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Rivalries Old and New Brewing in Next MLS V. LIGA MX Showdown


Jon Arnold - @ArnoldcommaJon

Leagues Cup magic. Lionel Messi produced it as he led Inter Miami to the 2023 title with head-spinning assists and goals. Tigres goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman took the ‘magic’ portion more literally, pushing Los Felinos to the knockout round with a penalty save in Vancouver after pulling a move with some string that we still haven’t wrapped our minds around.

So, it’s only natural to expect more enchantment when the two Argentines do battle in an East 3 matchup when the rivalry between MLS and LIGA MX renews in the 2024 Leagues Cup. Inter Miami’s match with Tigres is one of the juiciest group-stage games on the just-unveiled Leagues Cup slate, but there’s plenty more to be excited about, more individual and team matchups we can see only in the Concacaf Champions Cup or the Leagues Cup, which sends its top three teams to the CCC.

Those three tickets to the Concacaf competition will be hotly contested. While LIGA MX has long enjoyed a vice-grip on the continental club championship, with only the Seattle Sounders breaking through in 2022, Mexican squads found Leagues Cup a stiffer challenge than perhaps first expected. Two LIGA MX teams - Monterrey and Querétaro - made it to the quarterfinals and all three CCC places were claimed by MLS teams.

Not only are significant bragging rights on the line, Leagues Cup also is the only way for the region’s two biggest leagues to tip the balance of clubs it has in the Concacaf competition. Thanks to 2023’s success, six LIGA MX clubs are contesting the CCC, while 10 MLS teams are in. Clubs will be playing for themselves and their own glory, but big-picture the reputation of leagues and their future international success is in play this summer. The LIGA MX clubs want Leagues Cup redemption, while MLS sides would love to claim this as "their tournament".

The group stage of the competition as a whole should be easier to digest, with groups delineated West and East and the intrigue of LIGA MX’s top teams turning their U.S. base into Mexico City, Monterrey or Guadalajara North.


Whatever city Monterrey, the LIGA MX team that went furthest in the 2023 edition of the tournament, selects will witness some fantastic matches in the group stage. Austin FC once again will have an all-LIGA MX group stage, taking on Rayados and also Pumas. Attention will be focused up top where U.S. international Brandon Vazquez hopes to be settled in with Rayados, who will need to shut down their all-time leading goalscorer Rogelio Funes Mori, who is now at Pumas.

That won’t be the only return the 2024 Leagues Cup group stage provides fans in North America, with Chivas coming up against the San Jose Earthquakes and the LA Galaxy in West 2. Both of Chivas’ big offseason acquisitions will see their former teammates, as forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez meets the LA Galaxy for the first time since his return to Guadalajara, while U.S. international Cade Cowell looks to help the Rebaño Sagrado top the Quakes after moving from Northern California this winter.

Along with Chicharito, another Mexico legend should make his Leagues Cup debut this summer. Andres Guardado recently joined Club León, but the reigning Concacaf Champions Cup winners will have their hands full with a pair of MLS squads that have retooled in the winter. The Colorado Rapids signed a number of U.S. internationals this offseason, bringing in goalkeeper Zack Stefan, midfielder Djordje Mihailovic and defender Sam Vines. The Portland Timbers, meanwhile, will look to once again get out of their Leagues Cup group, solidifying at the back with Leagues Cup champion Kamal Miller and ex-LAFC goalkeeper Maxine Crépeau.

Ahead of a 2025 FIFA Club World Cup spot, the Seattle Sounders get another taste of international competition facing Necaxa, which started the season red-hot under manager Eduardo Fentanes. Minnesota United, too, can lean on past success after last year’s run to the Leagues Cup quarterfinals that saw it eliminated by eventual runner-up Nashville SC.

And speaking of impressive Leagues Cup runs, Querétaro returns to the Northeast U.S. after winning matches in Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and the Boston area en route to the quarterfinals with Mauro Gerk steering the most surprising run of the entire tournament. Another deep run would be another eyebrow-raiser from the Gallos Blancos, sharing East 1 with Supporters’ Shield winners FC Cincinnati and New York City FC. Both MLS teams exited at the Round of 32 last time around and will be hungry for more success this time around.

FC Dallas hosted some of the most thrilling Leagues Cup games last year and will hope to once again get out of the group stage, though it won’t be easy. After its sterling expansion season, St. Louis CITY SC is back and focused on success in multiple tournaments, while FC Juárez will enjoy being back in Texas for official competition after advancing from its group while playing in Austin last year.

All three trinational groups have their own intrigue. With Pachuca, the New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC all in East 6, we see three teams looking to reclaim their former glory after being winners relatively recently. The trio should all see a path in Leagues Cup, leading to tight competition, especially as Pachuca makes its Leagues Cup group bow after getting a bye to the knockout round in the previous edition.

Out West in West 7, it’s a rematch of teams that met in the previous Concacaf Champions Cup quarterfinals, with the Vancouver Whitecaps seeking revenge after being eliminated by eventual finalist LAFC. Club Tijuana has its own history in Concacaf competition with a team from LA but will meet LAFC in official competition for the first time, kicking off a SoCal vs. Baja California rivalry.

And in East 2, it’s CF Montréal, Orlando City and Atlético de San Luis. Orlando City manager Oscar Pareja can point to being a cup wizard, but he’ll have to match wits with San Luis’ Gustavo Leal, a rising star as he sustains success in central Mexico. Montréal now is led by former defender Laurent Courtois and will be looking for its first Leagues Cup win and knockout match.

One of the fledgling Leagues Cup rivalry matches is Cruz Azul meeting Charlotte FC in East 4, with the Philadelphia Union also in a stacked group after earning a third-place finish and a CCC spot in 2023. Charlotte and Cruz Azul played out a draw on neutral ground in 2023 with the MLS squad advancing from the spot. Both teams will have a different manager and plenty of new faces. The Union have more consistency and will fight to keep their Leagues Cup group record perfect.

Only Inter Miami and Nashville SC finished better than the Union last tournament. Nashville begins its quest to reach another Leagues Cup final - and this time win it - with a group that also includes fellow CCC qualifier New England Revolution and Mazatlán FC, which advanced from a tough group last time around.

Another team that will have last edition of Leagues Cup firmly in mind when it kicks off in 2024 is Sporting Kansas City. Toluca eliminated Peter Vermes’ men with a 4-1 win in the Round of 32 last season and will return to Children’s Mercy Park this time as opponents in West 4. The Chicago Fire topped their group in 2023 but beating Club América was a bridge too far and Frank Klopas will head into the tournament looking to lead the team to its first knockout victory.

The Houston Dynamo could see some familiar faces in West 8, and not just because of midfielder Hector Herrera’s deep connections to the Mexico national team. Former forward Mauro Manotas is now with Atlas, who will be in a group with the U.S. Open Cup champions and with Real Salt Lake - a team that also brought in a Mexican World Cup participant by signing U-17 standout Fidel Barajas this winter.

And in East 7 it’s all about chasing former glories. All three clubs are ambitious and Atlanta United and Santos Laguna both lifted league titles in 2018, but new additions to the trophy cabinets have been difficult to come by. The same could be said about D.C. United, which started life in MLS as the top team but hasn’t won a crown in more than a decade. A Leagues Cup run could open a new championship window for any of the squads.

Sometimes it’s from the places you expect, like Messi’s left foot or Nahuel’s mind, but as surprises like Querétaro’s charge and the all-MLS CCC qualifiers showed us, magic can come from anywhere in the Leagues Cup. With the format and groups now announced, now we know where the next chapter of the MLS vs. LIGA MX rivalry will start.