Rumors about MLS and Liga MX formalizing some kind of alliance have rumbled for the last few years. The big questions revolved around when it would happen and what that partnership would look like.
On Tuesday, those questions got answers after an announcement that confirmed a Campeones Cup next September between the MLS champions and the Liga MX's Campeon de Campeones, as well as a commitment to a future MLS All-Stars vs. Liga MX All-Stars game and collaboration on business practices and social responsibility.
Two neighboring and rival leagues coming together in the highly-competitive world of soccer isn't exactly the norm, but this appears to be the start of something more entrenched between Liga MX and MLS.
ESPN FC spoke to MLS Commissioner Don Garber and Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla to discuss the strategic partnership, its significance and the future.
Tom Marshall: What value does working with each other add to each respective league?
Enrique Bonilla: In this global world we have to work together if we want to succeed, if we want to get better, and that's what we are doing with this announcement. We recognize that each of us have different strengths and we have to put them together so we can grow and so we can have better football so we can compete with the rest of the world. Above all, [we want to] give a better show to our fans, that's our key goal.
Don Garber: This is just a great opportunity to join forces with a long-term vision to help grow the sport in North America in ways that will benefit our fans, our respective clubs and will elevate the popularity of the game throughout North America. It fits right in with what our respective federations are trying to do to bring the World Cup here in 2026 and provides each of us with the ability to harness the power of our respective leagues and clubs.
TM: How important is the Liga MX vs. MLS on-field rivalry to the growth of the game in North America?
DG: It's really important. We've been working hard for many years to elevate the game and in many ways we've been doing it in an insular way where we are just competing against ourselves. In order for us to really grow and test ourselves in a broader way, we've got to be competitive against Mexico. It's a very established league, it's a very competitive one.
Liga MX has done a great job in raising the bar and our teams are getting better and are seeing more success than they had in years past, but until we are able to be very competitive in the Champions League and different programs that we're going to work on with our partnership then we wouldn't have achieved our goals.
Our goal is to be working with Mexico to have our part of the world attract the attention of the rest of the football-playing world. It shouldn't just be about Europe or South America; it should be about North America, also. CONCACAF is doing great things to help achieve that, and now the two big leagues in CONCACAF are going to work together to try to achieve that as well.
TM: There have been a lot of rumors about a potential cup competition between Liga MX and MLS clubs; is that still on the table?
EB: There are a lot of plans on the table that we are working together on, but we have to go step-by-step and walk firmly before we start running. This first step is huge and afterwards there will be lots of good news for all football fans on our continent.
TM: Critics will say we've been down this route of Liga MX and MLS integration and club competition before with the SuperLiga (which ran from 2007 until 2010). How would you respond to them?
DG: SuperLiga was a great idea, it was just ahead of its time before CONCACAF had really committed to and really expanded the Champions League, which we think is making progress and attracting a lot of attention. It's becoming more valuable for our confederation and our respective clubs. We want the Champions League to be more successful, we want it to be our version of the UEFA Champions League where our clubs can get big paydays for attracting a lot of attention and ultimately winning the confederation championship.
But there are lots of teams in our respective leagues who are not going to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League and there's opportunity for them to participate in other types of concepts, and that's what we'll start thinking about in the years to come.
TM: In Mexico there has been a lot of debate about Liga MX suspending relegation for two years from the 2018 Apertura. Is MLS an example to follow in that regard given the increasing value of its franchises?
EB: We have to learn a lot of things from MLS, we have to learn about the experience that they give to the fans at the stadium prior to each game, during the game and after the game. We have to learn a lot from them on marketing, a lot of things. And the other way around, they have to learn things about how we work, how we develop our kids, how we develop our league, our tournament. It's a win-win relationship. We're both going to grow and get stronger and stronger and have the chance to compete with other continents, not just within CONCACAF.
TM: If MLS could take one thing from Liga MX, what would it be?
DG: Really the quality of their competition. Every game matters, every stadium is full, every stadium has passionate fans. Clearly when we are watching these games on Univision here or in the Champions League, they are just really good. That's something that we're aspiring to achieve. I believe that in days of old, businesses looked at where they were and what others viewed as competition and operated out of fear. What Liga MX and MLS is doing is looking at each other and saying: "How can we learn from each other and how can we work together so we can ultimately be far better from the experience?"
I think forward-thinking business leaders try to gain insight from those that have been around longer, or have different market experience or different markets themselves. If we're smart the end-game and the north star is to make our sport more popular. If we can create more fans in the US and Mexico, then imagine the value of the Champions League and what it could do for our respective clubs.
I'm envious of how the top teams in Europe can benefit from another competition and, collectively, if we can create more rivalries with Monterrey, Club America, Chivas, Santos (Laguna), Tigres and Xolos, then imagine what we can achieve together with those games going forward.
TM: Does this partnership highlight that the integration of soccer in North America goes beyond the 2026 World Cup bid?
EB: Definitely. We're looking to the future, to a global world... to work for the good of the game, to have the possibility of competing with the rest of the world, specifically Europe. This is the first step, and it's going to show the world that we are not only talking about three associations that want to have the World Cup, but leagues and three countries that want to do things together.