Once upon a time MLS, the Canadian soccer association and Mexico’s Liga MX got together and staged a highly forgettable eight-team midseason tournament called the SuperLiga.
Interest and attendance waned quickly after the opening kickoff and the event lasted just four years before fading into oblivion in 2010. Now it’s back under a different name, with the Leagues Cup debuting Tuesday when the Galaxy play host to the Xolos of Tijuana at Dignity Health Sports Park.
The Chicago Fire will meet Cruz Azul in Tuesday’s other quarterfinal with Club America playing at the Houston Dynamo and Tigres UANL visiting Real Salt Lake on Wednesday.
MLS says the tournament was designed to give the league’s fans what they want — namely competitive matches against Liga MX clubs. The leagues already meet in the CONCACAF Champions League, an event Mexican clubs have won 14 straight times. Only three times in those 14 years has an MLS club even made the final.
It’s hard to see the MLS teams doing much better in the Leagues Cup, especially in its first year. The four MLS clubs combined for 59 losses and one playoff win last season while the Liga MX entries include reigning league champion America and Tigres, the reigning Campeones Cup winner.
In a news conference Monday, Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto already raised the white flag, saying he would not use his two best players — striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and midfielder Jonathan dos Santos — with the team facing an important league match Saturday in Portland.
“We’re going to try to win,” Schelotto said. “[But] what’s important for us now is to get to the playoffs and for sure we’ll be saving some players for the game Saturday.”
That’s not exactly the tone MLS commissioner Don Garber struck when speaking about the tournament recently. Garber and Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla have discussed the possibility of some day uniting the two leagues and the MLS chief sees the Leagues Cup as an important part of that journey.
“It’s the first step trying to figure out how could you have more compelling competition in addition to the competition that we already have,” Garber said. “We’ve been talking about it a lot here. But you have to walk before you run, you have to create programs like this to see the way they are organized, the way that they can be executed.
“And I think you’re going to see more and bigger partnerships between our two leagues in the years to come.”
The tournament will be played entirely in the U.S., with the final scheduled for Sept. 18 in Las Vegas. But as Schelotto indicated Monday, it’s hard to imagine MLS clubs making the competition a priority over the league season.
For the Galaxy, Tuesday’s quarterfinal comes between important Western Conference matches with LAFC and Portland. And if the Galaxy beat Tijuana, they will play their semifinal Aug. 20, in between games with Seattle and LAFC, both of which figure to have huge playoff implications.
So Schelotto’s roster for the Leagues Cup includes six players off Galaxy II, some of whom figure to get an audition Tuesday.
“This game is very important for me to make some future decisions about the players,” he said. “They know what I will ask of them tomorrow. It’s a big opportunity for them.
“No bigger moment than when you’re playing on the second team to come to the first team and play this kind of game.”