History between America and Mexico provides background for Leagues Cup

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

This coming Saturday the Philadelphia Union commence the 47-team Leagues Cup tournament  between Liga MX, Mexico’s top division, and Major League Soccer, the U.S. and Canada’s joint pyramid apex.

The 77-game World Cup-style tournament has two phases, a round-robin group stage followed by a single-elimination knockout one. The tournament’s first, second, and third-place teams will qualify for 2024’s new Concacaf Champions Cup (see “bigger picture” below) that will replace the Concacaf Champions League next year.

Leagues Cup games start this Friday, July 21 and end on August 19.

These links find both the tournament’s official site and Wikipedia’s comprehensive set of articles about it. The Wikipedia articles further link to detailed subtopics such as the schedule and individual match reports.

The bigger picture

The new version of the Leagues Cup is one part of Concacaf’s reorganization and expansion of its confederation-wide tournament activities for club teams into three zones.

Concacaf has always faced extreme heterogeneity among its competitive levels of play. As American football’s Big Ten conference was called the Big Two and the Little Eight in the era of Woody Hayes and Bo Schembecler, so Concacaf club football could be called the Massive Two, the Medium Six, and the Minuscule Thirty-three.

Concacaf’s current reorganization attempts to create more balanced, regularized opportunities for competitive international play among the region’s club sides, as its Nations League system is already doing for national teams. The reorganization classifies clubs more or less geographically.

Next year all three zones will send their best sides into the new Concacaf Champions Cup to determine the confederation’s representative to the FIFA Club World Cup in 2025. Here are links to that new tournament, the official Concacaf one, a second summary on its official website, and Wikipedia’s offering. Not all details for the 2024 event have yet been published.

Expect a Leagues Cup “special atmosphere”

Since 26 of MLS’s 29 teams locate in the United States, and since all matches are being played in MLS home stadiums, the vast majority of the tournament’s matches pit American teams against Mexican. Matches between Mexican and American club teams often have a special “above and beyond” edge.

If fans want to understand why those games were and will be hostile and contentious, they cannot not ignore the history that lies between Mexico and the United States.

What follows is not a comprehensive historical survey, nor one that addresses contemporary politics between the two nations. Rather, the goal is to concisely “rifle-shoot” explanatory reminders of two separate intertwined events that underly the special mood.

The rifle shoots are the Zimmerman Telegram and the Mexican Cession. Of course Mexican authors’ labels may be more “Mexico-centric” in their labels’ points of view.

 Zimmermann’s Telegram

In January 1917, Germany’s foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann sent a fateful telegram to his ambassador in Mexico.

The telegram instructed the ambassador to propose alliance terms to the Mexican government. Germany sent it because it thought it was losing the First World War.

After October 1916 the German army controlled Germany’s government. The army’s two key leaders, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, believed Germany would lose the war because:

  • They knew that German submarines torpedoing ships without warning anywhere in the ocean and killing unarmed neutral civilians would bring the United States into the war as an enemy.
  • They also knew that failure to break the British blockade would starve them into defeat.
  • Initially, they believed the United States could not create a large army and deploy it to Europe.
  • But should it do so, Germany had to win  before the Americans could arrive.
  • Hence they sought an ally to attack, divert, and delay U.S. military mobilization.

They sent the telegram in January, well before they could have anticipated Russia’s total collapse via its two separate 1917 revolutions. They could not have known that the collapse would provide Germany with food from Ukraine and soldiers from the east for the western front’s four spring 1918 Ludendorff offensives.

The telegram backfired. British Intelligence intercepted the message and passed it along to the Americans. It provoked a public outcry and helped break down President Woodrow Wilson’s reluctance to join the war.

Mexican anger

In sending Zimmermann’s telegram Germany assumed hostility between Mexico and the United States because of the Mexican Cession, even though it had occurred 69 years earlier.

True, Mexico also held immediate grievances from the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917). That event was five-sided political chaos. Twice the U. S. intervened militarily. They occupied the port city of Veracruz in 1914. And in late 1916 General Pershing chased Pancho Villa out of southernmost New Mexico, invading deep into northern Mexico in pursuit. These two events went above and beyond endemic lower-level U.S. meddling among the revolution’s multiple contenders.

But there is a deeper reason for hostility. The reason is the Mexican-American War (1846-48) and its peace terms, which required Mexico’s surrender of sovereign territory.

After the decisive campaign of the Mexican War in which Winfield Scott invaded Mexico by sea at Veracruz, forced his way across geology’s southern extension of the Rocky Mountains, and took Mexico City itself, the U.S. forced Mexico to negotiate peace. The major terms were:

  • The United States paid the Mexicans $15 million and assumed all debts the Mexican government owed U. S. citizens.
  • The United States took:
    • All of the modern states of California, Nevada, Utah, and Texas.
    • All of Arizona and New Mexico, absent 1853’s Gadsden Purchase.
    • Roughly half of Colorado.
    • Smidgens of Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

The Mexican Cession is the third largest territorial acquisition in United States history. Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana in 1803 is largest, and Seward’s of Alaska in 1867 is next.

The war humiliated Mexico. Only a thousand teenage military cadets’ unsuccessful and suicidal resistance to Scott at their military academy of Chapultepec provided Mexicans any pride of performance, and Chapultepec was a defeat. Their armies were defeated half a dozen times or more consecutively, usually by a numerically inferior enemy. Peace was negotiated while the United States Army physically occupied Mexico City. Effectively, the U.S. took what it wanted and Mexico had to accept it.

Zimmerman thought to offer Mexico redress against 1848’s humiliation by returning Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.


Mexico’s fans will always generate special enthusiasm to support their teams against Americans. Its players will make supreme efforts to avenge Mexico’s military, diplomatic, and athletic humiliations. If Tejanos cry “Remember the Alamo,” Mexicanos might answer with the Spanish equivalent of “Remember Guadeloupe Hidalgo.”

Hindenburg, Ludendorff, and Zimmermann assumed they would embrace such a chance. The Leagues Cup will be the latest such opportunity.


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    Thanks for the perspective, Tim. Mexican/American history is definitely one of my weaker points.
    I know that the two teams the Union are playing are near the bottom of the Mexican League. I’m wondering whether it makes sense to treat one or both games like early round open cup games and give starters a rest or to play all out for wins. The problem with the former idea is that if they finish 3rd in the group, they all of a sudden find themselves with almost a month off.
    I like the shout out to the days when the Big 10 was not a misnomer (and Hayes had not yet lost his mind in the bowl game against Clemson).

    • Tim Jones says:

      I have not yet found how Liga MX calculated the aggregate table it used to rank its sides for seeding purposes.
      In that aggregate table, the two Mexican teams are 16th and 18th.
      That month-long hiatus will be one of the flaws in this event because early eliminations in both leagues with have to figure out how to stay sharp. So far, I have heard nothing about such plans.
      Between the two leagues 15 teams will have no games for nearly three weeks or more.
      Because the group stage results are unknown, advance planning cannot be easy. That would seem to exclude exhibition matches against clubs outside the two leagues. If that conclusion is correct then closed door scrimmages against eliminated tournament colleagues would seem to be the only option.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        I believe the aggregate table is based on the total points each team earned in the last two seasons (spring and fall).

  2. John P. O'Donnell says:

    Well this tournament will only stay in this format for one more year, later MLS will welcome San Diego and the 30th team to bring the total to 48. The two first place teams who receive a bye might only play once if they are eliminated in the first game. With the expansion of the Club World Cup and an agreement starting in 2024 for a four team tournament between CONCACAF and CONMEBOL that will be played from teams qualifying from CCC & Copa Libertadores. It now seems developing bigger international tournaments in this region is the focus leading to a more competitive Club World Cup.
    My guess is Leagues Cup will turn into a 48 team tournament with 8 groups of 6 and the winner of each group advancing to an knock out round. From there the final two teams to the yet unnamed CONCACAF/CONMEBOL tournament and their ranking for the Club World Cup.
    CONCACAF releasing a team ranking for CONCACAF right before all these cups starts is interesting timing. Having Messi join and his contact runs as all these new tournament are starting is either a great coincidence or….

  3. Gruncle Bob says:

    A few additional points:
    – Texas declared independence in 1836 and was functioning as an independent country in 1848.
    – Very few Mexican citizens lived north of the Rio Grande.
    – Mexico had a weak army and had no capacity whatsoever to enforce its jurisdiction in the areas where it claimed “ownership” (CA, AZ, NV, TX, etc.)
    – An ownership claim without the means to enforce it typically doesn’t last very long.
    – Unfortunately, Mexican schools teach a very distorted version of what happened.

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