Leagues Cup. Why yet another tournament?

Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ron Howard is on hand to hammer the golden spike during the Atlanta United and D.C. United soccer match on Sunday, July 21, 2019, in Atlanta.   Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: compton@ajc.com

Credit: compton@ajc.com

Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ron Howard is on hand to hammer the golden spike during the Atlanta United and D.C. United soccer match on Sunday, July 21, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

The Leagues Cup.


I’m sure MLS and LIGA MX did exhaustive market research before embarking on yet another tournament that will feature clubs from their respective leagues. I’m sure that TV ratings and those dollars also were part of the research.

I’m curious if they talked to one important segment: the players.

Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan didn’t come right out and also ask why play the series but his body language and tone were pretty clear on Friday.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think, when I was in the league with Chivas, this is going way back, we had a similar competition. I don’t know how or why that ended. I don’t know how this competition is going to be.”

Earlier this week, the leagues announced that the Leagues Cup, whose first run starts this week, was already going to expand from eight teams to 16 next year. Atlanta United seems likely to qualify, if it doesn't appear in the CONCACAF Champions League for the second consecutive year.

Add that tournament to the Champions League, historically dominated by clubs from LIGA MX, and the single-game Campeones Cup, which Atlanta United will host when it takes on Club America, and the Leagues Cup seems like an exercise in soccer futility.

How many times does it take for clubs from Mexico, with greater financial resources and fewer roster restrictions, to beat those from MLS to prove that yes, they are better? They have done so 14 consecutive times in the iterations of the Champions League, as well as in last year’s debut of the Campeones Cup.

For those new to soccer, it would be like an annual college football game between Georgia State and Georgia Tech, with expectations that the Panthers could win. Georgia State is MLS. Georgia Tech is LIGA MX. Georgia is the European super club, like Liverpool, or Real Chelcitylonabarparisenaltusilanundich …. United. ... FC.

To put it another way, how will playing another tournament against the bigger and richer help the clubs in MLS?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Guzan said. “Somebody, somewhere is making a few pennies off these games. There weren’t a whole lot of details going into it until they started dropping announcement after announcement after announcement. We will see. Time will tell.”

Competitions MLS teams participate in

The scheduling of the Leagues Cup is interesting because one of the complaints voiced about the Champions League is when it is played. MLS teams enter the tournament in February at the beginning of their seasons without having yet played a league game. Mexico teams are in the middle of their seasons. They are presumably fitter and sharper. Have I covered richer and deeper? Yes. Well, they are.

The Leagues Cup will be the opposite. MLS teams are more than halfway through their seasons. LIGA MX teams are starting their seasons but have rosters that are deeper than clubs in MLS. I need to keep hammering that point.

Of course, if that team is Atlanta United, which had just 16 healthy players for Wednesday’s game against Houston, it won’t matter if the games are in February when the team is fresh but not in sync, or July, when it is playing better with the few players it has available.

“You’d look at our squad and say ‘Wow,’ ” Guzan said. “Throw in a few injuries and a handful of more games, it’s going to be quite difficult for them (teams in it this year).”

What’s the solution?

Guzan is one of the Atlanta United players participating in the ongoing negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the MLSPA and MLS. The current one expires in Jan. 2020. Guzan said the talking points between the players and owners include how the “working conditions” can be improved.

“If we are going to be playing in these extra competitive games in these tournaments, how do we look to continue to improve our chances to be successful?” he said.

If the clubs from MLS are going to compete, paying the players more for the dubious honor of potentially being drubbed would be a good start.

In the soon-to-be-expired CBA, MLS teams that qualify for the Champions League received the following bonuses:

Qualify: $50,000

Team advances to quarterfinal: Additional $35,000

Team advances to semifinal: Additional $40,000

Team advances to final: Additional $45,000

Team wins final: Additional $50,000

The bonuses are paid to the club to be distributed among the players however it chooses.

So, for beating Herediano in the Round of 16 and then losing to Monterrey in the quarterfinals, Atlanta United received a bonus pool of $85,000. It’s not a lot of money for a roster of 30 players, not including those who were no longer on the roster for the tournament but may have received bonuses for helping the team qualify by winning the MLS Cup last year.

Bonuses for League Cup for this year are still being negotiated.

There are many, many other solutions that I hope are being discussed: expanding the number of roster slots from 30 to a maximum of 35, adding a second Young DP slot and up to five DP slots would be another. MLS should reward teams that add DPs and experience success by qualifying for the playoffs and these international tournaments by paying back some of the DP’s salaries each year. Call it a franchise incentive clause. Letting players freely slide from Academy and USL affiliates onto game day rosters without paperwork machinations would be another. That’s something Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer mentioned earlier this week.

Lastly, communication would be helpful.

Guzan seemed puzzled that the Leagues Cup is expanding before the first games. Chicago will host Cruz Azul and L.A. Galaxy will host Club Tijuana on Tuesday. Houston Dynamo will host Club America and Real Salt Lake will host Tigres on Wednesday.

“There weren’t a lot of details, there aren’t a lot of details,” he said. “We will see how these next couple of weeks go for these MLS teams and what comes out of it.”