Twice a year, when Mexican soccer begins anew, I’m reminded of the hidden truth of soccer in the United States: the most popular soccer league in the USA is not the one that’s in the USA. By TV viewership, the way that we measure everything in the United States, Liga MX is the most popular league in the USA. It’s not particularly close.
Like a lot of people, I didn’t realize this for years, though, because A) I was too busy comparing MLS to the most famous leagues in Europe and B) I didn’t have the Spanish-language cable channels.
Find those channels, and you’ll be kind of amazed at just how much Mexican soccer is on TV. There are times when the same match will be on both TUDN (Univision’s sports network) and either Univision or UniMas, which would be like putting the same match on both NBC and NBCSN at the same time. There are times when the same match is on both TUDN and ESPN Deportes at the same time. That seems unfathomable to me, the English-speaking viewer. Can you imagine FOX and NBC showing the same NFL game at the same time?
Maybe the most amazing thing is how consistently you can watch every single Liga MX game, if you so choose. Virtually every one is on Univision, ESPN Deportes, FOX Deportes, or Telemundo. Monterrey, Santos Laguna, and Tijuana even have regular English-language cable broadcasts on FS1 or FS2, with their Spanish broadcasts on Fox Deportes. Chivas occasionally has English-language broadcasts on NBC Sports, too.
Let me just stress here that this means that all 18 Mexican soccer teams have, effectively, a national broadcast contract in the United States. If you speak Spanish, every single one of these teams is the Atlanta Braves on TBS Superstation in the 1980s. Even if you speak only English, you have three and occasionally four teams that broadcast their home games, nationally, in your language.
When you realize this, you begin to understand why MLS and Liga MX are so eager to hook together their wagons. For MLS, it’s a chance to tap into the die-hard interest in its southern neighbor. For Liga MX, it’s a chance to reach a loyal market that’s north of the border.
Take the annual Campeon de Campeones match, played between the winners of each half of the Mexican season. Since 2015, it’s been played not in one of Mexico’s cathedrals of fútbol, but in the United States, specifically in the LA Galaxy’s home stadium, the StubHub Center / Dignity Health Sports Park / whatever we’re calling it today.
This year it was Cruz Azul, finally champions after years and years of painful near misses, against Club León. The surprise, seeing it on TV, was that there were some fans in the stands in Los Angeles that were NOT wearing Cruz Azul’s blue and white. It seems like virtually all of Mexican soccer is focused on the three Mexico City teams, Club América, Pumas, and Cruz Azul; on Chivas, the most popular team in Guadalajara, Mexico’s traditional second city; and now, grudgingly, on Monterrey and Tigres, the two teams in Monterrey, which has grown into the second-biggest metropolitan area in the country.
(As an aside, it’s hard not to get a real 1951 Major League Baseball vibe from Mexican soccer, sometimes. Three teams in Mexico City, two in Guadalajara, two in Monterrey, with scattered other teams around the country. You could probably even assign pairs, down the lineups: América is the Yankees, Cruz Azul the Brooklyn Dodgers, Pumas the New York Giants; Chivas is the Red Sox, Atlas the Boston Braves. Monterrey is the White Sox, Tigres is the Cubs. Ignore the implications of the American League vs. the National League for purposes of this paragraph, please.)
The stands in Los Angeles were absolutely packed to see Cruz Azul win 2-0. Put Cruz Azul most places in the United States and you’ll draw a full house. Which is why both MLS and Liga MX are interested in finding as many ways as possible to put Cruz Azul, and any others they can, most places in the United States.
The MLS-Liga MX tie-ins that already exist can be a little hard to keep track of. The one that’s best known, the CONCACAF Champions League, is continental, not just specific to North America - though the later rounds do tend to feature Mexican teams beating up on teams from Canada and the United States. The Campeones Cup is newish, meant to be a showpiece between the the Mexican champions and the MLS Cup winners; this returning at the end of September, Columbus against Cruz Azul. The Leagues Cup is meant to supplement the Champions League, and involves the best four teams from both leagues that did not make it to the Champions League; that one begins next week.
This year’s Leagues Cup could be kind of fascinating, especially in the sense of “which of these teams will take this seriously.” The MLS representatives are Seattle, Kansas City, New York City, and Orlando; Liga MX is sending León, Tigres, Pumas, and Santos Laguna.
On the MLS side, Seattle is second in the league, but the whole team is injured, and they’ve already been reduced to playing teams made up of teenagers and stadium vendors in MLS matches. Who knows who they’ll put on the field? Orlando is having its best season in some time, but in the space of a few weeks, they got beat 5-0 by NYC and lost to Chicago, which is probably more embarassing than losing 5-0. NYC is repeating its yearly commitment to being good without actually winning anything, and for the 40th year in a row, Kansas City is almost-but-not-quite the best team in MLS.
I find the Mexican teams impossible to predict, simply because there’s no telling which players will be on the field. I’ve been watching El Rebaño Sagrado, the Amazon Prime documentary about Chivas, and it’s fascinating to see the club’s attitude towards Copa MX. It’s clearly very important to the team that they do well and win it, but at the same time, it’s the opportunity for guys who aren’t getting on the field in Liga MX to show their stuff.
I have zero doubt that every one of these Mexican teams will want to dominate, and in the past, Liga MX second teams have been capable of beating MLS first teams (the benefits of depth, in action). With the Europa League vibe of the Leagues Cup, I’d expect more Copa MX teams in action.
That said, the first time around in the Leagues Cup, the same thing was true, and all four Mexican teams beat their MLS counterparts, and we were treated to the silliness of an all Liga-MX final in Las Vegas. Ah well.
No matter how this year’s edition goes, though, I think you can expect to see as much MLS-Liga MX collaboration as the two leagues can manage. It’s in both of their immediate interests, and it fits with the joint 2026 World Cup that’ll be held across North America.
And for those of us in the United States, brush up on that Spanish. If you really want to know what’s going on in American soccer, you’ll need it.