The format for the 2023 Leagues Cup was unveiled on Thursday, and with the LA Galaxy set to be involved in the new iteration of the competition, it’s time to get familiar with it, and it will take some time to get the wrinkles.
The Leagues Cup will pit all of the MLS teams and all of the Liga MX teams against each other, in a competition that will come during a midseason pause in the MLS league calendar. In the broadest sense, it’ll be like Champions League Junior, or maybe more like Baby Champions League. But, a trophy! Actual Champions League berths on the line! Maybe also some rest time for the unsuccessful teams!
There’s some familiar components to Leagues Cup, some new wrinkles and some things that maybe don’t make absolute sense, at least in advance without seeing it in action. In order to give you the most painless rundown, here’s a bullet point list where I can distill the key points as much as possible.
- This year’s MLS Cup winner and the best Liga MX team will each get a group-stage bye and start in the knockout stage
- The rest of the teams will go into groups of 3, with groups loosely organized by geographical region and seeding, that seeding for the top 15 made in MLS from the 2022 season standings.
- Every group will have at least one Liga MX team, obviously some groups could have two.
- The 15 MLS seeds will host two Leagues Cup games, while the 13 MLS non-seeds will host one game.
- No MLS team will travel to Mexico for any games in Leagues Cup.
- Every team in the group stage will play just two games, one against each group opponent.
- No games will finish in draws, with a tie after 90 minutes going to a penalty shootout. The winner of the shootout will get two points for the match, the shootout loser picking up one point for group standings.
- The top 2 finishers in each group will advance to the knockout stage.
- The knockout rounds will be a single-elimination fixed bracket, from the Round of 32 to the final.
- The Leagues Cup winner will get a Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 berth.
- The Leagues Cup second- and third- place teams will get CCL berths to Round One in the revamped tournament.
- That means there will be a competitive Leagues Cup third-place game, with something on the line.
- Leagues Cup will run July 21-Aug. 19, 2023. MLS regular season play will go on hiatus during that span. It’s unclear if there will be characteristic U.S. Open Cup games in that stretch or not.
- Leagues Cup games will be streamed in the United States as part of the Apple TV package that MLS will inaugurate in 2023. On the bright side, that means we won’t have to subscribe to a different streaming service to watch.
So, big takeaways from this:
- Minimum number of games a team will play is one (if you get a bye through the group stage and lose the first knockout game), although any team in the group stage will play a minimum of two games. The maximum number a team could play in is seven games, if they reach the final or third-place game.
- The silver lining for teams that don’t make the knockouts is they can get some rest for the rest of the month. Given this competition is being shoehorned into the middle of the MLS season, with teams also playing in the league, the Open Cup and possibly the Champions League, there will absolutely be teams that get knocked out that won’t be too mad about it, as they can have a bit of time to rest.
- On the other hand, it is another opportunity at a trophy, and like the Open Cup or MLS Playoffs (or even CCL in the current format), if you get hot you can win a trophy in fairly short order.
- For the true sanctity of the competition, involving no travel to Mexico for MLS teams is absurd. To preserve player health and a compressed schedule, it’s obviously preferred. I guess your mileage may vary depending on how you look at it.
- The shootout rule is sure to be another bone of contention, and it’s a similar story: If you think back to the MLS era of shootouts and shudder, then a version of that returning will probably not be welcome. But with group stages being all of two games, it would be a total headache to decide some groups, and I’d much rather see a shootout after 90 minutes then another 30 minutes of extra time or an extra playoff or some other additional game action to figure out likely tiebreaks in the group standings.
- It will be interesting to see how teams approach this competition. Liga MX sides will be in preseason, and I think we’ll see a ton of players with three-digit jersey numbers in action. MLS teams may do something similar in playing youngsters and bench players to give them a run-out. In MLS terms, I think some teams will go very young, others will try a mix like with U.S. Open Cup lineups, and others will put out a strong team in order to get a trophy.
The prior versions of the Leagues Cup have been either friendlies or a glorified friendly competition, and in 2023, the new version will be a legit competition. We’ll see how it actually works once it’s in motion.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.