We are down to the Final Four in the 2023 Leagues Cup Tuesday night — Philadelphia Union vs. Inter
Messi Miami and Monterrey vs. Nashville. Three of the four will earn berths in next year’s CONCACAF Champions Cup tournament.
That means Liga MX, who had 18 of the tournament’s 47 teams (38%), have just one semifinalist left (25%). If you’ve been watching Twitter (err, X?) lately, you’ve seen Mexican teams and Liga MX itself complaining about their disadvantages through the past four weeks.
Hey, I completely get it. Mexican teams are frustrated that they are playing nothing but away matches in Leagues Cup, and some teams have had very long travel schedules between group and knockout matches. Some teams had matches rescheduled due to weather and plane mechanical malfunctions, some teams aren’t getting the best food on the road, and for what should be the premier club competition for North America. (Sorry CONCACAF Cup), Leagues Cup needs a lot of tweaking before the 2024 edition to make everyone happy.
Liga MX wants a share of the home matches in the 2024 edition, and for fairness’ sake, it’s hard to argue that. But if Liga MX wants to play hardball, and refuse to commit to 2024, MLS Commissioner Don Garber and his AppleTV taskmasters need to pick up the red phone and make the call.
Crossing the Pond in ’24
It’s not so far-fetched to think that the English Football League top-tier clubs (the Premier League and Championship mainly) wouldn’t entertain the idea of playing their preseason in the United States inside of Leagues Cup competition, starting in early July. Don Garber even brought it up in a recent piece in The Athletic.
The beauty of Leagues Cup, according to Garber, is the competition’s ability to create opportunity through strategic disruption of the sport. He also welcomed the evolution of Leagues Cup to include clubs from outside of North America.
“There’s no reason that you can’t have other teams come in and participate in Leagues Cup,” said Garber.
While that may seem like an innocuous remark, it’s strategic on the MLS commissioner’s part — either LigaMX gets onboard with what
Messi Major League Soccer and AppleTV are doing, or they’ll be cut out of a very lucrative tournament.
And with Lionel Messi involved, and more major world-class soccer talent likely to follow him (Mbappé? you listening?), you don’t want to be the ones on the outside looking in, while Messi mania hits fever pitch.
For a “Leagues Cup,” you obviously need more than one league. Garber has the chance to play hardball here with our southern neighbors, and this time, he holds the pair of aces (the AppleTV deal, and Messi) at the negotiating poker table.
For MLS, it would be very simple to decide which EPL teams come over. Start at the top of the Premier League table, and offer placement as one of 20 non-MLS teams in the Leagues Cup. If the club says no, keep moving down the table with invites through the Leagues Cup, then the SkyBet Championship, until you have filled your 20-team quota with commitments.
Hell, even toss a bone and invite to Wrexham AFC for the extra publicity — maybe Ryan Reynolds has a new Deadpool movie to promote. Or Season Three of his FX documentary series on the Welsh club.
Now, of course, there would have to be significant alterations to Leagues Cup play if English league teams came in to play in 2024:
- First, expand the substitutes significantly: English teams are just starting their preseason, and they’d expect nearly unlimited substitutions to get their squads into form, and prevent injuries. Capping substitutes at 8 per match (not counting a keeper change at halftime) in the group stage may be a fair compromise, then switch back to the normal 5 for knockouts. Or limit the substitute windows to 3 per match for each team, but the number of substitutes made is unlimited in those stoppages.
- Second, move the tournament start to early July: It could begin with a wild start of group play on the Fourth of July weekend. The whole thing could be over by the first days of August, just in time to head home to start the EFL seasons.
- Third, fix the horrible CONCACAF-provided officiating: Bring in a joint team of PRO Referees and Premier League referees to manage the matches. Whichever league’s center referees get second-guessed least by Andrew Wiebe earns a $100,000 bonus to share amongst them.
- Fourth, heavily increase the per-match take for teams: You need to spend at least double the $100,000 per-match fee and $50,000 winner’s bonus that Leagues Cup paid MLS/LigaMX clubs for group stage games, and will likely have to pay English clubs a cut of ticket sales, plus maybe a percentage of new AppleTV MLS Season Pass subscriptions from the UK in the months of June and July. Probably not as much as the $260 million prize pool the UEFA Conference League pays out yearly, but you’re likely approaching a $80 million-plus if British teams are involved.
- Finally, CONCACAF would have to approve all of these changes: The organization will need to change the tournament format to keep the three Champions Cup slots to the best-performing MLS teams. English teams obviously would be excluded from CCC spots, but not the club/player prize money, which is rumored at $40 million in 2023, and should be even more in 2024 with the right international and domestic sponsors, which Premier League involvement could bring in.
Now, there are lots of reasons that the Premier League teams would understandably pass on being in Leagues Cup — they aren’t yet in form, they don’t want seriously competitive matches when they aren’t in form and risk injuries to expensive players, they don’t want to be embarrassed by a Messi free kick replayed tens of millions of times, etc.
The biggest reason for the top clubs like Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and the rest is that they already run their own lucrative worldwide preseason tours, and they obviously make more money on those tours than Leagues Cup could offer them. (Unless maybe deep-pocketed Uncle Tim at AppleTV helps again?)
But, for clubs on the rise like Aston Villa and Brighton and Hove Albion, looking for bigger recognition in America as their fortunes improve, it may be worthwhile to spend time in the USA’s media machine and get exposure — not only in MLS stadiums, but on AppleTV in front of international audiences.
For Premier League newcomers like little Luton Town and Sheffield United, it’s their chance to get seen and improve brand recognition. And for the clubs in the Championship, it’s their opportunity to upset their bigger neighbors before their own league cup, the Carabao Cup knockouts, begin in August.
The more Premier League teams that enter the Leagues Cup, the better the ticket sales would be. Would it be as good as Club America’s following in the States? Maybe. But as we’ve seen in 2023, with some matches with sub-5,000 crowds, ticket sales are not the primary goal of Leagues Cup — it’s the AppleTV MLS Season Pass subscriptions, which have reportedly doubled since the tournament began.
So, to MLS Commissioner Don Garber: Don’t be afraid to dream big on this one. The whole world is watching MLS now thanks to St. Lionel. Let’s take our golden ticket out for a run, and see what magic we can develop with our “special relationship” friends across the ocean in the UK if LigaMX keeps on complaining.
And if the English Football League passes altogether — there are always invites available for Real Madrid and Barcelona, right?
POST SCRIPT: MLS and LigaMX have contractually committed to Leagues Cup through the 2028 season, but the format may be altered year to year. (Source: Futbol Americas)