Evaluating the Leagues Cup

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Now that the inaugural Leagues Cup tournament is complete, it’s worth taking a step back to evaluate the event.

The annual tournament unveiled Lionel Messi to North America, a first coming that happens only once. Messi is a one-time comet passing through Concacaf’s solar system. Leagues Cup is instead a planet, unique and dynamic but recurring within the system’s rhythms.

There are pieces to unpack in order to discern the tournament’s merits and flaws, apart from Argentina’s superstar.

Seasonal rhythms

The most fundamental challenge the tournament faces is the different calendars of the participating leagues.

  • Liga MX is fall, winter, and spring.
  • MLS is spring, summer, and fall.

No matter the calendar chosen, the two leagues cannot play when they are equal in match sharpness and fitness. In the 2023 version, Liga MX was still emerging from preseason, while MLS was approaching end-of-season quality levels.


The first tournament has been played entirely north of the Rio Grande and only in Major League Soccer’s own stadiums.

Each MLS club already knows how to produce a soccer game in its home stadium. Leagues Cup only asked them to repeat that production from one to eight additional times. No new organization had to be created and trained, as would have been the case had they rented NFL and NCAA stadiums. For example, producing a match at Lincoln Financial Field would have required developing a new joint process with the Philadelphia Eagles that had not been attempted since the spring of 2010.

There are two drawbacks to playing all matches in MLS stadiums. (LAFC and LA Galaxy have played their derby in the Rose Bowl before, so Pasedena can be included as an MLS venue, and LAFC versus Monterrey was played there.)

First, seating capacities and therefore ticket revenues would have been potentially much greater had Leagues Cup rented and converted NFL and NCAA football stadiums. In the Southwest including southern California, such an adjustment would almost certainly have succeeded wildly, especially with the domed, air-conditioned stadiums now available.

Second, the venue decision gave Major League Soccer homefield advantage. In soccer homefield is helpful. Homefield and the calendar’s end-of-season form gave MLS competitive help.


Liga MX’s leaders clearly hope to benefit from exposure to the U. S. and Canadian markets. MLS’s leaders expect benefits from drawing more Hispanics into their stadiums and showcasing their teams. The Hispanic street vendors outside Subaru Park show that free enterprise is not an Anglo monopoly.

Top-level Mexican sides sold tickets well. Lesser ones did not.

Anyone who saw any – or all – of the classic derby match between Monterrey and Tigres played in Houston had to be drawn to the passion both on the pitch and in the stands. But Queretaro versus Tijuana in Chester produced yawns and sold only 1,000 tickets.

Attendance did less well in the Northeast Corridor, unless the home MLS team was doing well. Where clubs were newer, where entertainment dollars were less drawn away by non-sports opportunities, and where Hispanic populations had been entrenched for generations, attendance was stronger.


The leagues are not the same size. One has 18 teams and the other, 29.

Including everybody meant playing several MLS versus MLS matches that were exhibitions in effect, as well as a few Liga MX ones. Regionalization did not enhance those exhibitions’ ticket sales. Philly playing D.C. and Red Bull recalled World War One’s Italian front in 1918, where the last Italian offensive thrust of the war before the army mutinied was literally the eleventh battle of the Isonzo River.

Penalty kick shootouts

Any tournament that advances winners through a bracket must resolve draws. Neither league enjoyed an advantage in PKs. Twelve of the 22 draws prior to the final were between the two leagues. Of those 12 shootouts, seven were won by MLS sides and five by MX.

General discussion points
  • Could the tournament be played in two parts? Could the group stage be played at a given time as a single event, and the knockouts come later, either interspersed among regular season matches as the old Concacaf Champions League used to be, or as a separately placed second hiatus? In a divided event, MLS stadiums could suffice for the group stage, but larger ones could be rented for the knockout rounds.
  • For competitive fairness, future tournaments should include Mexican venues.
  • Should including everyone cease? None of the other tournaments that feed Concacaf Champions Cup include everyone as participants.

For example, group the postseason qualifiers of one league with the postseason qualifiers of the other. Currently, that would mean 12 Mexican teams and 18 MLS ones. If eight groups of four played a three-match group stage to determine knockout round seeding, followed by knockout rounds including the 3rd place match, the tournament would yield 54 games.

Other formats could easily be devised.

Philadelphia discussion points
  • 2023’s Union depth was insufficient in both quantity and quality to keep an aging core fresh for the knockout rounds of the tournament. And taking 28 days out of the regular season overcrowds the last 11 games. The Union’s last eight come Wednesday-Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday with no break.
  • For Philadelphia to play the same total numbers of games as the best teams of the best European leagues requires European levels of roster quality. The league needs to increase its salary cap to enable more higher quality acquisitions.


  1. To the discussion points:
    Playing in blocks would have some natural drawbacks. Firstly, it would limit the ‘tournament feel’ that they were going for and likely fracture the audience’s attention. I already feel that myself watching UEFA. Secondly, I’m not sure whether that would cause more scheduling/team challenges given Liga MXs strange ‘clausura’ structure. And, personally, I hate soccer played in football stadiums even for those league teams that do it regularly. (Almost as much as when it is played on a baseball field.)
    I agree it would be fairer to play some games in Mexican stadiums. But I suspect the cost and physical toll of all that travel (both the Liga MX team and the MLS team would likely be travelling US->Mex to have the game), especially with a collapsed timeline between games, is just too much.
    I like having everyone involved. It gave Queretaro the chance to make a surprise run, when they probably would have been excluded. Of course, had Toronto been excluded it would have no impact at all to the course of events.

  2. Next time, perhaps they can have the top 4 Mexican qualifiers host their groups while the top 4 MLS seeds host the other groups. Of course, that defeats one of the primary purposes of the whole endeavor, which is to get America, Pumas, Tigres and Monterrey fans in the US to buy tickets and follow their new English-language social accounts. It’s going to be up to the big Liga MX clubs to put pressure on their league to get some sort of balance here. With CCL places on the line, it seems pretty important.

  3. Vince Devine says:

    Not sure why you keep pushing larger venues. What data suggests they would sell out. My understanding of the cost of renting the Linc is that you would not recoup that cost in ticket sales and the Eagles contract states they keep parking and concession revenue. Also, I don’t think the team wants to play away from Subaru Park. Playing in the Linc would destroy the atmosphere the Soob provides.

  4. Evildunk99 says:

    I enjoyed the tournament and found myself curious about other matchups, particularly MLS vs MX clashes.
    My changes to the tournament would be: each of the semi-final teams (Mia/Nash/Philly/Mont.) automatically advance to the knockouts. Starting in the quarterfinals round, allow liga mx teams to host if they are the higher seeded team. That way, mx teams still get to attract fans and sell tickets in the US in the early rounds + group stage, but allow for competitive balance on hosting in MX.
    Get rid of the 3rd place game, and instead just qualify 2 or 4 teams into CCC.
    Lastly, mix up the group stage teams so everyone doesn’t just play their rivals yet again. Something like: Philly, CLB, Tor could be a group for example.

  5. John P. O'Donnell says:

    So it’s a CONCACAF tournament run by SUM that represents the US, Mexico & Canada. With 26 from the US and San Diego making it 27 in 2025, 18 from Mexico and 3 from Canada. In 2025 change the hosting games to the place you finish in the Supporters Shield standings and for Mexico the total points in Apertura/Clausura the previous season getting two home games. This would give the US nine teams, Mexico six teams and Canada one team getting two home games to start. A third of each countries teams each.
    The next 16 teams with one home game would be decided from their seasons total points plus points they earned in Leagues Cup play. The last sixteen wouldn’t get a home game but be seated by region to the closest team that host two games. This should give more importance to the regular season and Leagues Cup.
    Since teams playing home games will probably get best attendance numbers you’ll eliminate a 1,000 fans for a game in Chester, hopefully. Traveling can be made a little better by laying out games 1vs3, 1vs2, 2vs3 giving the third seated team a week to fly to the second game. After that the next rounds would stay the same as they were this year with the tiebreaker being how you performed in last years LC standings with the last four teams getting 2 points added for where they finished. So 8,6,4,2 winner to fourth place team.
    Putting more emphasis on domestic competition and Leagues Cup play should result in a fair competition for all.

  6. I’ve never been a fan of the Leagues Cup idea. It adds congestion to some teams’ schedules (as like what happened with the Union), and becomes a 2-week break for teams that don’t get out of the group stage. Success in the Cup gives a team a disadvantage when you’re going back to regular season play.
    But as the tournament went on, I discovered that there was one thing that I liked very much about it.
    I loved the fact that I could watch other MLS teams almost any day of the week. Because of the uniform start times imposed by Apple on the regular season, I don’t get to see other MLS teams as much as I would like, since I’m always watching the Union. And being the old man that I am, I generally go to bed after the match so I’m not catching the late games.
    But with Leagues Cup, I could sit down on a Tuesday or Thursday night and catch some of the other teams. I really liked that.

  7. I really think the tournament is too long. Also think its unfair for Liga MX to miss out on having home games. Canada may also like a game in their stadium if they are advancing. I know that schedules and all that comes with it are easier in one location. Could it be done in phases as some others have suggested? Obviously that breaks up the tournament feel. But maybe it could be MLS at the mid point of a season then LMX at the min of theirs. It just felt like its an added burden. Is there a current tournament that is going away? More games = more chances for injuries and tired legs. Caranza comes to mind.

  8. And the beat goes on.

    US Open Cup
    Leagues Cup
    Champions Cup

    .. and in 2026 World Club Cup.

    Plus season tickets for 2024 price increases… and honestly Apple+ was OK, but the major benefit of ‘watching every game’ never came true. Who the heck has time to sit and watch ‘every game’ other than Union matches?
    The ‘Money Garber’ continues!

    … all paving the way for a North American Super League, above MLS and why USL wants level 1 status and will compete with MLS as it follows NASL implosion growth.

  9. PaulContinuum22 says:

    What a diss by “The Union got the job done against CF Monterrey in the Leagues Cup 3rd place match to earn a spot in the 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup. They’ll almost certainly be set to make another deep run. Now they just have to figure out what moves they need to make to get over the hump in tournaments. It’s not entirely clear if there’s anything more to it other than “be luckier.”

  10. Really good summation. Agree with points on roster depth quality. I enjoyed the tournament, attended all but the Monterrey game. Looking forward to next year.

    LigaMX wants to play in US. They want exposure to our market. We get exposure to their fans. For now, its a win win.

    Really appreciated the number of time slots to watch games. Huge plus over regular season.

    Interested to see how it all develops.

  11. The thing I didn’t like about the Leagues Cup was how many teams made it to the knockout rounds. Feel like at least half the teams should be gone by then. 2 out of 3 got in the Union’s bracket. Put four or five in a bracket and just the top 2 advance.

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