The relationship between the United States of America and Mexico has long been politically uneasy. The Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 was brutal and damaging, and recent political developments have decayed the relationship even further. And yet, in the world of football – the European not American version – there appears to be nothing but collaboration between the two North American countries.
Back in 1988, America was without a professional football league, having seen the North American Soccer League fold four years earlier due to falling attendances. Keen the grow the sport in the country, they bid against Brazil and Morocco to host the 1994 World Cup. FIFA, aware of the marketing opportunities that hosting a major tournament in the United States would offer, opted for this option under one condition: the creation of a professional football league and so Major League Soccer was born.
The World Cup was a roaring success, with America’s incredible stadiums providing large crowds, and the MLS has become a solid league in its own regard. Football has still remained a relatively small sport in the country, however, and the United States Soccer Federation has attempted to replicate the success of 1994 by hosting the 2026 version of the tournament.
Unlike their bid thirty years, the current iteration was a joint venture between the football federations of America, Canada and Mexico, with the tournament to be held jointly between the three. Although the bid was a joint effort, the United States will host the majority of the matches, with just three venues and ten matches to be held in both Canada and Mexico. All three federations expressed interest in hosting, and CONCACAF worked to combine the efforts of them all to pursue a single venture.
It was a combination that undoubtedly played a significant role in winning the votes required, as the united strength of the United States, Mexico and Canada provides a blend of new markets to explore and existing passionate fan bases.
Major League Soccer was established as a part of the bid to host the 1994 World Cup, and a league creation may once again occur after the completion of the 2026 World Cup. Rumours have begun to emerge regarding the possibility of a combined North American league, containing teams from the three federations united in the bid.
Liga MX President Enrique Bonilla stated that such a merger could be a possibility, saying that: ‘if we can make a World Cup then we can make a North American league or a North American cup. The main idea is that we have to grow together to compete. If not, there is only going to be the rich guys in Europe and the rest of the world.’ It was a rallying call from Bonilla for both leagues to continue to improve in a united effort to bridge the gap between the traditional European forces.
The realities of the merger are much murkier than a simple desire for competitiveness.
In recent seasons, the MLS has undergone a significant period of expansion, growing from 16 teams in 2010 to 23 prior to the 2018 season. Three more teams – FC Cincinnati in 2019 and teams from Miami and Nashville in 2020 – are slated to complete the current expansion period creating a league of 26. There is also the issue surrounding the potential recent relocation of the Columbus Crew. With new owners arriving to save the Crew from being moved, current owner Anthony Precourt has seemingly been promised a slot in the league to bring his wish for an Austin, Texas-based sports team to life. It creates a potential pool of 27 professional teams that the MLS alone would be bringing to the merger. Liga MX, on the other hand, is an 18 team league full of teams of historical pedigree.
For all potential 45 teams, there would need to be guarantees of a place in the new league as well as a revenue increase from their current earnings now, neither of which can be safely confirmed. A 45 team league would be a logistical nightmare. Merely creating a fixture list would be a problem and the travel distance required for teams in the south of Mexico to play in Canada and vice versa would be a detriment to the overall quality of the league. Perhaps the leagues could be split by Mexico and America, with the best teams from each competing in the playoffs that would be inevitable, but this is merely an extension of the newly created Campeones Cup, a Super Cup between the winners of both leagues.
The other potential option was the creation of a North American Cup competition, rather than the league. This would be a theoretically simpler idea, with a knockout tournament between the teams being a much easier prospect to organise. Once more, there remains a significant stumbling block in the form of CONCACAF.
A tournament between teams from the MLS and Liga MX would almost mean the CONCACAF Champions League becomes obsolete. Since the reformation of a professional league in the United States, the tournament has been dominated by teams from Mexico, America and Costa Rica. With audiences having regular matches between the Mexican and American sides, the viewing figures for the Champions League would likely wane, and the successes of the Costa Rican sides would likely fade into obscurity.
The creation of any new tournament containing just teams from Liga MX and the MLS would be detrimental to the wider growth of footballing talent in the CONCACAF region. Clubs from the smaller nations and league would rarely be given the chance to go head-to-head against their more illustrious neighbours and decreased TV revenues and interest would see a regression for the teams based in the other nations.
Much like the oft discusses European Super League, a North American version would likely cause more problems than it would save. A straight league would be a nearly impossible creation and a cup version would likely be strongly blocked by the continental federation. CONCACAF will be unlikely to be thrilled at the thought of losing the interest of its two biggest commercial assets and the quality of football in the region would suffer as a direct result of the potential collaboration. Although the idea could potentially lead to some stellar matches on a regular basis, any creation that was forced has the strong likelihood of causing more problems than it ultimately solves.