MLS and Liga MX must work together, consider closer CONCACAF connection
It's a big week for both Major League Soccer and Liga MX. Conference finals are kicking off up north, while in Mexico the Liga MX playoffs are set to start this week, with a quarterfinal Clasico Nacional between Chivas and Club America the headliner.
The finale of North America's big two leagues will culminate the weekend of Dec. 10-11, with MLS Cup on Saturday and the second and defining leg of the Liguilla on Sunday.
The next couple of weeks, therefore, will put both leagues into a parallel spotlight. Naturally, there will be comparisons -- comments about TV ratings, attendance, quality and style of play, organization, global promotion of the big finales, stadiums and other factors.
Many opinions will come from observers keen to accentuate the positives of their favorite league at the expense of the other. But while there will be fierce debate among fans about which is better -- Liga MX-leaning supporters who wonder why this is a question should check out what is happening at Chiapas -- the crescendo of the seasons on both sides of the border should also give reasons for Liga MX and MLS to take a step back and ponder how they could better work together.
The United States-Mexico rivalry is one of the best in world soccer, and the two share a significant crossover market, playoff format, sense of ambition and spending power that other leagues -- even in Europe and South America -- would crave to have. When Liga MX squads have an international break, they uproot almost en masse to the U.S. to play friendly matches, while MLS clubs tweet and post stories in Spanish to target that same fan demographic in the U.S.
It seems both MLS and Liga MX are increasingly in tune with the importance of the other.
"These two leagues have to grow in tandem, with one central concept: the rivalry between Mexican and United States football," said Mexican Football Federation president Decio de Maria on ESPN's Futbol Picante in October 2015. "At league level, they have to create parallel projects of importance. ... Football [leagues] in North America have to grow strategically together to make a very important region of clubs."
Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla said last week that a new competition with MLS is "a possibility," while MLS commissioner Don Garber has been equally keen to push publicly for more cooperation.
"I'd love to be able find a way to organize a tournament between Liga MX and MLS," Garber said in Mexico City in May. "It'd be very good for our fans and our leagues. We could sell the games all over the world. I think there would be a lot of interest in them. There are problems with the schedule. The Liga MX schedule is complicated and so is that of MLS."
That schedule issue has been eased slightly with the news that Liga MX won't be involved in the 2017 edition of the Copa Libertadores. The door is open to Mexican clubs returning, but that is unlikely unless CONMEBOL changes the schedule once again.
All of this comes at a moment in which Mexican teams are increasingly aware that they can cash in on the U.S. market similarly to the Mexico national team, though they seem unsure of how to go about it, aside from traveling north for friendlies.
The real issue is what a new competition or a closer relationship would look like. The SuperLiga tournament -- which ran from 2007 until 2010 -- received mixed reviews, but years on it's remembered fondly. There was also the idea of extending an invite to MLS teams to compete in Copa MX, but it doesn't seem very appealing considering the cup has failed to generate widespread interest even in Mexico since it was reinstated in 2012.
The most obvious and immediate initial solution would be working with CONCACAF to make the rumored changes to the region's Champions League a reality. Part of that should include creating a tournament that begins and ends in the same calendar year, similar to what CONMEBOL is implementing with the February to November Copa Libertadores schedule.
At present, MLS teams come into the knockout stages in preseason and at a disadvantage. It hurts a tournament that Liga MX teams dominate and stunts the growth of a club competition that should be set up to rival the Libertadores. In terms of the combined financial and commercial power of Mexico and the U.S., there is no reason it can't succeed, though it obviously doesn't have the same status or quality as the CONMEBOL competition right now.
Liga MX fans rightly lament the exit from the Libertadores. In terms of handing its teams real competition, it is irreplaceable. But neither MLS nor Liga MX can escape their CONCACAF reality. Each should instead choose to embrace it.
Between MLS' successful expansion into new markets and the clear pulling power of Mexico's established giants, the potential for melding strengths is there. And as the dust settles on Liga MX leaving the Copa Libertadores, there's a window of opportunity for North America's big two leagues to have a serious think about the benefits of a closer working relationship.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.