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CONCACAF Chronicles: Examining the Leagues Cup makeover

The new Leagues Cup format brings much-needed excitement and competitiveness to interleague club competition.

Photo of Club Leon celebrating after defeating the Seattle Sounders in the Leagues Cup soccer final

“CONCACAF Chronicles” is a column by Sam Reno about North American soccer.

I begin this week begging for the allowance of nuance, as just last week I argued against placing an emphasis on success in international club competition. None of that has changed, but one of those tournaments, the Leagues Cup, just got an unprecedented facelift.

Originally pitting the best four teams from MLS that didn’t qualify for the Champions League and the top four Liga MX sides not currently alive in the CCL, Leagues Cup has struggled mightily to gain traction among fans and clubs.

Midweek matches and teams not fielding their best XIs means sparse crowds and little to no interest in its outcome. Last week, the commissioners of both leagues, alongside CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani, took matters into their own hands.

Beginning in the summer of 2023, both MLS and Liga MX will put their seasons on hold for a month to allow every single club from both leagues to participate in what will become a 47-team tournament with the entrance of MLS franchises in Charlotte and St. Louis.

The Leagues Cup will become a World Cup-style competition complete with a group stage and knockouts to follow. The decision comes in an attempt to showcase the soccer infrastructure in Canada, the United States and Mexico in advance of the 2026 FIFA World Cup held across the three nations.

So what does this all mean?

Fun.

Let’s put aside any thoughts on how the matches themselves might play out for a second. The new Leagues Cup format is the latest in a string of initiatives looking to capitalize on the underdeveloped rivalry between the United States and Mexico.

When the national teams cross paths, the diehard and casual fans alike line up to put their emotions on the line over the 90-plus minutes that follow. Somewhere between these matchups and the current interleague club competition structure, however, the zeal is lost.

Well, at least lost on the American audience both leagues are so desperate to capture. Liga MX fans in the United States will still flock to MLS stadiums for a potential once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see their favorite Mexican club play in their home city.

But even those fans, unfortunately, are merely capitalizing on the chance to see their heroes (in no way am I underscoring the beauty of that opportunity), rather than immersing themselves in a palpably competitive environment.

Enter the new-look Leagues Cup.

With the recent conclusion of the NBA season, NFL and college football Week 1s still over a month off and only one blackout-free night of MLB on national television each week, late summer is a time in the American sports calendar largely void of national attention.

This year’s MLS All-Star Game already proved that, when done well, the league rivalry can be every bit as entertaining as the international. Supporters of both leagues absolutely brought it at Banc of California Stadium, creating an atmosphere that even seeped through the telecast.

With a well-executed advertising campaign and a TV network willing to put on a show — and keep the games off streaming services — the tournament is more than capable of filling the sports vacuum.

While I still believe that the priorities of international player sales I outlined in last week’s column should hold even in the new Leagues Cup, it does not detract one bit from the pure fun of this new format.

The quality in MLS will still improve without stunting the development prospects of youth talents and spending unsustainable amounts of money on bringing in international transfers to bolster rosters.

Even despite the talent gap, albeit a closing one, that exists between the two leagues, the pitch to even the most casual of soccer fans is simple:

One whole month of the United States versus Mexico.

Your hometown club going to war for the reputation of the nation from which the league was born.

The American stars of tomorrow versus the Mexican stars of today.

With an entire month to capture an unoccupied set of American sports fans, the new Leagues Cup format showcases the next generation of CONCACAF stars that are starting to fly through the MLS system. Combine that with the rich history of the clubs in Liga MX and the passion of the USA-Mexico rivalry, and the Leagues Cup is destined to be a smash hit come summer 2023.

“CONCACAF Chronicles” runs every Tuesday.