Friday marks the anticipated start of the new and improved Leagues Cup, as Major League Soccer and Liga MX teams will battle in a World Cup-style tournament. In June, MLS commissioner Don Garber and Liga MX president Mikel Arriola were in Los Angeles for the CONCACAF Champions League final between LAFC and Club Léon and held a roundtable to discuss an array of things revolving around Leagues Cup.
Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Yahoo Sports: What has changed over the years to close the gap in terms of quality for Liga MX and MLS teams to be on a more level playing field?
Don Garber: I can remember 10 years ago, Mexican players coming into MLS were at risk of not being called into the national team because the perception of the league was so low at that time compared to the perception of what it was like playing in Mexico. Winning in Campeones Cup and All-Star Game, those things are nice — those are friendlies. I used to stay up at night years ago to watch CONCACAF Champions League games and would be so worked up because MLS would never win those games.
That has all changed, and it’s driven by just an increase of development of soccer in the U.S. The maturity of MLS has helped drive that with the expansion of player development around the country. The internalization and sophistication of the sport here has accelerated — the league’s competitiveness, investment of players, academies and teams.
Mikel Arriola: I think it was kind of conventional wisdom taken for granted that the Mexican teams would win easily. What we have been watching since I entered the league two years ago, I saw the trajectory of growth of MLS. The level and rhythm of growth of the league has been increasing enormously. That generates development and more investment in the teams. The model of MLS, I think, is very friendly in order to develop teams all together because they centralize a lot of things. We [Liga MX] are not that way. We are another kind of model. When I saw that trajectory, I knew we had to partner more with MLS because we have several different things we can put together.
Speak about the dynamics and structure of this tournament taking place between both leagues.
Garber: Liga MX has a unique structure in which teams are very independent in the league. In order to be more internationally popular, they’re going to need to make some changes. Leagues Cup is an example of that — both of us shutting our leagues down is unique and innovative. It’s a lot easier for us to do because of the structure of MLS. It was a Herculean effort for them to convince the owners that they would shut their league down and be able to provide an equal opportunity for Mazatlán compared to bigger teams like Club América.
Arriola: You will never see this in another pair of countries or confederations. I think the idea of growing together is going to be better for all the leagues and obviously for the players, fans and owners.
The Leagues Cup begins Friday with the highly anticipated Inter Miami debut of Lionel Messi facing Mexican side Cruz Azul. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)
What can Leagues Cup do for each league?
Garber: Having an official tournament that goes beyond our teams playing each other in the Champions League is going to expose our players and teams in an international market — terrific exposure for both of our leagues. There are scouts and all sorts of people looking around to see how they can get young American players to go overseas. It’s going to create an opportunity for us together to provide an international profile for our collective leagues and market itself.
We have come to the conclusion that working together, we’re going to be able to create something that is going to be more valuable to us than just independently trying to compete with each other.
Arriola: First, for the players, this is going to be an international window that they never imagined because we are going to be broadcasted to 110 countries in the world. So for a young Mexican player, having a month playing in the U.S. with this great exposure, I think that’s going to be a life-changer. From the fan perspective, they will see more competition, quality and a better product.
Our 18 teams will have an official FIFA tournament every year. One of our challenges as a league is how do we grow together with the same opportunities for every club? This is the perfect time because in terms of opportunity, Querétaro is going to have the same as América or Chivas. For instance, Mazatlán, San Luis, Tijuana or Juárez playing international matches is massive. From those three perspectives, we’re going to win in every one of them.
How does Leagues Cup fit in a condensed schedule next year with Copa América?
Garber: It’s crowded. There’s a lot of competition that all of us are mindful of. We’re trying to advocate for sensibility around the calendar. It will be very busy next summer with Leagues Cup, Copa América and a lot of other activities. But we want to be part of that conversation, as opposed to being a passive bystander while other things are taking place. We now will have our opportunity to be competitively providing content during a busy summer.
Victor Montagliani (CONCACAF President, FIFA VP): The calendar at times is more about having clarity of when you have the events so you’re not stepping on each other’s toes. We’re trying to create some balance that not everybody is playing in the months of August. It doesn’t make sense on many levels from the impact on players, leagues and confederations. Just trying to be more responsible from an event management standpoint to give clubs some breathing room to perform.
Garber: So much is taking place in our country, and a lot of that activity are friendlies, games produced by promoters that aren’t necessarily contributing to the foundational growth of the sport here. When we have an official tournament, revenues that are generated — whether they are going to the confederation, league or clubs — get invested right back into the sport.
Let’s do something authentic. Let’s give the fans something that is meaningful, an extension of the competition and will qualify with endorsement to the Champions League going forward. That along with financial incentives is going to make it a tournament that I’m confident will be able to break through some of the clutter. Add to that the World Cup coming in 2026, that allows us to provide a little bit of rocket fuel toward that unique tournament.
Leon celebrates after defeating the Seattle Sounders 3-2 to win the 2021 Leagues Cup on Sept. 22, 2021, at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Montagliani: As a confederation, we decided to sit down with our partners, Liga MX and MLS primarily, and figured we needed to build this together. Friendlies are great, but that’s not real football; real football is when there’s something on the line. Leagues Cup there is something on the line. It’s not just about the U.S and Mexico rivalry, which is great. There’s actually a berth to the Champions League on the line that can turn into a chance at the FIFA Club World Cup. That’s football everywhere in the world, and now we have it here.
It’s building equity into our sport, and ultimately, by building equity and being real partners, we will build value together.
Why do the leagues work so well together?
Garber: This is the new America here. There are 50 million Hispanics in the United States; that’s more than many countries around the world. There’s a passionate following for Liga MX that we’ve been mindful of since the league was founded. Rather than just have teams coming here and playing friendlies, I’m just a believer of joining forces so that one plus one can equal five. We can help our region become more competitive in global football, but independently, we’re never going to capture that if we’re competing with each other. It’s just the beauty of the way we collectively think.
Arriola: First, because Don and I are good friends, and we trust each other. Secondly, we share the same objective of growing soccer in the region and to generate this kind of very important mix of two different leagues. For instance, the great governance that MLS has and the great passion Liga MX generates in the local U.S. fans are examples of this intelligent engagement that is a win-win situation. If you eliminate the passport, we are two leagues with around 150 million fans, and that has to continue growing.
Garber: I do think that there’s a perception that the game isn’t as developed here as much as it is in other parts of the world. That’s part exposure, the fact that MLS is newer and that Liga MX doesn’t have as much international exposure as they will soon have.
For me, the most important thing we have to achieve is to raise the respect and credibility for what’s going on here in this part of the world. The World Cup is going to be here, and we want people to think that these are growing, powerful soccer nations and that we’re doing our part to grow the game. We have a long way to go before we know how this thing is going to deliver, but opportunity is in front of us.