The Columbus Crew’s victory over Cruz Azul in Wednesday night’s Campeones Cup final was another salvo fired in Major League Soccer’s credibility feud with Liga MX of Mexico.
All things considered, though, it only inflicted a small amount of damage to the latter, which remains arguably the top league in the Western Hemisphere.
While Columbus became the second consecutive MLS team to win the annual playoff between the defending MLS Cup champion and winner of Mexico’s Copa de Campeones, it did so in a one-game final at home.
To date, every single continental honor an MLS team has ever won has come on its home soil. And even in games played in the U.S. and Canada, Mexican clubs continue to outperform home field advantage.
In such games in 2021, MLS teams finished with a record of 4W-9L-4D against Liga MX opposition — broken down into a 4W-5L-3D record in games played north of the border, and a 0W-4L-1D record in games played south of it.
The good news for MLS clubs is those matches continue to hold a low profile relative to league play among most fans. The bad news is that could change with the expansion of the Leagues Cup beginning in 2023, which will funnel every club from both leagues into one month-long tournament.
It’s likely MLS will continue to enjoy the competitive advantage of most — if not all — of those matches being played in the Unites States and Canada. But if the league is serious about competing with the deeper and higher-paid rosters of its Liga MX foes — particularly in the Concacaf Champions League — that’s only going to happen through changes to the league’s competitive structure.
What might those look like? Here are five realistic adjustments that could be a starting point for building on the MLS foundation into a league rivaling Liga MX.
Liga MX clubs will make it 16 consecutive Concacaf crowns when CF Monterrey and Club America contest the 2021 final in late October. Meanwhile, MLS teams often cite a scheduling disadvantage to explain why only four teams have reached the final in that stretch.
The Concacaf Champions League usually begins in mid-February, when MLS teams are toward the end of their preseason and Liga MX and other leagues in Concacaf are several weeks into new domestic campaigns.
This is a disadvantage of MLS’ own making, based on concerns about selling tickets in colder weather.
Some teams can have as long as four-and-a-half months between the end of a season and the start of a new one, a longer break than nearly any other league in the world. With more warm-weather markets in the league than ever, shortening that gap is easily doable, even if a fall-to-spring calendar like much of Europe isn’t.
The pandemic has seen MLS Cup return to the second weekend in December without incident. And consider these current or future expansion teams since 2015: Orlando, Atlanta, Nashville, Miami, Austin, Charlotte and presumably Las Vegas. That shift south could allow for a season beginning in early February while keeping matches out of truly inhospitable climates until spring.
With a new Division III-sanctioned, MLS-affiliated league to launch next year, MLS should require teams to sign around 10 players to two-way contracts in addition to their 30-man first team roster to allow for more roster flexibility during times of injury hardship and schedule congestion.
Those players would play primarily for the third-tier side but be available when needed, and receive a boost in pay pro-diem when called upon. This would be a structure similar to what already exists in MLB, the NBA and the NHL, which all have minor league subsidiaries.
The current 30-man roster size isn’t large enough for a club that is serious about international competition. And that fact is often visible in international play against Liga MX foes.
Whenever you see a Mexican team player wearing a three-digit jersey number, that’s a player called up from the team’s academy system. And MLS teams aren’t permitted to make such short-term adjustments unless a player is loaned to the first team and approved via an “extreme hardship” rule that is overly restrictive.
Promotion/Relegation Within MLS
Whether it’s in the best interest of MLS financially is a separate discussion. But in terms of making sure the best teams have the best shot of representing the league in international competition, promotion and relegation would be a step forward.
It’s not about increasing overall competitiveness. The level of coaching and roster turnover and other indicators of competitive pressure show there is plenty of stress on earning results in MLS, at least domestically.
But with soon to be 30 teams in MLS and a 14-team playoff field, there is more randomness to the process that determines who represents the league in CONCACAF competitions than in any other league on the planet.
To be fair, Liga MX also has a playoff system. But it is pulling from a smaller 18-team first division and a smaller playoff field. When you look at the Liga MX teams that have recently won continental titles, such as Club Leon and UANL Tigres, their victories have typically come after repeated failures in the near past.
It’s rare that MLS teams have a similar continental competitive window. But they might more regularly were the league divided into two divisions of 15 to 20 clubs, with only the best of the top flight playing in CCL and the like.
Universal Charter Travel
The pandemic has driven MLS teams to travel almost exclusively by charter flight, and one potential impact has been the lessening of home field advantage in 2021.
This season, the home team winning percentage has dropped nearly five points to about 47% in 2021 from about 52% in 2019, the last full season played in front of fans. In 2019, the vast majority of MLS travel was done on standard commercial flights. The league even instituted a maximum number of charter flights allowed per season to guard against bigger spending clubs from gaining a competitive advantage.
Charter travel during league play would ease teams’ travel burden considerably during continental play. And while it would clearly be an additional expense, it would also remove the cost calculation involved in whether to bring 20 players on a trip or bring 25, helping teams better manage workload and injuries.
A Luxury Tax
If the fiasco regarding Inter Miami fielding two ineligible players in 2020 (per MLS roster rules) has proven anything, it’s that we’ve arrived at a point where some MLS ownership is willing to spend above and beyond what is permitted by league rules.
The infusion of allocation money and an expanded designated player rule have grown MLS payrolls considerably. But if some owners are willing to spend beyond those perameters, there’s a way to harness that desire while protecting lesser spending clubs and keeping the league’s culture of fiscal restraint somewhat in tact.
Clubs could add to their payrolls beyond their salary cap, DP and allocation money allotments by paying a hefty luxury tax on such expenditures that would be distributed to clubs that don’t exceed the cap.
In addition to potentially allowing for deeper rosters on teams managing multiple competitions, such a rule might also drive a focus on retaining younger, high-level talent. Because it would be less costly to pay a luxury tax if you’re not paying another club a transfer fee on top of that to sign a player.