Jon Arnold - @ArnoldcommaJon
The first Leagues Cup to include every MLS and LIGA MX team is over. Inter Miami CF won the title and took the Round of 16 place in the Concacaf Champions Cup that came with it, while Nashville SC and the Philadelphia Union rounded out the podium places thanks to the Union’s triumph over CF Monterrey.
As teams return to domestic action, we should reflect on what the Leagues Cup was? What lessons did it teach us? What thoughts did it provoke?
The lasting image of the 2023 Leagues Cup will be Messi lifting the trophy. Even in that moment, though, the superstar reminded us there is much more to this tournament and this sport than one player, no matter how sensational he is.
Messi sought out Deandre Yedlin, the defender who arrived in Miami last year and captained the Herons before Messi’s arrival. Yedlin would wear the armband during the trophy ceremony, and they’d lift the cup together.
Togetherness was a theme throughout the entire tournament. In the group stage, teams intermingled for pre-match photos, showing the unity between MLS and LIGA MX squads. Players swapped shirts after the match and caught up with international teammates or rivals after games.
In the stands, Sinaloan bands boosted Mazatlan, fans in Miami learned another Muchachos remix and music from all over sounded in the stands and areas around the stadium as fans cheered on their teams or enjoyed tailgating.
Yes, the 2023 Leagues Cup was the year Messi arrived and took North America by storm, but it also was the year that saw Queretaro run to the quarterfinals and push the Union to the final minute. It was the tournament in which Rayados got a last-minute goal to beat Tigres in the first Clásico Regio outside Nuevo León in a decade. It saw a 19-round shootout that León won against Vancouver.
The shootouts, baked into Leagues Cup’s format that decides all tied games with a shootout in both the group stage and the knockout round, were unsurprisingly great for drama. Nahuel Guzman, the Tigres goalkeeper, tried to throw Vancouver’s well-drilled kick-takers off by doing his best mime impression and by pulling off a magic trick that involved producing something from his mouth.
The question as the tournament started this chapter seems to be if teams would care and, once we saw that they would, how the cultures would clash. More often than not, it seemed the cultures complimented. Fans got to see different styles of play and were introduced to current and rising stars they may not have known before.
As much as it was about Messi, about Club América fans flocking to Columbus as a new chapter of the U.S.-Mexico rivalry begins in the city, about Toluca scoring wonder goals and having their goalkeeper, Tiago Volpi, serve as their penalty taker, there were more moments off the field that made Leagues Cup different. It was the child in an MLS shirt holding hands with their dad in a LIGA MX one. The words of respect from managers before a game and the hugs after.
Ahead of the 2026 World Cup, which will be hosted by the three countries whose teams played in Leagues Cup, the tournament made a statement about the unity that exists in North American soccer. Of course fans want their teams to win. Why wouldn’t you want bragging rights over your neighbor? But it also showed that the community can come together. When it does, we can have a lot of fun, enjoying and celebrating the sport that brings us together like nothing else.