With the Fire set to embark on their Leagues Cup campaign this Thursday, MIR wanted to take a deep dive to fully understand this two-league tournament’s rules, importance, and nuances.
Although the Leagues Cup was first held in 2019, the tournament has been completely reimagined and changed for the 2023 edition. To see how far the tournament has come since then, it is important to understand the history of the two-league competition.
The inaugural Leagues Cup in 2019 was merely an eight-team, single-elimination tournament. The Fire were actually a part of this first edition of the Leagues Cup but were unfortunately eliminated in the first round by Cruz Azul. The following year in 2020, the tournament planned to expand from 8 to 16 teams. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Leagues Cup was canceled altogether. Returning from the pandemic in 2021, the tournament shrank back down to eight teams as Club León took home the title. The competition then took an interesting turn in 2022 as the tournament was reverted into a friendly competition (“showcase”).
So after years of inconsistency regarding format and significance, the 2023 Leagues Cup will involve all 29 MLS teams and all 18 Liga MX clubs. Therefore, to allow all 47 teams to put their best foot forward in the competition, all league play has been paused until mid/late August (the Fire will resume their MLS campaign against Orlando City on August 20th).
So after jumping from 8 to 47 teams, what is this year’s tournament format? Well, with the addition of 39 teams, group play will be introduced for the first time in Leagues Cup history. Of the 47 teams, 45 will have to fight for their place in the knockout stages, while Los Angeles FC and Club Pachuca have already punched their tickets to the Round of 32. LAFC gained this qualification by winning MLS Cup 2022, while Club Pachuca accumulated the most points in the Clausura and Apertura seasons in 2022.
The other 45, however, have been divided into 15 groups based on their performances in the 2022 campaign. By this, the top team in MLS (besides LAFC) will play in the same group as the 16th-best team in Liga MX, while the third-best team in MLS will be in the same group as the 15th-best team in Liga MX, and so on. The remaining 13 MLS and 2 Liga MX teams were drawn into groups based on location.
The top two teams will advance from the group stage, leaving 32 to compete in the knockout stages. While the knockout stages will be played in “World Cup format,” single elimination where ties will be decided by extra time and penalties if needed, the group stage will be played in an untraditional manner regarding draws. If, at the end of 90 minutes, the match is tied, the winner will be decided by a penalty shootout. It gets interesting how the points will be divided from the matches that go to penalties. The winning team will get two, while the losers will take home one, identical to the format used in MLS Next Pro.
A match that ends with a winner and loser at the end of regulation will have the points divided traditionally, with the winners taking home all three and the losers taking home nothing.
Each team in the tournament is guaranteed at least two matches (group stage), with the potential of playing seven if they are to make it all the way to the final. With league play on hold until mid/late August, an early exit will certainly upset supporters as they will be deprived of watching their team for about three weeks.
With the form that the Fire are currently in, with four wins in their last five matches, an early exit looks improbable. Especially when looking at their group, the Fire will be favored to win at least one match. That win will most likely come against Mexican side Puebla, who lost twice and drew once in their opening three league matches. As for the match against Minnesota United, that game could go either way, in my opinion. Although the Fire won against Minnesota in April, Minnesota have also rejuvenated their season following the international break and have taken 10 points from the last 15.
Given the Fire’s group and the form that they have been in since the international break, a realistic expectation is to survive the group stage and make a run in the knockouts. The Fire are arguably the hottest team in the MLS right now and will certainly be hungry for a trophy, with the team’s last piece of silverware being the 2006 U.S. Open Cup.
Not only will the Fire be hungry for silverware, but they will most certainly be gunning for a place in the Concacaf Champions League, a competition that they have not featured in since 2004. A top-three finish would secure the Fire a place in this lucrative competition while winning the whole tourney would automatically gain them an automatic bid to the knockout rounds.
While the ultimate purpose of this newly formatted tournament is to draw in lots of money by creating excitement around the clash of the two powerhouse leagues in North America, the Leagues Cup should present the Fire with a challenging yet palpable opportunity to end their silverware drought. However, many Fire fans may want the team to use the next month to prepare for the final 11 games of the MLS regular season as they continue pursuing postseason soccer. So while the postseason is ultimately what the Fire has been working towards all season long, why not try to make a deep run and try for some silverware?