Soccer Meets Fútbol by Jon Arnold

North American tournament enjoys global flavor with Canales, Messi, Bouanga among international standouts


Jon Arnold - @ArnoldcommaJon

The 2023 Leagues Cup was marketed as a World Cup style tournament, thanks to its group stage which led to a one-and-done knockout stage to decide its champion. What organizers perhaps didn’t see coming is just how global the North America-based tournament would turn out to be.

While three teams from the U.S. and LIGA MX club **CF Monterrey** moved into the semifinals of the tournament Friday, there has been a distinctly international flavor to the knockout rounds of the tournament.

Spain international Sergio Canales scored the first goal of Monterrey’s rally past **LAFC**, which leaned on an early goal from Gabon standout Denis Bouanga. A number of Concacaf internationals teamed with former Germany youth international Hany Mukhtar to push Nashville past Minnesota United FC, 5-0. And, of course, Lionel Messi, CONMEBOL’s top player and World Cup champion with Argentina, keyed **Inter Miami CF's** win over **Charlotte FC** to push The Herons into the top four of the tournament.

“Overall we want to be in this position. That’s what we’re aiming for. The guys sitting alongside me are hugely high-caliber players,” said Nashville manager Gary Smith, nodding at Mukhtar and Canada defender Jacob Shaffelburg. “If we’re going to achieve anything, we’ve got to put ourselves in this spot. I don’t think anyone was quite sure how the Leagues Cup was going to unfold, but it’s become not only an enjoyable tournament, but a very, very competitive tournament as well.”

That is no doubt down to the quality, talent and dedication players with International experience bring to the tournament.

Perhaps the global flair shouldn’t come as a surprise. Increasingly, teams in both MLS and LIGA MX are using resources on scouting, whether it be funding traditional scouts, deploying analytics technology or working without companies who specialize in finding under-the-radar players who could help teams in their quest to win their leagues, Leagues Cup and the Concacaf Champions Cup.

Inter Miami has shown its scouting prowess with acquisitions from South Florida and South America, but nobody needed a word from the sporting department to let them know Messi would be a key addition.

Even so, there were questions about what the Argentina ace would do in Leagues Cup, as he adapts to a new team and plays against clubs from LIGA MX and MLS with different styles of play. Inter Miami manager Tata Martino feels that not only is Messi's brilliance from his run to the World Cup unchanged, but it’s also spilling over to the other players on the squad who look to the former Barcelona star for cues.

“I think in the last few years we’ve seen a lot of that from Leo, and right now the reality is we’re not seeing him do anything more or less than what he did seven months ago at the World Cup,” Martino said before Miami’s 4-0 victory over Charlotte. “Another thing that has happened is he’s backed up with action what he said with his words, that I’m coming here to compete and see if we can win. I think the image of the fourth goal (against Dallas), because of the circumstances he wasn’t celebrating but was going to get the ball to see if we could score the fifth goal, shows that. Of course that’s contagious within the group."

Gerardo Tata Martino y Lionel Messi

“Teams are made from character. You have to play well, be better than the opponent, have a clear idea, yes, but there also are moments where character can push you through a match.”

Whether it be Messi and Canales or players in previous rounds like South Africa and Minnesota United forward Bongokuhle Hlongwane, FC Cincinnati’s U.S. star Brandon Vazquez - even if it’s potential semifinal participants like Daniel Gazdag, the Hungary international who missed the Philadelphia Union’s quarterfinal win Friday with an injury, this North American tournament is putting some of the the best international players on display not only from the Concacaf region but from confederations all over the world.