How to Merge MLS and LigaMX
With the talk of MLS and LigaMX wanting to merge, one thing became apparent, nobody has a good idea as to how to actually go about merging them. Right now there are 18 LigaMX teams and by 2022 there will be 30 MLS teams. A 48 team league is tricky at best to put together. In this piece I outline how I think we can best merge these leagues and go on to show you what a simulation of this merger might look like. On Monday I wrote about why this makes sense on paper, the crux of the argument being a massive television rights deal. Later this week I'll provide a further defense of this system as well as offer up a few variations that could be done with this type of set up.
The League Structure
There are two competitions every team competes in, The Leagues Cup and LigaMLS. LigaMLS is my temporary name of this merged league.
The Leagues Cup is played every year before the regular season really gets started. All 48 teams are randomly drawn into 8 groups of 6 teams. Each team plays everyone in their group twice, home and away. The top two teams from each group then go on to a single elimination knockout tournament to determine a winner. This is a yearly competition that every team is a part of.
LigaMLS is broken into two divisions of 23 teams, the Red Division and Blue Division. Teams will play everyone in their division once. The home team is determined randomly, but everyone is guaranteed an equal number of home matches (within one, since you'll play 23 matches). In the Red Division, the top 10 teams will make the playoffs, and the bottom 6 teams are relegated to the Blue Division. In the Blue Division, the top 6 teams will make the playoffs, and are promoted to the Red Division. The 16 teams that make the playoffs then compete in a single elimination tournament to determine the winner.
The regular season runs from the first weekend in August until the first weekend in December, then taking a break until the second to last weekend of January and playing until the first weekend in June. the Leagues Cup competition is first up for teams, then followed by LigaMLS, though towards the end of the Leagues Cup some regular season matches begin to be played.
Both competitions are considered to be your "regular season", since these are guaranteed matches to be played every year and are trophies everyone has a nearly equal chance at achieving.
The year is 2023, and LigaMX and MLS have decided to merge their leagues using the LigaMLS model. The initial groups for the Leagues Cup and the first breakdown of the Red and Blue divisions has been released.
2023 Leagues Cup:
Group A: Charlotte, Toluca, Pumas, LAFC, Tigres, Cruz Azul
Group B: Kansas City, Orlando, Leon, Miami, Tijuana, Nashville
Group C: Minnesota United, LA Galaxy, Atletico San Luis, Chivas, Morelia, Atlas
Group D: Monarcas, Houston, Montreal, Juarez, Chicago, Philadelphia
Group E: St Louis, Austin, Dallas, New England, Santo Laguna, NYCFC
Group F: Toronto, Sacramento, Vancouver, America, NYRB, Monterrey
Group G:Pachuca, Seattle, Portland, Queretaro, Colorado, Columbus
Group H: DC, Cincinnati, RSL, San Jose, Puebla, Atlanta
Red Division: America, Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Colorado, DC, Cincinnati, Houston, Leon, Monterrey, Nashville, Necaxa, New England, Orlando, Pachuca, Philadelphia, Portland, Pumas, RSL, Santos Laguna, Kansas City, Tijuana, Toluca, Toronto
Blue Division: Atlas, Aletico San Luis, Chicago, Chivas, Columbus, Cruz Azul, Dallas, Juarez, LA Galaxy, LAFC, Miami, Minnesota, Monarcas, Montreal, NYCFC, NYRB, Puebla, Queretaro, Sacramento, San Jose, Seattle, St Louis, Tigres, Vancouver
Now these were done completely randomly. What I would suggest in reality is taking the final league standings of both leagues in 2022 and using that to determine the divisions in 2023. What I did like about this setup is that both LA teams and both New York teams ended up in the Blue Division. Because these divisions are co-equal, their matches would be able to be on national broadcasts and still very much matter for overall league position and the playoff race. Them being in the Blue Division does not diminish their importance. In 2023, since this is this is the first year of LigaMLS, both divisions will have the same number of playoff spots, 8, awarded. This also means 8 teams from the Red Division are relegated, to be replaced with the playoff teams in the Blue Division. After this year, it will revert to the normal setup of 6 teams being relegated from the Red Division and being replaced with the 6 playoff teams from the Blue Division.
First up, here is how the Leagues Cup playoff turned out.
A random number generator was used to determine who came out of each group and my wife flipping a coin determined how the playoff went. And we still ended up with an all Mexico final with Cruz Azul running a brutal gauntlet to win the cup. I was happy to see FC Cincinnati making some noise in this tournament, because LigaMLS was not kind to them. Here is how the league turned out.
The leagues were run as a simulation in FIFA, the MLS expansion teams were represented by modified versions of other teams from around the world to have similar team stats as the average MLS team. Unsurprisingly in this, the Mexican teams did really well, with only one Mexican team being relegated in year one, even with the expanded relegation zone. And, unsurprisingly, FC Cincinnati ended up being relegated in year one. Brutally, LA and New York ended up all being the next four teams outside of the playoffs in the Blue Division. Chivas, Cruz Azul, and Tigres made up the top three and as I expected would not be long for the Blue Division. The playoffs were a little less predictable.
While we came awfully close to an all Mexico final again, St Louis had an incredible run to the final where they lost to Tijuana, your first LigaMLS champions. While I'm sure the TV Networks were loving the idea of a Tigres-America final, St. Louis and Tijuana broke brackets and executives' hearts.
But we didn't just simulate one season, that would be silly. Here is how the 2024-25 season turned out.
2024 League Cup Groups:
Group A: Atletico San Luis, Houston, New England, Miami, Leon, Nashville
Group B: Chivas, Atlas, Tigres, Morelia, St Louis, Santos Laguna
Group C: Tijuana, Toluca, Cruz Azul, Juarez, Toronto, Philadelphia
Group D: Montreal, Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Vancouver, Portland
Group E: Puebla, San Jose, NYRB, America, Necaxa, Seattle
Group F: DC, Pachuca, Sacramento, NYCFC, Minnesota, Chicago
Group G: Pumas, Kansas City, Colorado, LA Galaxy, Cincinnati, Orlando
Group H: Dallas, Queretaro, Columbus, RSL, Monterrey, LAFC
Red Division: America, Atlanta, Charlotte, Chivas, Columbus, Cruz Azul, DC, Leon, Miami, Monarcas, Monterrey, Nashville, Necaxa, Orlando, Portland, Santos Laguna, Seattle, Kansas City, St Louis, Tigres, Tijuana, Toluca, Toronto, Pumas
Blue Division: Atlas, Atletico San Luis, Austin, Chicago, Colorado, Cincinnati, Dallas, Houston, Juarez, LA Galaxy, LAFC, Minnesota, Montreal, New England, NYCFC, NYRB, Pachuca, Philadelphia, Puebla, Queretaro, RSL, Sacramento, San Jose, Vancouver
First up, the Leagues Cup was very unkind to the Mexican giants. Like, all of them.
Despite Mexico having a very poor showing the 2024 Leagues Cup, they did manage two semi finalists. Bur it was Portland that ended up taking the cup. Just missing out on the playoffs in 2023 and they turn around and win the cup. Atletico San Luis finished second to last in the Blue Division in 2023 and turned around by winning their group in the Leagues Cup in 2024. Like everyone says, LigaMLS is unpredictable.
In LigaMLS, we have our first year were the Blue Division is officially harder to reach the playoffs and we see how our relegated teams from 2023 ended up.
First off, New York City, LAFC, and LA Galaxy are into the Red Division for next year, with Red Bulls having just missed the cut. Austin and Pachuca, two relegated teams in 2023, are back in the playoffs. And for some reason FIFA is very, very down on Minnesota, finishing dead last in the Blue Division for the second year in a row. I'll point out in the FIFA simulation, I actually played every fixture twice, just a function of throwing all these teams into the English Championship and League 1, but in both years Minnesota ended up with fewer than 15 points. Ouch. FC Cincinnati followed up their relegation year by taking 2024 off as well. Orlando and Tijuana, both playoff teams in the Red Division in 2023, ended up being relegated.
And here is how the playoffs played out in 2024.
Are you not entertained!? I will admit, I was prepared to simply refuse to award the title to Nashville if they won the coin flip but thankfully the Galaxy prevailed and I didn't have to taint my simulation. Remember, LA Galaxy will have won this title while being the Blue Division, proving that this set-up allows for plenty of winning potential for teams that are relegated or in the Blue Division. And how much fun would this playoff be? LAFC-Monterrey and Tigres-Galaxy are must watch games. Nashville probably benifited the most for me using FIFA to simulate them since I built their core around Lige 1 side Nates (thanks entirely to them having the same crest), but a very impressive showing for this club in the fourth season.
And while I did not simulate 2025, here is what LigaMLS would look like.
Red Division: America, Austin, Chivas, Columbus, Cruz Azul, DC, LAFC, LA Galaxy, Leon, Miami, Monarcas, Monterrey, Nashville, Necaxa, New York City, Portland, Sacramento, Santos Laguna, Seattle, Kansas City, Tigres, Toluca, Pumas
Blue Division: Atlanta, Atlas, Atletico San Luis, Charlotte, Chicago, Colorado, Cincinnati, Dallas, Houston, Juarez, Montral, New England, New York Red Bulls, Orlando, Philadelphia, Puebla, Queretaro, RSL, San Jose, St Louis, Tijuana, Toronto
Overall, about what I would have expected out of a FIFA simulation. One interesting thing to note here is that while the traditionally better teams in up in the Red Division, the Blue Division still has major media markets. Houston, Dallas, New York, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Chicago all carry quite a bit of weight. LigaMLS pitching this set up would be able to sell television networks on both the quality of soccer as well major media markets in both divisions. And you can't tell me you don't want to see how that Red Division plays out in 2025. There are just too many tasty matchups to pass up.
This league set up checks a lot of boxes that you need to address if you are going to merge these two leagues. You need the following:
Realistically play 48 teams in one league
Maximize Mexican team exposure around MLS markets
Provide ample opportunities for teams to win
Avoid making half of the league "minor league"
Mix up the teams you play each year
This league setup accomplishes all of these goals. LigaMX is the most popular league in the United States, so you need to be able to get those teams into as many MLS markets as possible. Make LigaMX fans care about MLS teams and what they do. The Mexican league system of a Apatura and Clasura is mimicked with the leagues cup, basically a fall competition that gives everyone a chance to win, and groups all of the teams together. This further enforces the idea that they are all co-equal in the pyramid. Promotion and Relegation exist, but with a twist. Relegation just means making the playoffs is a little bit harder. And with the huge number of teams moving between leagues, it further blurs the line of their quality, making them equal. Relegation is no longer a death sentence. You can finish dead last in the Blue Division and dead last in your Leagues Cup group one year, and win both competitions the next year. Relegation here is another opportunity to sell drama to television networks, it gives more teams a chance to play more teams from year to year, and serves as a slap on the wrist rather than a death sentence for teams that do get relegated.
There are logistical concerns that would need to be addressed, and frankly I think these are fairly obvious. Private/charter flights for every match. A (large) salary cap that exists for all teams, perhaps tied to media rights. Domestic player designations would need to be addressed across three countries. And this probably kills off or dramatically reduces the role of the CONCACAF Champions League.
This set up does actually allow for domestic cups to continue. What I would recommend is that all three countries, Canada, USA, and Mexico, move to fixed brackets for their domestic cup competitions. Mexico with 32 teams, USA with 128, and Canada with 16. At most this adds 7 matches to the USA winner's fixture list, 5 for Mexico, and 4 for the Canadians. If a team from the USA were to win the treble, LigaMLS, Leagues Cup, and Open Cup, they will have played 47 matches. Club America last season played close to 60 matches including CONCACAF Champions League.
This is incredibly boring, but I did the work so I'm going to include it, but I mapped out what weekends what matches could be played. This accounts for international breaks, summer tournaments, transfer windows, and winter weather. The list of dates can be found at the end.
League Cup 1 August 5th
League Cup 2 August 12th
League Cup 3 August 16th
League Cup 4 August 19th
League Cup 5 August 26th
League Cup 6 September 2nd
League Match 1 September 16th
League Match 2 September 23rd
League Cup 7 September 27th
League Cup 8 September 30th
League Cup 9 October 7th
League Cup 10 October 21st
League Cup Playoff October 18th
League Match 3 October 21st
League Cup Playoff October 25th
League Cup Final November 4th
League Match 4 November 11th
League Match 5 November 25th
League Match 6 December 2nd
Transfer Window Dec 3 - Jan 19
League Match 7 January 20th
League Match 8 January 27th
League Match 9 February 3rd
League Match 10 February 10th
League Match 11 February 17th
League Match 12 February 24th
League Match 13 March 2nd
League Match 14 March 9th
League Match 15 March 16th
League Match 16 March 27th
League Match 17 March 30th
League Match 18 April 6th
League Match 19 April 13th
League Match 20 April 17th
League Match 21 April 20th
League Match 22 April 27th
League Match 23 May 4th
Play Off Round 1 May 11th
Play Off Round 2 May 18th
Play Off Round 3 May 25th
Play Off Round 4 June 1st
Transfer Window June 2nd - July 31st
League Cup 1 August 3rd 2024
League Cup 2 August 10th
League Cup 3 August 14th
League Cup 4 August 17th
League Cup 5 August 24th
League Cup 6 August 31st
League Match 1 September 11th
League Match 2 September 14th
League Cup 7 September 21st
League Cup 8 September 28th
League Cup 9 October 5th
League Cup 10 October 16th
League Cup Playoff October 19th
League Match 3 October 26th
League Cup Playoff October 30th
League Cup Final November 2nd
League Match 4 November 9th
League Match 5 November 23rd
League Match 6 November 30th
League Match 7 December 7th
Transfer Window Dec 8 - Jan 24 2025
League Match 8 January 25th
League Match 9 February 1st
League Match 10 February 8th
League Match 11 February 15th
League Match 12 February 22nd
League Match 13 March 1st
League Match 14 March 8th
League Match 15 March 15th
League Match 16 March 26th
League Match 17 March 29th
League Match 18 April 5th
League Match 19 April 12th
League Match 20 April 16th
League Match 21 April 19th
League Match 22 April 26th
League Match 23 May 3rd
Play Off Round 1 May 10th
Play Off Round 2 May 17th
Play Off Round 3 May 24th
Play Off Round 4 May 31st
Transfer Window June 1st - July 31st