Mexico's top flight has long enjoyed superiority over its northern neighbor, but it must adapt to maintain its continental dominance.The first of a three-part series focused on the Liga MX/MLS rivalry moving forward and looking at a few ideas for the Mexican first division to take the challenge of maintaining CONCACAF supremacy to the blossoming northern league.
Major League Soccer is getting bigger and better.
Use whatever criteria you want - attendance, TV ratings, profitability, press coverage, number of teams, quality of players, standard of play. They’ll all give you the same result: MLS is on an upward curve.
Mixed in with the performance of the U.S. men's national team at the World Cup and – especially – the reaction of fans, who gathered in America’s towns and cities and watched the Stars and Stripes at Brazil 2014 on television in record numbers should serve as a warning to Mexico: soccer culture north of the border has taken hold.
The U.S. men's national team has been Mexico’s equal since at least 1994 (32 games, 14 US wins, nine Mexico wins and nine draws). But it’s at the domestic level that the United States (and Canada) has arguably advanced most, going from having no professional league to speak of to the MLS of today, boasting players of the quality of Kaka, Thierry Henry and Michael Bradley.
Mexico’s previously undisputed position as the top league in CONCACAF is being threatened like never before. It should be a challenge that the Liga MX is ready to take on, in the knowledge that if CONCACAF is to grow on the world stage, the rivalry between Mexican and the United States and, by extension, the Liga MX and MLS, is likely to be an important driving factor.
The more the two leagues throw down the gauntlet to each other, the more intense the rivalry will be, hopefully increasing both interest and quality in the process. It may feel threatening and predatory, but it should be seen as a mutual beneficially rivalry. And football, as if it needs repeating, is an increasingly competitively global business, with leagues in the Middle East, China and India now in the market. The Liga MX needs to start throwing its jab.
One way of doing so is to take the Liga MX to the United States, literally.
Mexican and Mexican-American fans are very much part of US soccer culture, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily support MLS or the US national team. You only need to look at attendances for El Tri’s national team games or Liga MX TV viewing figures north of the border – which are vastly superior to those of MLS - to see that.
The Liga MX should consider a similar idea to that which the Premier League mulled over in 2008 – the infamous “39th game.” There was plenty of opposition to it in England for a number of legitimate reasons, but the Liga MX could do it differently and has a ready-made place to go in a similar time zone in which fans are already present: the United States.
What about having the penultimate round of matches in the Liga MX regular season played all over the United States, in cities like New York, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, San Jose, Los Angeles, San Diego and elsewhere? Or, if each team played one of its home games each regular season north of the border, with the club responsible for picking which match and where?
It does sound radical, controversial and perhaps extreme. But take into account that each preseason, Mexican clubs head en masse to the United States to play lucrative exhibition games. Fans usually respond. There were almost 20,000 at the Stub Hub Center on Wednesday evening for Chivas versus Cruz Azul. That’s a weeknight for a friendly. Imagine a weekend Liga MX game featuring Chivas or Club America in Los Angeles.
A proposal for Liga MX teams playing one game each season in the United States would attract widespread press interest in Mexico, the US and further afield. It’d be a money-spinner on and off the field with sponsors potentially lining up to come onboard. It would take a product – the Liga MX – to an avid consumer-base that hasn’t had access to competitive Mexican first division games since the InterLiga ended in 2010.
It’d also open up the league to a new wave of soccer fans in the United States who know all about the US/Mexico rivalry and would likely be intrigued by watching Mexican teams live.
A middle to upper echelon league should be attempting such slightly leftfield, innovative ideas and pulling them off... at least if the ambition is there. There is no doubt the money to make it happen is.
Would MLS like it? You’d think not. It may be possible for the league to stop it.
But even the suggestion of it by Liga MX president Decio de Maria would cause a reaction. Perhaps it would twist the arm of high-up MLS executives to go out and spend big money on a popular Mexican player, something MLS has missed since Cuauhtemoc Blanco (sorry, Rafa) left Chicago Fire in 2009.
Then the ball would really be rolling...