Leagues Cup triumph huge for Cruz Azul, but tournament still a work in progress

LAS VEGAS -- The announced attendance at the inaugural Leagues Cup final between Cruz Azul and Tigres UANL was 20,132, or just over half of Sam Boyd Stadium's 40,000 capacity. The tally was fitting given that half-measures defined the first edition of the tournament.

While word of the creation of the Leagues Cup first leaked out in February, it wasn't until late May that the teams were finalized. The venue for Wednesday's final, which mostly serves as the home for UNLV's college football team, wasn't announced until July 11. That didn't give fans much time to warm to the idea of yet another midseason tournament. Rather, the impulse was to dismiss it as a cynical money grab.

- Stream the Leagues Cup final in full on ESPN+ (U.S.)
- ESPN Liga MX, MLS fantasy: Sign up here!
- Baseball could serve as MLS-MX partnership blueprint

As for the teams involved, the MLS sides, predictably, were less than enthusiastic. The LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, the Houston Dynamo and the Chicago Fire showed that their collective focus was on the MLS regular season. The lineups were largely comprised of second-teamers. No surprise then that just one MLS team, the Galaxy, reached the semifinals, and none reached the final making Wednesday's encounter an all-Mexico affair.

But if one chose, the attendance at the final could be viewed as half-full instead of half-empty. The crowd -- comprised mostly of Cruz Azul fans but with a solid contingent of Tigres supporters as well -- was lively, especially when Yoshi Yotun and Jonathan Rodriguez scored two minutes apart in the second half to pace La Maquina to a 2-1 win.

The lineups fielded by both teams were strong, revealing that that while the game didn't reach the level of a Liga MX final, or even Copa MX, it still mattered to the participants. A first-half scuffle involving about four players from each team revealed the game's feistiness, as did Tigres keeper Nahuel Guzman's stoppage-time red card for shoulder-charging Cruz Azul substitute Edgar Mendez with the ball far up the field. And for Cruz Azul fans, some of whom were in tears, the trophy meant a great deal given the recent upheaval it has endured, including a change in managers.

So the first edition of the Leagues Cup ended being less than what it might have been. Complete buy-in from the participants wasn't achieved, and so the fuel of rivalry between MLS clubs and their Liga MX counterparts was never really ignited. The tournament isn't going away, however, and the challenge now is to iron out some of the organizational and logistical issues that have cropped up.

"I have a good perspective on the tournament. These are good, competitive matches between the U.S. and Mexico," said Tigres manager Tuca Ferretti via a translator following Wednesday's final. "Both leagues will grow as a result of the tournament, but we need to analyze the calendar and we need to perhaps look at playing home and away matches. But other than that, I think the leagues are very even at this point and the tournament shows that."

Next year's edition will expand to 16 teams, and will have a set structure in terms of teams that qualify. That will make the tournament seem like more of a meritocracy than a random selection of sides. Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla insists some games will be played in Mexico, though it's not yet clear when that will happen. MLS will (hopefully) have a new Collective Bargaining Agreement hashed out with the MLS Players Association by then, and it's possible that a more lucrative pay scale for playing in Leagues Cup matches will be a part of that. Dealing with the inevitable fixture congestion that Ferretti alluded to, especially for MLS teams during a critical part of the regular season will also need to be addressed.

Solving such issues will make the teams on both sides of the border more willing participants rather than feel like children asked to do their chores. That said, Yotun -- who in addition to his well-taken penalty assisted on Rodriguez's eventual game-winner -- was understanding of the fact that it's early days.

"It's the first Leagues Cup. Maybe add teams like Atlanta and LAFC who are doing very well in MLS," he said via a translator. "[The tournament] was good for us with it being the first. It hasn't been easy to get to the final."

For MLS and Liga MX, it hasn't been easy selling it either. Both leagues are hoping that aspect is freer of obstacles in 2020.