Co-existing in the region since MLS’ arrival in 1996 (Liga MX debuted in 1943), Liga MX has been able to hold onto superiority over its northern rival in a few different categories — for now. While Liga MX is growing, so has MLS and the argument as to whether the league is finally closing the gap with the Mexican first division.
As it stands, how do the two compare and what lies ahead for both leagues that will be gaining even more attention as the 2026 World Cup approaches?
At the moment, 18 teams take part in a year-long season that is split up into two separate tournaments, the Apertura and Clausura. The 18 clubs play each other once before taking part in a playoff series that crowns the Apertura or Clausura champion. As for the playoffs, a recent rule change was put into place allowing up to 12 teams — instead of the usual top eight — in the playoffs. The champions and runners-up from each tournament book a spot in the Concacaf Champions League, also known as the CCL.
Another new rule heading into the current season is the removal of relegation. During the next six years, no teams will be relegated from Liga MX. Instead, the bottom three per year will be given a fine. As for promotion into Liga MX, Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla has stated that the league could potentially be open to promotion two years from now for 2nd division clubs, but that everything is still up in the air. No clubs will be promoted into Liga MX until then.
MLS has one extended season per year, as opposed to Liga MX’s two. Instead of one giant league table, MLS instead splits the 26 clubs into either the Western Conference or Eastern Conference. Three teams are currently based in Canada.
Expansion has been a clear goal for the league. Four more teams will be added over the next few years to bring MLS to a total of 30 clubs in the near future.
As for the schedule structure, each team faces every other member from its conference twice per season. To round out a 34-game list per franchise, clubs also face off against 10 opponents from the other conference. The top seven from each conference are then invited to the playoffs in the chase for the MLS Cup. Aside from the MLS Cup, the top overall performer from the regular season is also given the Supporters’ Shield.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, alterations have been made to qualification for the CCL. As it stands, the champions of this year’s MLS Cup, MLS Is Back tournament, the U.S. Open Cup (if it returns to play), and also the winners of the Supporters’ Shield earn a place in the next CCL. A Canadian MLS team can also clinch a place in the CCL through the Canadian Championship.
In short: Maybe.
Higher-ups from both leagues have flirted with the idea that would make headlines around the world. A superleague across Mexico, the United States and Canada would make for a fascinating concept, especially with the three also hosting the 2026 World Cup.
But what exactly would that concept look like?
For now, it has amounted to the Campeones Cup (an annual match between MLS and Liga MX champions) and the Leagues Cup (a single-elimination tournament between a limited number of invited MLS and Liga MX clubs). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s edition of the two aforementioned competitions have been canceled, as has a first-ever All-Star game between MLS and Liga MX squads.
Concepts like these must first succeed and show that it is possible to get the ball rolling on an ambitious project. Beyond that, there has been nothing concrete or official regarding potential interleague play, or even a full-fledged superleague. The logistics of travel — let alone the idiosyncratic rules for each league — would also be some serious obstacles to encounter.
That said, it might only be a matter of time before MLS and Liga MX fully combine.
“I mean, the ultimate dream—[Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla] talked about it down in Mexico; we’ve been talking about it a lot here—if you ever can dream of a league that is combined in some way, it could be a powerful force in professional sports,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber last summer.
|League||2019 Average Viewership|
|MLS||≈ 246,000 – 260,000|
|Liga MX||≈ 737,000|
Data taken from ESPN, SportBusiness and media consultant Patrick Crakes
Liga MX is king when it comes to viewership. No league, not even the English Premier League, is more popular in the United States than Mexico’s Liga MX.
While MLS averaged 246,000 through ESPN coverage last year, media consultant Patrick Crakes has reported that the league average is closer to 260,000 when you consider all platforms. Keeping in mind that the average was reportedly 276,000 in 2018, it isn’t exactly good news for MLS.
Liga MX on the other hand has continued to excel when broadcasted in the United States. Univision, who own the U.S. rights to most Liga MX teams, reported an astounding 737,000 average for 2019. Also worth noting is that the most-watched club soccer game on U.S. television in 2019 was the 2nd leg of the Liga MX’s Apertura final between Club America and Monterrey. More fans in the United States — 3.3 million in total — watched that Liga MX final than the UEFA Champions League final. Impressive.
|League||2019 Average Attendance|
Data taken from MLSsoccer.com
Although fans aren’t allowed back in stadiums just yet because of the pandemic, both MLS and Liga MX have similar and impressive numbers.
Boosted by powerhouse teams like Monterrey, Tigres, the Seattle Sounders, and Atlanta United, who all regularly pack 40,000+ at their matches, both leagues have figures that aren’t too far behind major European leagues like Spain’s La Liga or Italy’ Serie A.
This is a complicated question. Due to the fact that these numbers aren’t made public and that it isn’t out of the ordinary to read articles regarding players being owed money, there are no concrete numbers. To make matters even more confusing, Veracruz, a former Liga MX team that was disaffiliated in late 2019, allegedly utilized “double contracts” that took financial advantage of players and staff.
Nonetheless, reports in the past have indicated that an unofficial number regarding average 2019 wages in Liga MX was close to $400,000 per year, a number which is similar to what MLS offers.
Note: Due to the pandemic, this number has likely decreased in recent months.
According to the Global Sports Salaries Survey from last year, MLS players averaged $410,730. That number is slightly higher than Liga MX, but keeping in mind that many MLS teams are extremely top-heavy with Designated Player signings that exceed a team’s salary cap, the reported MLS average without Designed Players is $345,867.
For 2019, MLS’ Salary Cap was reportedly set at $4.24 million. The salaries of Designated Players, up to three per team, aren’t taken into account for that limit.
Enough talk about formats and finances. How have Liga MX vs MLS matches turned out when they face off in the CCL?
With 92 official games played between the two leagues in the competition, Liga MX teams currently lead the way with 52 wins and only 21 losses to MLS clubs. 19 draws were earned in the remaining matches.
There’s a clear victor when looking at the number of CCL titles as well. Since the exit of the Champions’ Cup era and the arrival of the new Champions League format in 2008, Liga MX teams have lifted all 11 CCL trophies and also finished as the runners-up eight times. MLS teams have yet to win the CCL and have finished as finalists three separate times.
The inaugural Leagues Cup tournament in 2019 showed similar trends seen in the CCL. Kicking off with four MLS teams hosting four Liga MX teams in a single-elimination knockout tournament, all but one MLS side (the LA Galaxy) failed to earn a place in the semifinal round. After the Galaxy lost to Cruz Azul 2-1 in the semis, the final in Las Vegas was an all-Liga MX affair in Las Vegas with Cruz Azul knocking Tigres out 2-1.
With plans to expand the tournament to more teams in the future, MLS clubs should have more opportunities to seek revenge on their more powerful Liga MX rivals in future editions of the Leagues Cup.
All that said, credit is due to MLS’ Atlanta United in the 2019 edition of the Campeones Cup. Exceeding all expectations, the 2018 MLS Cup winners gained a 3-2 win over Club America, the 2019 Campeon de Campeones title-holders for Liga MX.
Although Liga MX teams are nearly always the justified favorites against their northern counterparts, Atlanta proved that you can’t always assume that MLS teams will give in easily.
A couple of things are clear.
First, Liga MX has easily had more success than MLS clubs when it comes to results between the two leagues. Despite the fact that Atlanta showcased that it isn’t a given that Liga MX teams will clinch a win in every high-profile matchup, more times than not, Liga MX tends to come out on top of MLS.
Second, although both leagues tend to have some similarities when it comes to overall salary numbers and attendance figures, television viewership in the U.S. showcases a significant difference. In 2019, Liga MX not only surpassed MLS, but also every other league in the world when it came to U.S.-based viewership.
Which is why it makes sense that MLS is interested in collaborating and perhaps even joining forces with Liga MX. While MLS would benefit from the immediate boost in game quality and attention, Liga MX would benefit by continuing to expand its notoriety across North America and beyond.
If it happens, there may soon be a time in which we discuss the two as a whole instead of separate leagues.
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After graduating from the University of New Hampshire with a BA in Journalism, Richard Janvrin has been covering iGaming and sports betting since December 2018. Richard has covered betting at Bleacher Report, Gambling.com, The Game Day, Forbes, and more.More info on Richard Janvrin
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