The World Cup-style competition, kicked off by a dramatic game-winning goal from Argentina superstar Lionel Messi in his Inter Miami CF debut last month, has been exceedingly entertaining and at times bizarre. We've seen thrilling high-scoring results, an outcome flipped on its head after players were called back to retake a final round of penalties, lengthy weather delays, stunning golazos, a raccoon storming through a press box, and of course, a goalkeeper literally doing magic tricks in the middle of a penalty shootout.
It's been a highly enjoyable few weeks and on Saturday, we'll see who will lift the interleague trophy when Nashville SC host Messi's Miami in the blockbuster championship match. Earlier in the day, as an appetizer, the Philadelphia Union will host Monterrey in the tournament's third-place game.
Summarizing the competition is no easy task, especially when you consider the constant supply of fireworks and eccentricity that has been on display. That said, clear talking points and lessons have been gained and ahead of the weekend's conclusion, here are a few winners and losers of the lively 2023 edition of the Leagues Cup.
Messi mania in Miami and MLS
Who would have guessed that the greatest player of all-time would have been a success both on and off the field?
From the minute Messi first stepped onto the pitch in the tournament's opener between Miami and Cruz Azul, to the buildup to Saturday's championship match, the World Cup winner has been a massive triumph for Miami and MLS. With nine goals and four assists in just six games played, the 36-year-old (along with new teammates such as Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba) has helped transform the worst team in MLS to an immediate powerhouse that has now qualified for the 2024 CONCACAF Champions Cup.
Whether it be in the stands, with celebrities like LeBron James and Kim Kardashian in attendance, or on TV screens, attention on MLS has soared. Ticket prices are through the roof for Messi's games and according to a social media post from Miami owner Jorge Mas last week, subscribers to MLS Season Pass on Apple TV have more than doubled since Messi's arrival.
By Saturday, the Messi spotlight could grow even brighter with a possible first trophy with his new team.
Liga MX optimists
Living in the shadow of Messi and his MLS impact, Liga MX clubs are dealing with a mixed bag of feelings with no representation in the final.
If we're looking at the glass half-empty, Mexican media and fans will feel justified by their complaints that Liga MX teams have been falling behind in recent years. For those looking for examples of stagnation, arguments have been made that no Liga MX teams in the final and just two overall in the quarterfinal stage point to an ongoing mismanagement of the Mexican top flight.
However, if we crunch the numbers for individual Liga MX vs. MLS results at the Leagues Cup, the glass does tend to look half-full. Playing as the constantly traveling visitors, Liga MX teams have so far gone 17W-12D-17L (90 minutes only, not including penalties). MLS teams at home only won those Liga MX matchups outright 36.9% of the time.
That's actually a fantastic sign for the competitiveness of Liga MX that isn't talked about enough. Even when you take away Mexican title favorites like Club America, Monterrey and Tigres, Liga MX's middle-to-lower-tier teams held a 9W-10D-15L away record vs. MLS clubs.
Keeping the previous section in mind, what Nashville have done looks all the more impressive. With the caveat of their home-field advantage, the Tennessee club found knockout-round success against both America and Monterrey, two Mexican clubs that were pre-tournament favorites to win it all.
Earlier in the round of 32, Nashville also had to surpass rivals FC Cincinnati.
"To be able to come through this tournament beating Cincinnati, beating Club America, beating a good Minnesota team handily [5-0 in the quarterfinals] and then obviously beating Monterrey, we should be full of confidence," club captain Dax McCarty told the league's website after defeating Monterrey 2-0 in Tuesday's semifinal. "I can tell you right now, there's no one in that locker room right now that's afraid or scared of the moment and scared to play this Miami team."
While most of the American soccer world has been focusing on Messi's every move, Nashville deserve a huge amount of credit for their run to the final. This is a team that joined the league alongside Miami in 2020 to much less fanfare, and yet they're now on the cusp of a first-ever trophy, led by the two goals and five assists from game-changing attacker Hany Mukhtar.
And at the very least, like Miami, they've officially qualified for next year's CONCACAF Champions Cup for the very first time.
Queretaro's Cinderella run
On paper, Queretaro shouldn't have even been included in the Leagues Cup conversation. Were it not for the ongoing pause on promotion/relegation in Mexico's top flight, Los Gallos Blancos would currently be playing in the second division.
Heading into the tournament as the team with the lowest market value in Liga MX and MLS, according to Transfermarkt, Queretaro not only made it out of the group stage, but somehow finished in the quarterfinals. In fact, they made things difficult for 2022 MLS Cup finalists Philadelphia Union last week, narrowly missing a semifinal spot after a 2-1 loss after an injury-time goal for the hosts.
Playing a defensive-minded approach from manager and former player Mauro Gerk, as opposed to the typical intense attack-heavy style championed by most Liga MX clubs, Queretaro found success on their own terms as they outpaced all but one Mexican team.
Often overlooked in the U.S. vs. Mexico rivalry that encompasses both clubs and national teams, Canada can at times feel like a third wheel in North American soccer. And yet when handed a chance to steer the narrative in their direction at the Leagues Cup, MLS's three Canadian sides didn't do much to steal headlines.
Toronto FC, with zero points, were knocked out in the group stage. CF Montreal, with two points, also suffered a group-stage exit. Only the Vancouver Whitecaps made it through to the next round after a second-place finish in their group, but once there, they were quickly pushed out after a round-of-32 penalty shootout with Tigres.
Barring an unexpected title push this season in MLS (Vancouver as long shots?), Canadian teams will need to wait until at least 2024 to get top billing over the U.S. and Mexico focus.
Mexico's cuatro grandes
The largest fan bases in Liga MX and likely in all of North America? Check. Long-heralded histories that could provide a boost in the Leagues Cup? Check. Silverware or progress made in that Leagues Cup tournament? Well, about that ...
Mexico's traditional "big four" of America, Chivas, Cruz Azul and Pumas will probably want to quickly move on from their summer performances. With a chance to show MLS clubs and new Liga MX powerhouses like Monterrey and Tigres that they could thrive in an international competition, all four teams ultimately fell short of their own expectations.
For Chivas, who entered the Leagues Cup with a promising 3W-0D-0L start to the Liga MX season, the Guadalajara giants collapsed with two consecutive losses and a group-stage exit. Things only went slightly better for Pumas and Cruz Azul, both of whom were rapidly knocked out in the round of 32. Cruz Azul, facing behind-the-scenes turmoil with ownership and staff, later fired coach Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti after falling to Charlotte FC.
Club America went a step further into the round of 16, but for a team and organization that prides themselves as being consistent title contenders, anything short of a final appearance is a failure. Sure, part of their exit was due to a controversial retaking of a penalty shootout that had initially gone in their favor, but they only have themselves to blame for putting themselves in that position to begin with.
Teams could be forgiven for being knocked out in the group stage. With the countless variables coming into play for a tournament that was expanded to all Liga MX and MLS clubs for the first time, it wasn't a surprise to see the occasional upset or shocking result.
But when you finish last in your group with zero points, and also with the added advantage of hosting all of your group-stage matches, that's a different conversation. Austin and the Galaxy were the two teams to do that this summer.
While the Galaxy imploded in spectacular fashion after scoring a late own-goal and allowing an injury-time winner from Vancouver that ended the California club's group-stage run, Austin were embarrassed twice in a row at home in losses to Liga MX minnows Mazatlan and FC Juarez.
"This is disappointing, this is really disappointing, there's no other way to put it," Austin's Ethan Finlay said after his side were eliminated from contention. "We had to win one game out of two."
Tired, out-of-form clubs returning to regular seasons
With both Liga MX and MLS returning to regular season play this weekend (for clubs not involved in the final or third-place matches), time will tell who the Leagues Cup will hurt more: teams who were knocked out early, but subsequently had longer breaks, or teams who are more in rhythm but with more mileage in their legs.
For struggling teams in both leagues such as the Colorado Rapids, Toronto, the Galaxy, Puebla and Necaxa, it's tough to imagine that poor performances this summer will provide a boost in the return to regular-season play. On the other end of the spectrum, it'll also be interesting to see what group-stage exits mean for Liga MX league-leaders Chivas and Western Conference leaders St. Louis City SC.
Also of note are Monterrey and Philadelphia, both of whom will be gutted that they won't be fighting for silverware on Saturday. Although the Union still have a CONCACAF Champions Cup spot that's up for grabs for the third-place finisher, could the extra minutes and exertion in the Leagues Cup hurt their regular-season run? Will Monterrey's constant traveling and injuries gained in the competition drop their morale in the returning Apertura season?