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MLS & Liga MX: Rabid Rivalry or Perfect Partnership?

Boardroom examines the benefits of the relationship (and rivalry) between North America’s two biggest soccer leagues ahead of the 2022 MLS All-Star Game.

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez doesn’t see in black and white, especially when it comes to the fiercest rivalry in North American soccer: the United States vs. Mexico.

Hernandez, a Mexican international who currently plays for the Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer, is personally living in those gray areas that blend the two countries, their cultures, languages, and, in this case, their top domestic soccer leagues.

While the 2022 MLS All-Star Game Wednesday night at Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minnesota, is being billed as MLS All-Stars vs. Liga MX All-Stars, the game and all of the attention around it isn’t meant to create division, but unity — the kind that can grow the leagues themselves and the overall culture of the world’s popular sport throughout the continent.

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As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all ships.

“We need to be more of a gray area. We need to take the best out of each league,” Hernandez told Boardroom, admitting that it’s surreal serving as MLS All-Star captain against Liga MX, the league in which he began his professional career at Chivas de Guadalajara. “We need to take the best out of things and not stay in this narrative of heroes and guilty persons and white and black. We need to be more positive and to have that narrative.

“Of course, competing-wise on Wednesday and even the Skills Challenge [on Tuesday], I’m going to try to win. … I want to have the narrative be that Liga MX has so many things that we need to praise, the same as MLS, and then these types of events are going to help us both keep going.”

LA Galaxy and Mexico national team star Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez during the Cross & Volley event at the 2022 MLS All-Star Skills Challenge at Allianz Field, Aug. 9, 2022 (David Berding/Getty Images)

Despite the number of fans and pundits quick to fuel the fire of an us-versus-them rivalry, Hernandez’s sentiments were widely shared and reiterated this week among MLS executives, all-stars, and even US Men’s National Team head coach Gregg Berhalter ahead of the second MLS All-Star Game between MLS and Liga MX.

“Playing with the national team and playing Mexico in the US, you see they have a lot of fans in the US… At the end of the day, they’re soccer fans and they’re helping to grow the sport in this country. All fans that come are great—it’s great for the sport and great for both leagues.”

USMNT and Inter Miami fullback DeAndre Yedlin

(Last year, MLS won 3-2 on penalty kicks at Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles.)

“We talk about the rivalry, but to me it’s more about two countries trying to push the whole region and trying to push each other to be better,” Berhalter said. “We looked at Liga MX and said, ‘Man, how are we getting our asses kicked every year? We have to get better,’ and we get better and now everyone is better. On the national team when we were losing to them, we weren’t happy with that so we were like, ‘How do we get the upper hand on Mexico and how do we keep pushing?’ They’re going to want to do the same thing now that we’ve beaten them the last couple of times. 

“All it does is make our region stronger by continually wanting to improve.”

A Rivalry’s Roots

The concept of MLS and Liga MX butting heads for bragging rights is nothing new. The neighboring domestic leagues that are separated in age by 53 years—Liga MX began in 1943, MLS in 1996—attempted to create a formal competition called the SuperLiga in 2007, but despite being sanctioned by CONCACAF, US Soccer, the Mexican Football Federation, and the Canadian Soccer Association, the SuperLiga only lasted four years. Liga MX teams won three of the four eight-team competitions.

Today, the leagues’ clubs compete against each other (as well as against clubs from Canada, Central America, and the Caribbean) as part of the CONCACAF Champions League, which began in 1962. They revitalized their more direct competition with the return of the Campeones Cup in 2018, which pits the reigning MLS Cup champions against the winners of Liga MX. Meanwhile, the Leagues Cup debuted in 2019 and will soon evolve into a month-long competition featuring all 29 MLS clubs and all 18 from Liga MX.

In May, the Seattle Sounders became the first MLS franchise to win the CONCACAF Champions League, besting Liga MX club Pumas (Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“The relationship with Liga MX started many, many years ago with SuperLiga and InterLiga and a wide variety of other concepts to try to see how we can have a legitimate competition between our two leagues,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “I think we’re going to have a great future with that league. We just want to collaborate on so many things. Our two countries have an enormous opportunity to continue to embrace each other’s cultures and embrace the sport together.” 

A Win-win

Even though Major League Soccer is the premier domestic soccer league in the United States and Canada and has seen exponential growth in recent years — the number of teams has nearly tripled since 2004, and while club valuations have increased more than 25x over that period — Liga MX remains the most-watched domestic soccer league among US viewers. Average viewership for Liga MX matches on Univision (845,000) nearly doubled that of MLS viewership on ESPN and Fox (355,000) during the 2021 season.

Additionally, Mexico is the most popular men’s national team inside the United States with an estimated 60 million fans. Soccer United Marketing (SUM), the commercial arm of the MLS, recently extended its two-decades-long partnership with the Federación Mexicana de Fútbol (FMF) through 2028 to continue to engage El Tri fans in the U.S.

Guatemala v Mexico
The Mexican National Team has an estimated 60 million fans in the United States. (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

With the United States home to the second-largest population of Spanish speakers on the planet behind Mexico, with an estimated one in three people expected to speak the language by 2050 (this includes bilingual people who also speak English), MLS and Liga MX working together is not only a win-win for both leagues, but also for the sport of soccer itself — particularly ahead of the 2026 FIFA World Cup hosted jointly by Canada, Mexico, and the US.

“Obviously there’s a lot of Liga MX fans in the US and a lot of MLS fans who speak Spanish, and we think that opportunity is untapped,” Garber said. “There’s a wide variety of programs and collaborations that we’ll do on our own, they’ll do on their own, or we’ll do together. If you think about the diversity of our country, which really is one of the great demographic shifts that’s playing right into the growth of our sport leading to our increased popularity, there’s no end to what the opportunity can be.”

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“Dos a Cero!”

At the international level, the rivalry between the USMNT and El Tri dates back to 1934 when the two countries met with a berth in the World Cup in Italy on the line. Despite America’s 4-2 victory that year, another triumph over their neighbors to the south wouldn’t come until nearly a half-century later in 1980.

Since then, the rivalry has escalated on and off the field as supporters clamor for more.

The US claimed a historic 2-0 victory over Mexico at the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea/Japan, and the two rivals have repeatedly played in front of sold-out crowds on both sides of the border in the subsequent years. More than 110,000 were in attendance at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca in 2010 for a World Cup qualifier, while 93,000+ packed the Rose Bowl in 2015 for the CONCACAF Cup playoff with a berth for the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup on the line.

Even though Mexico leads the all-time series 36-16-22, the US has begun to slowly turn the tide — including notable recent trophy-clinching wins over El Tri in the 2021 CONCACAF Nations League final and 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup final over a two-month span last summer.

And domestically, the Seattle Sounders became the first MLS side to win the CONCACAF Champions League in May, clinching a berth in the next FIFA Club World Cup.

“Playing with the national team and playing Mexico in the US, you see they have a lot of fans in the US,” said Inter Miami FC defender DeAndre Yedlin, who has 73 caps with the USMNT. “I’ve gotten questions about if that’s bad or good, but at the end of the day, they’re soccer fans and they’re helping to grow the sport in this country. All fans that come are great—it’s great for the sport and great for both leagues.

“It’s truly important to work together. This sort of sets a foundation for the [2026] World Cup.”

A Foundation for the Future

Spearheaded by a younger, more diverse, more knowledgeable generation of fans, the trendline for soccer’s popularity in the United States is healthier than it’s arguably ever been. Soccer is the third-most-popular sport among Gen Z behind football and basketball, according to a Two Circles study, while it’s the No. 1 sport in participation and No. 2 in fandom among Generation Alpha (those born after 2013) according to a Morning Consult survey.

“The relationship with Liga MX started many, many years ago… I think we’re going to have a great future with that league. We just want to collaborate on so many things. Our two countries have an enormous opportunity to continue to embrace each other’s cultures and embrace the sport together.” 

MLS Commissioner Don Garber

The increased interest coupled with further investment into the sport in America — not only domestically within MLS and NWSL, but from international clubs vying for a piece of the highly competitive American market — has helped MLS close the gap on Liga MX at an increasing rate.

And as the two leagues jostle for North American supremacy in the years and decades to come, they both will continue to reap the fruits of their rivalry. Perhaps “partnership” is the more appropriate word, but in any event, the Beautiful Game and its fans end up the ultimate winners.

“I think this is the closest MLS has ever been to Liga MX,” said Minnesota United and 2022 MLS All-Star head coach Adrian Heath. “Thirteen years ago when I arrived [in the US from England], the gap was pretty big, but it’s been continually closed and closed with the investment that the clubs have put in.

“It’s only good that it’s getting closer, and I think long-term, actually, this will be good for Liga MX as well. The fact that the US are getting closer and the leagues are getting bigger, buying more players, competing now for the same players to buy, I think it’s only good to have the competition.”

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