NEW YORK — Inside Major League Soccer’s headquarters on 5th Avenue, commissioner Don Garber and Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla met with a small group of journalists to discuss an agreement years in the making.
“What it’s really about is how can we work with Liga MX and have Liga MX work with MLS to grow the game in North America,” Garber said. “How can we use this partnership as a way to elevate the World Cup bid, which is a partnership between Canada, the United States and Mexico? How can we share best practices between our two leagues, things that they do really well that we can learn from and things we do really well that they can learn from?”
The two biggest leagues in North American announced Tuesday a long-term initiative that begins with an annual Campeones Cup — a competition between the champions of each league — in September, but will continue with additional joint ventures, including the likelihood of an All-Star Game.
And those plans are just the beginning.
“The Campeones Cup is only the first step. It’s a big step, as Don said it’s going to be the Super Bowl of soccer in North America,” Bonilla said. “We’re going to do a lot of things. We’re going to work with minors, we’re going to work with best practices and, at the end, we’re sure we’re going to have better football for great fans we have in the States and in Mexico and in Canada.”
The three North American countries already have been working together within the sport, forming a joint bid to land the 2026 FIFA World Cup. Recent reports suggest that bid could be in trouble due to the divisive political climate in the U.S.
“We are very confident the bid committee is making a great job, the three governments are making a big effort,” Bonilla said. “I think on Friday we’re going to present the best bid and we’re going to be able to receive the good news that we’re going to be able to give the world probably the best World Cup ever in football history.”
The new partnership between MLS and Liga MX will aim to heal cultural divides as well, according to Garber. Future All-Star competitions between the leagues would be whole “futbol fiestas,” allowing the two soccer communities to join together in celebration of the sport regardless of political climate.
“The combination of MLS and Liga MX together, putting politics aside, playing in a near-borderless world gives us something that other leagues in this country don’t have,” Garber said. “It’s bicultural, it’s binational, it captures a lot of the exciting things that are going on in our country with this exploding Hispanic market and this passion for the game among all populations.”
Garber said he likes the maturity of Liga MX, how the league manages its two seasons while still incorporating the excitement of a playoff system and how it has worldwide brand awareness.
“Their brands are established, they have a global following for many of their teams, they develop world-class players and we’ve got a handful of them in our country, who are playing in our league,” Garber said. “We actually have great admiration for Liga MX and are looking to take advantage of some of the expertise they have to help us get better.”
Bonilla said Liga MX can learn from MLS’ marketing acumen and from the game-day experience most of its clubs offer.
“The fan experience prior, during and after the game is sensational,” Bonilla said. “It’s a thing we have to learn to do. There are more things like marketing, several things that we can learn to be better and compete with them in that part of the game.”
Garber called the strength of the U.S. soccer market “the elephant in the room.” Groups, both foreign and domestic, tap into that market by setting up youth camps and clinics. European teams come to America for preseason tours and some, such as Bayern Munich and Manchester City, set up offices here.
The goal of the new partnership is for MLS and Liga MX to invest in the sport together so they can reap the benefits of its growth in North America together as well.
“We’re part of the same confederation and we’re trying to find ways we can make investments together to grow the game because we’re the ones investing in it, as opposed to others who are coming in and taking more than they’re putting back,” Garber said.
There remains unanswered questions when it comes to the future All-Star game. How frequently will Liga MX and MLS All-Stars face off? The format the last 13 years pits MLS All-Stars against a European powerhouse. Will that change?
There still are logistics to work out — and some potential hurdles with the Liga MX schedule — but both sides said they are committed to what Garber called a “quintessentially North American” concept.
Tapping into the natural soccer rivalry between the two fan bases, while showcasing the region’s top players is a win-win for both sides — and potentially a ferocious competition.
“We’re going to fight as if it was the World Cup because we want to win and the best players of Liga MX would like to be the winners of that game,” Bonilla said of any future All-Star game. “There’s going to be no friendly game at all. When it happens, it’s going to really be 23 guys on each team wanting to win that game and putting the best of them in that game. It’s going to be different.”