Leagues Cup Preview: 47 teams from MLS and Liga MX battle it out in new tournament

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

The Leagues Cup, a World Cup-style tournament featuring all teams from MLS and Liga MX, is set to kick off tonight. The month-long tournament in the middle of both the MLS and Liga MX seasons means a forced break from league play. From July 21 to August 19 this tournament will take center stage.

Leagues Cup
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Leagues Cup Group Stage

The Leagues Cup will feature 15 three-team groups in four regions; West, Central, South, and East. Those 35 teams have to duke it out in a group stage, while the champions of MLS, LAFC, and the Liga MX team with the most points from the Clausura 2022 and Apertura 2022, C.F. Pachuca, have byes to the Round of 32.

The teams in the group stage will each play two matches. The top two teams from each group progress to the knockout rounds. One of the more fascinating facets of this tournament is there will be no ties. If teams are tied after 90 of play, a winner will be decided in a penalty shootout. This makes the points system look a little different; teams get three points for a win in regulation, two points for a penalty shootout win, one point for being tied after 90 minutes, or zero points for a loss.

These matches will be very competitive, but which teams are in which groups, and who are likely to advance to the knockouts? let’s take a closer look.

West Region

  • West 1:
    • Tigres UANL (#2 in LIGA MX in 2022),
    • Portland Timbers (# 14 MLS in 2022)
    • San Jose Earthquakes (# 25 MLS in 2022)

The first group in the west sees a top Liga MX side and some MLS teams looking to make a tournament run toward silverware. Tigres is a top team in the region and one that MLS sides dred to face in competitions like the Concacaf Champions League. They are the favorites to win this group, and could just win both of their matches.

Portland and San Jose are two MLS sides that are looking for a spark. Portland is sitting in 12th place in MLS right now and has not looked inspired so far this year. Could Leagues Cup be a place where they gain momentum? San Jose is a playoff side in MLS’s west right now. They have looked good, but not great over a period of time. Getting a win against Tigres could just change that fact.

Matches: 7/22 Portland vs San Jose, 7/26 Tigres vs Portland, 7/30 Tigres vs San Jose

  • West 2:
    • Monterrey (#3 in LIGA MX in 2022)
    • Real Salt Lake (#13 MLS in 2022)
    • Seattle Sounders FC (#20 MLS in 2022)

West Two, is one of the “Groups of Death” at the 2023 Leagues Cup. Monterrey, RSL, and Seattle are three top teams right now, and all could make runs to the final should they get out of the group. Monterrey is another strong Liga MX team that’s out west. They won the Clausura in Liga MX, and are off to a good start in the Apertura season. They could be a force to be reckoned with in this group.

Real Salt Lake and Seattle are both in the top four of the western conference. They have great attacking players and look to play openly with the ball. This sets up for some potentially great matches. Can RSL use Leagues Cup to catapult their title hopes? Will Seattle continue to be the top MLS team in the region being the first team to win this edition of the Leagues Cup? We’ll have to watch to find out!

West 2 Matches: 7/22 Salt Lake vs Seattle, 7/26 Monterrey vs Salt Lake, 7/30 Monterrey vs Seattle

  • West 3:
    • LA Galaxy (#7 MLS in 2022)
    • Club León (#9 LIGA MX in 2022)
    • Vancouver Whitecaps FC (#16 MLS in 2022)

In the final group in the west group, there are teams ready to prove themselves. LA Galaxy has had a very tough year, after being very good last year. They are in the basement of MLS’s western conference and need a tournament like this to right their ship. Can they find a way to make the knockouts?

Fellow MLS side Vancouver has been successful this year, but they are not considered contenders. Leagues Cup could help them gain more experience in tournament-style competitions, as long as they can get out of the group. Club León is the favorite in this Group. They just won the Concacaf Champions League, and are used to tournament-style soccer. Can they start another Cinderella-style of run in Leagues Cup?

West 3 Matches: 7/21 León vs Vancouver, 7/25 LA vs León, 7/29 LA vs Vancouver

Central Region

  • Central 1:
    • Club América (#1 LIGA MX)
    • Columbus Crew (#15 MLS)
    • St. Louis CITY SC (MLS Expansion side)

In the first Central Group, Central 1, there are three sides that are all ambitious and love to play with the ball. The first is the favorite to win the group, Club América. América are the biggest club in Liga MX. They have star players from the Mexican National Team and will take Leagues Cup very seriously.

The other two teams in the group are MLS sides St. Louis City and Columbus Crew. St. Louis City are new to MLS this season, yet they are the top team in the west. Columbus Crew is a top-six team in MLS this season and is looking for new opportunities to prove themselves. Leagues Cup can be that opportunity. Will either MLS side be able to take points off of América, that could be the difference between going to the knockouts and going home.

Central 1 Matches: 7/23 Columbus vs St. Louis, 7/27 América vs St. Louis, 7/31 América vs Columbus

  • Central 2:
    • Puebla (#6 in LIGA MX in 2022)
    • Minnesota United FC (#10 in MLS in 2022)
    • Chicago Fire FC (#23 in MLS in 2022)

Central Two sees two MLS sides that are seen as pretenders rather than contenders. Minnesota United are 10th in the west, and Chicago Fire are 8th in the east. Both have been playing well recently; Minnesota has only lost once in their last five, and Chicago has won five of their last six. Could either of these underachieving MLS sides, be able to make the most of this Leagues Cup and beat a Liga MX along the way?

Puebla is the lone Liga MX team in this group. They are very similar to Minnesota and Chicago; an underachieving side that is talented. After finishing 11th in the last Clausura, and 8th in the last Apertura seasons respectively. Could Leagues Cup help Puebla like it could for the two MLS sides and spark a good run of form?

Central 2 matches: 7/23 Puebla vs Minnesota, 7/27 Minnesota vs Chicago, 7/31 Puebla vs Chicago

  • Central 3:
    • Chivas Guadalajara (#7 in LIGA MX in 2022)
    • FC Cincinnati (#9 in MLS in 2022)
    • Sporting Kansas City (#21 in MLS in 2022)

Central Three is a powerhouse of a group. They have the top team in Liga MX and MLS right now. Chivas is starting out the 23/24 Apertura strong with three wins and no losses. Can they now take this early season form into League Cup and make a run for a trophy going up against the strong competition? Cincinnati is on pace to break the points record in MLS. They’re already in the semifinals of the US Open Cup. Could they use Leagues Cup as a way to make fans think of a possible treble?

The final team in Central Three is an MLS side that used to be in the upper echelon of teams. Sporting Kansas City created a dynasty in the early 2010s but has fallen off a bit over the last few years. Now, they are 11th in the eastern conference. They’ll need a tournament run here against great competition to show that they are a serious club again; it’ll be easier said than done.

Central 3 Matches: 7/23 Cincinnati vs Kansas City, 7/27 Chivas vs Cincinnati, 7/31 Chivas vs Kansas City

  • Central 4:
    • Nashville SC (#8 in MLS in 2022)
    • Toluca (#8 LIGA MX in 2022)
    • Colorado Rapids (#17 MLS in 2022)

The final central group sees a top-six MLS side go up against a top Liga MX side, and also an MLS side at the bottom of the league. The top-six MLS side is Nashville SC. They are fourth in all of MLS, and reigning MVP Hany Mukhtar leads their line. This team is poised for a tournament run in Leagues Cup. Liga MX’s Toluca finished in the top six in both competitions last season. They may not be a big-name Liga MX side, but they will have a lot to say in this group. Can they take the region by storm by winning the group?

The final team in Central 4 is Colorado Rapids. This is a mid-MLS side that has fallen hard now two years removed from winning the western conference. They went from winning the west to finishing 10th, and now they are in last place in the west. This team would love a tournament run, but will one at Leagues Cup be on the cards?

Central 4 Matches: 7/23 Nashville vs Colorado, 7/27 Nasvhille vs Toluca, 7/31 Toluca vs Colorado

South Region

  • South 1:
    • Austin FC (#3 MLS in 2022)
    • Mazatlán FC (#13 in LIGA MX in 2022)
    • FC Juárez (#16 in LIGA MX in 2022)

Heading into the south region, South 1 is one of two groups in the entire tournament that has just one MLS side and two Liga MX sides. The lone MLS side is Austin FC. Austin did very well last season, finishing second in the west. However, this season they have dropped a bit to fifth place. They are still a strong side, but they will have to prove themselves against two Liga MX sides in this Leagues Cup.

The first Liga MX side in this group, Mazatlán finished 18th (aka last) in the previous Clausura, and 14th in the last Apertura. They are not usual contenders in league competition, and they will be looking to Leagues Cup to compete for a trophy. Juárez is in a similar situation, they are used to finishing either in the bottom half of the table or just sneaking into the playoffs. This competition will be a huge opportunity for them to show the region that they can compete.

South 1 Matches: 7/21 Austin vs Mazatlán, 7/25 Mazatlán vs Juárez, 7/29 Austin vs Juárez

  • South 2:
    • Santos Laguna (#4 in LIGA MX in 2022)
    • Orlando City SC (#12 in MLS in 2022)
    • Houston Dynamo FC (#24 in MLS in 2022)

South 2 sees an interesting combination of teams. Liga MX side Santos Laguna is a very up-and-down side. They finished third in last season’s Apertura, and then 13th in last season’s Clausura. Coming into Leagues Cup, they will be looking to show consistency against MLS competition that is also up-and-down.

The two MLS teams in this group are Orlando City and Houston Dynamo. Orlando has won three, drew once, and lost once in their last five. They are good enough to be in fifth in the east right now. They aren’t counted as a top contender, could Leagues Cup change that thought? Houston Dynamo has not been very good for some years now; however, they seem to show up in big games. For instance, they have won three of the last four against LAFC. Can Houston turn that into Leagues Cup success and make it out of the group?

South 2 Matches: 7/21 Orlando vs Houston, 7/25 Santos vs Houston, 7/29 Santos vs Orlando

  • South 3:
    • Cruz Azul (#5 in LIGA MX in 2022)
    • Inter Miami CF (#11 in MLS in 2022)
    • Atlanta United (#22 in MLS in 2022)

This is the group that all eyes will be watching. A huge team in Liga MX, some of the best atmosphere in all of MLS, and a huge new signing for MLS will be on display. Liga MX side Cruz Azul headline South Three. They are a giant club in Mexico, yet they have struggled a bit recently. They finished seventh and eighth in the Apertura and Clausura respectively. They will be looking at Leagues Cup as an opportunity to show the region that they are still an elite force to be reckoned with.

Atlanta United are also in this group, they bring some of the best atmospheres in all of MLS, and they will be hoping that they can in Leagues Cup as well against top opposition. It will take a lot for Atlanta to get out of this group because they need to play a Mexican superclub, and also against a world superstar.

Lionel Messi will make his Inter Miami debut, TONIGHT against Cruz Azul. Miami may be in last place in all of MLS but over the last week, they have revamped their team significantly with Messi and also Spanish legend Sergio Busquets. Can Messi and friends make Miami look like a top side at this Leagues Cup?

South 3 Matches: 7/21 Miami vs Cruz Azul, 7/25 Miami vs Atlanta, 7/29 Cruz Azul vs Atlanta

  • South 4:
    • FC Dallas (#6 in MLS in 2022)
    • Necaxa (#10 in LIGA MX in 2022)
    • Charlotte FC (#18 in MLS in 2022)

The final group in the South region features an MLS team looking to be counted as a contender, a Liga MX side that has been an underachiever, and a newer MLS side looking to make strides. FC Dallas headlines this group. They currently sit eighth in the west but have talent up and down their roster to make a run in this style of tournament. Can they live up to being the favorites of the Group?

Necaxa from Liga MX has been a team that either just barely makes a playoff spot, or is totally out of the running recently. They are underachievers in a tough league; can Leagues Cup give them a new spark to compete for something? Charlotte FC is one of the newest teams in MLS. In their first season, they finished in ninth, and they are currently in 12th place in the east. Their form has not been good recently. Can they turn it around in Leagues Cup?

South 4 Matches: 7/21 Dallas vs Charlotte, 7/25 Dallas vs Necaxa, 7/29 Necaxa vs Charlotte

East Region

  • East 1:
    • Philadelphia Union (#1 in MLS in 2022)
    • Club Tijuana (#15 in LIGA MX in 2022)
    • Querétaro (#17 in LIGA MX in 2022)

The first group in the East region is just the second group to have one MLS side and two Liga MX teams. The Philadelphia Union coming off of a historic year in 2022 are the favorites out of east one. They are taking on Liga MX sides that were low in the standings in last season’s Apertura and Clausura. Can this be the catalyst for a Leagues Cup run, or will they falter under the pressure of being favorites?

Tijuana finished 15th in both the Apertura and Clausura last season; Querétaro finished last in the Apertura and 10th in the Clausura. They are not the top teams from Liga Mx, but they will be raring to go to take a shot at one of MLS’s best and have a chance to play for a trophy. Could they do it and knock out MLS’s eastern conference champs?

East 1 Matches: 7/22 Philadelphia vs Tijuana, 7/26 Philadelphia vs Querétaro, 7/30 Tijuana vs Querétaro

  • East 2:
    • CF Montréal (#2 in MLS in 2022)
    • Pumas (#14 in LIGA MX in 2022)
    • D.C. United (#27 in MLS in 2022)

East two features Montreal, Pumas, and DC. One of those teams is a blue Canadian side that is always second fiddle to their red counterparts; two of those have been giants in the past of Liga MX and MLS, and the other has fallen from grace. Montreal was second in all of MLS last season, they saw a great rise but then lost many of the players and their coach which made them successful. Now they are in 10th in the east and are looking for an opportunity to show what they can do in a cup competition.

Pumas has been giants in Liga MX in the past, now they are coming off of finishing 16th in the Apertura and 14th in the Clausura. Their fall has hurt their standing, and they are hoping to get more talking about them at this Leagues Cup. Can they make a run to the knockout round? DC United is in a similar spot in MLS, the first dynasty is far from that now. They are a playoff team in the east, but can they be more than that at this Leagues Cup? If they want to do that, then they’ll need to beat some other struggling teams!

East 2 Matches: 7/22 Montreal vs Pumas, 7/26 Montreal vs DC, 7/29 Pumas vs DC

  • East 3:
    • New York City FC (#4 in MLS in 2022)
    • Atlas (#12 in LIGA MX in 2022)
    • Toronto FC (#26 in MLS in 2022)

The third group in the east region features teams who all have been at the precipice of greatness, and all three have also fallen from that great height in recent years. NYCFC won MLS Cup in 2021, almost made it back in 2022 and now is in 13th place in the eastern conference. They have been underachieving, but this competition could be a springboard for them. Should NYCFC go on a run in Leagues Cup, then they may just be a competitor yet again.

Toronto FC was a dynasty in the last 2010s in MLS and has fallen so so so far. They are second-to-last in the east. Fired their coach, and have lost six games in a row. If there was ever a team that needed a tournament run while the season is on hold it’s this TFC side. The lone Liga MX side, Atlas has won Liga MX the last two seasons, but cleaned house recently letting players and their coach go. Will this side be able to keep their success going in a brand new Leagues Cup competition?

East 3 Matches: 7/23 NYCFC vs Atlas, 7/26 NYCFC vs Toronto, 7/30 Atlas vs Toronto

  • East 4:
    • New York Red Bulls (#5 in MLS in 2022)
    • Atlético de San Luis (#11 in LIGA MX in 2022)
    • New England Revolution (#19 in MLS in 2022)

East Four is the final of the 15 groups at this Leagues Cup! Two teams from MLS are looking like playoff sides this season, while the lone Liga MX side finished their last seasons right at the playoff line. Let’s start by looking at that Liga MX side, San Luis. They finished just outside the playoffs in the Apertura, and finished in the last playoff spot in the Clausura. They are right on the edge and could use Leagues Cup to play against strong opposition that is usually quite good.

Switching to the MLS sides, New York Red Bulls haven’t the MLS playoffs in 13 years. They are in jeopardy of doing so this season with a flat start to their season. They are still trying to recover from that as they sit in 11th place. Can Leagues Cup help them snap out of it? New England Revolution is having a great season they are second in the Supporters Shield race and only lost four out of 23 games. They have to be the favorite in this group, but can they live up to the hype and show how good they really are?

East 4 Matches: 7/22 Red Bulls vs New England, 7/26 San Luis vs New England, 7/30 Red Bulls vs San Luis

Leagues Cup
Lionel Messi, front left, and Sergio Busquets, right, jog alongside forward Josef Martinez, center, at the start of a training session for the Inter Miami MLS soccer team Tuesday, July 18, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Regional Knockout Bracket

After the Group stage, we get to a World Cup-style knockout round. This is where LAFC and Pachuca will come in as the teams with byes to this round. Here’s a look at the bracket, and when the matches will be played!

  • Round of 32: August 2 – August 4
  • Round of 16: August 6 – August 8
  • Quarterfinals: August 11 – August 12
  • Semifinals: August 15
  • Third Place: August 19
  • Final: August 19

This tournament is going to be an experience. Since it is brand new there is nothing to expect coming into it. It is very unique in that sense! You don’t want to miss this action! You can watch it on Apple TV+ through MLS Season Pass!

Leagues Cup
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union & AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell