.

ATLANTA, GA  AUGUST 14:  Atlanta's Julian Gressel (24) and Club America's Paul Aguilar (22) are nose to nose during the Campeones Cup match between Club America and Atlanta United FC on August 14th, 2019 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA.  (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Could Atlanta vs. Club America become a twice-a-year showdown in a MLS-Liga MX North American Super League? (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images)

Liga MX, however, also has many things that MLS craves. Which is why the two leagues entered into a partnership in 2018 that already includes two new interleague competitions, and why leaders north and south of the border envision so much more. MLS commissioner Don Garber has called a combined league “the ultimate dream” and, hypothetically, “a powerful force in professional sports.”

In this light, it’s difficult to not view last week’s Liga MX maneuvering as a step toward a North American Super League. Irarragorri even brought it up in his extensive statement. “It’s probable that a possible creation of a North American league in the short term would be better for MLS, in the medium term for Liga MX, but in the long term it’s better for both,” he wrote. He called the potential “immense.”

To skeptics, it remains a Soccer United Marketing fantasy. To realists, though, it’s the future.

Why a North American Super League makes sense

Let’s be very clear: The primary reason a North American Super League makes sense to those with the power to create it is money. Closed leagues are designed to put profits in owners’ pockets. A closed league with vast reach – from Mexico City to Seattle, and Toronto to Los Angeles, and New York to Tijuana – could be lucrative.

But it’s also important to understand that profits don’t automatically mean exploitation. Yes, big-time sports are littered with billionaires exploiting labor. But profits and potential also enable investment. Fans should want MLS or any American soccer league to drive revenue. Of course, they should also pressure owners to pour that revenue back into the sport, but revenue is an integral puzzle piece. That’s how the sport grows.

It’s also how leagues create entertaining products. What has held MLS back, for decades, is a combination of risk aversion and a meager TV deal. Top sports leagues get massive sums for broadcast rights. Those sums filter down to teams, who spend them on players, which ups the quality of the league. MLS has never gotten those massive sums, and some owners – not all – have been unwilling to increase spending without guarantees that increased spending will lead to those massive sums. To them, the revenue must come first.

And a North American Super League would bring in loads of it. This is likely the “short term” Irarragorri mentioned. Liga MX clubs draw huge TV audiences, both stateside and back home. Their games draw roughly twice as many viewers as MLS games in the U.S. A marriage of that longstanding appetite for soccer to MLS’ stability, corporate attractiveness and marketing might is what appeals to suits at both Liga MX and MLS HQ.

A Super League is MLS’ route into world’s elite

There are, frankly, few reasonable arguments against the rationale. For 20th century reasons, primary soccer competitions worldwide have always been domestic leagues. Continental competitions developed as secondary circuits when technology made them feasible. Viewed purely through a 21st century lens, though, roles should be reversed. Primary competitions should be wider in scope, not narrower. They should select from a deeper pool of quality teams, in order to shrink the gap between top and bottom, not a shallower one.

The main logistical issue is travel, and it does indeed make a global super league impractical. But MLS teams already travel cross-country. New York to Mexico City wouldn’t even be among NYCFC’s five longest road trips. For teams in Texas and Los Angeles, Mexican trips might even cut down on transit time. It must be a consideration, but shouldn’t be an impediment. Because a super league is how MLS breaks into soccer’s aristocracy.

A wonderfully symbolic photo from the 2019 Campeones Cup. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images)
A wonderfully symbolic photo from the 2019 Campeones Cup. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images)

MLS owners like to make bold proclamations about the league’s future global standing. About becoming a top-five league worldwide in 10 years, and the very best in 25. On its current trajectory, those projections are absurd.

But imagine, for a second, that continental super leagues become the norm. That a European version becomes the undisputed destination league for every player on the planet. That the EPL’s best teams are no longer Liverpool and Manchester City, but rather Everton and Leicester City. That Sevillas and Real Sociedads now rule in Spain.

Could a North American Super League rise above those domestic circuits? What if it becomes the destination league for near-elite talent from North and South America? What if somebody like Lautaro Martinez, rather than moving from Racing to Inter Milan at 20, moves to Inter Miami at 18 or 19 and then Barcelona at 21 or 22? And what if players like Edson Alvarez or Raul Jimenez never leave?

This is MLS’ route to “second-best league in the world” status. It can’t get there alone. It can in tandem with Liga MX.

How a North American Super League could work

There are, of course, logistical complexities. The thorniest ones relate to revenue sharing and salary caps. But the competition format?

There are several alluring and realistic options. Below is one.

Neither MLS nor Liga MX has to disappear. Instead, let’s create an 18-team league above both. Let’s call it the Super Liga Norteamericana – SLN or the Super League for short. Let’s start it in 2026, in conjunction with the World Cup. Let’s use league performance over the three seasons prior to choose eight Mexican teams and 10 MLS teams for it. The inaugural SLN could look something like:

Atlanta, Chivas, Club America, Cruz Azul, Kansas City, LAFC, LA Galaxy, Miami, Monterrey, NYCFC, New York Red Bulls, Pachuca, Portland, Pumas, Seattle, Tigres, Toluca, Toronto

The 18 teams would play a balanced, double-round-robin, 34-game regular season. The top four would make the playoffs. The regular-season and postseason championships would have legitimate value.

At the other end of the table, every season, the two worst U.S./Canadian teams would be relegated into MLS; the two worst Mexican teams would be relegated into Liga MX. (There could be some sort of relegation playoff.) Two teams from each – based on their respective seasons – would come up into the SLN. MLS would be 20 teams. Hypothetically:

Austin, Charlotte, Chicago, Cincinnati, Colorado, Columbus, Dallas, DC United, Houston, Minnesota, Montreal, Nashville, New England, Orlando, Philadelphia, Sacramento, Salt Lake, San Jose, St. Louis, Vancouver

Liga MX would be 12-16 teams. Hypothetically:

Atlante, Atlas, Atletico San Luis, Juarez, Leon, Lobos, Morelia, Necaxa, Oaxaca, Puebla, Queretaro, Santos, Tijuana, Universidad de Guadalajara, Veracruz, Zacatecas

Get rid of the Leagues Cup. Work with CONCACAF to tweak the Champions League. Let domestic cups – now less redundant, and an arena for regional rivalries that have been split by the Super League – become valued secondary competitions, with the SLN mini-pyramid as the primary competition.

By creating a league above MLS rather than below it, a limited pro/rel system can be sold to resistant MLS owners: Your floor is the status quo. We’re raising the ceiling. We’re giving you access to something better.

The Super League would make gobs of money. Revenue would still be shared among all SLN/MLS/Liga MX participants, meaning that lucrativeness wouldn’t only benefit teams in the Super League; it’d benefit everybody. Teams like Kansas City and Minnesota would still fill stadiums every weekend, even if they remain in MLS. Broadcast and commercial revenue for all involved would soar.

There is, currently, no weekly competition, anywhere around the globe, that attracts the soccer interest of an entire continent. MLS and Liga MX have a unique opportunity to create one. To be first. Super leagues are the future. And here, in North America, one seems closer to within reach than ever.

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