Leagues Cup kick-off leaves much to be desired

Left to right, Igor Lichnovsky, Orbelín Pineda and Yoshimar Yotun of Cruz Azul. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
Left to right, Igor Lichnovsky, Orbelín Pineda and Yoshimar Yotun of Cruz Azul. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images) /

Cruz Azul defeated the Chicago Fire and will face L.A. Galaxy in an Aug. 20 semifinal in California.

Devalued MLS teams and second-rate refereeing marred the first night of the much-ballyhooed Leagues Cup. While Liga MX clubs Cruz Azul and Tijuana used first-choice line-ups, MLS coaches opted to rest starters and utilize back-ups.

Even so, the games on the field were entertaining with the leagues splitting the two matches.

Cruz Azul defeated the Chicago Fire 2-0 in a rough-and-tumble match with Roberto Alvarado providing the winning goal with a splendid individual effort and Elías Hernández firing home the clincher late.

In the nightcap, Tijuana squandered chance after chance in a tense 2-2 match that the host L.A. Galaxy won on penalty kicks. The Xolos dominated the match for long stretches, firing 20 shots at Galaxy keeper Matt Lampson but only 5 were on target. Lampson then stopped three Tijuana penalty kicks as the Galaxy won 3-1.

Leagues Cup
Plenty of Tijuana fans were in attendance to see their Xolos play the Los Angeles Galaxy in a Leagues Cup match Tuesday night. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

The Leagues Cup was introduced in May with great fanfare as an opportunity “to increase the growing rivalry” between Mexican and U.S. club teams, said MLS commissioner Don Garber. MLS insisted it was providing its fans with what they wanted, more competitive matches with Liga MX clubs. Concacaf is a big booster of the tournament too.

“The Leagues Cup … further strengthens our sport in our Confederation and is a precursor for future collaboration between Concacaf, Liga MX, MLS and other key stakeholders,” said Concacaf president Victor Montagliani.

Mexican clubs (and their fans) have been clamoring for a return to the Copa Libertadores, South America’s prestigious club tournament. Mexican clubs haven’t competed in the Libertadores since 2016, partly because Concacaf had begun pressuring the Mexican Soccer Federation to focus on regional competition. Even so, there is talk of finding a way to renew their participation in the South American tournament, especially because the tougher competition would benefit Liga MX teams.

Earlier this month, Montagliani said Concacaf’s goal in supporting the renewed partnership between the Mexican and US soccer federations would be to strengthen regional competition.

If that were the case, the Leagues Cup is a bust.

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MLS is two-thirds of the way into their 34-game season so their coaches are looking toward the stretch run and playoff positioning. After all, these same coaches had no idea there was going to be a summer tournament when the season started.

The Fire rested leading scorer C.J. Sapong and midfield leader Bastian Schweinsteiger, while Cruz Azul – just off a scoreless draw in its season opener on Saturday – used a first-team line-up. It showed as the Cementeros enjoyed 70% possession and fired 7 shots on goal while holding Chicago to 1.

Although the Galaxy advanced to the semifinals, its star players – most notably Zlatan Ibrahimovic – didn’t even suit up for the match. “We’re going to try to win,” Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said before the game. “[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.”

Some of the pre-tournament spin emphasized the chance to see big-name Mexican players in MLS play against Liga MX teams. Team Mexico and L.A. Galaxy midfielder Jonathan dos Santos was asked what it would be like to face a Mexican club team, something he has never done after having started his career in Europe before moving to MLS.

Leagues Cup opening night
Galaxy goalie Matt Lampson stops Tijuana’s fourth penalty shot, his third PK block in his team’s shoot-out win over the Xolos of Tijuana. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

Dos Santos wasn’t even on the bench as coach Barros Schelotto decided it was better to rest Jona and Zlatan Ibrahimovic for upcoming MLS matches.

We did get to see 17-year-old Efráin Álvarez get an assist for the Galaxy as he served up a perfect cross to David Romney on a corner kick to equalize 2-2 against Tijuana (in minute 54). Álvarez has played for El Tri’s Under-17 team.

It’s bad enough that the MLS teams did not approach the inaugural Leagues Cup with the same seriousness as Liga MX teams, but the Concacaf Champions League – the other big regional competition – has been dominated by Liga MX. Mexican teams have won each of the past 14 CCL titles while MLS teams have only competed in three of the past 14 finals.

ESPN had even asked “Will MLS show it can compete with Liga MX in upcoming Leagues Cup?” Perhaps the better question would have been, “Will MLS care to compete with Liga MX in Leagues Cup?”

Furthermore, the Leagues Cup games could not have gotten such great exposure in the big East Coast markets as the Galaxy-Xolos match didn’t kick off until after 11 p.m. Eastern time, the shoot-out finally ending at 1:15 a.m.

Another issue that perhaps deserves explanation is the decision to use Concacaf referees rather than refs from Mexico and the United States. The quality of arbiters in the confederation is certainly nothing to brag about. Jamaican Oshane Nation (Fire-Cementeros) and Honduran Saíd Martínez (Galaxy-Xolos) did nothing to alter this notion.

All this will only serve to fuel critics who panned the Leagues Cup earlier this summer as meaningless friendlies and a simple “cash-grab” by U.S. clubs and MLS.