Sandy • When Craig Waibel was setting goals for the 2019 Real Salt Lake season in January, figuring out in five- and 10-game increments where the club could be in the standings, a summer tournament was the furthest thing from his mind. It had to be, considering that it didn’t exist yet.
But in late May, Major League Soccer and Liga MX announced the Leagues Cup, an eight-team tournament between the two leagues that would commence in July. The summer tournament features four MLS teams against four Liga MX teams. One of those MLS teams is RSL, which will face Tigres UANL on Wednesday at Rio Tinto Stadium.
It’s unclear how exactly the league picked the MLS clubs and whether or not they had an option to decline participation. The league’s original announcement of the tournament says the clubs were “invited to compete.” The Liga MX teams, however, were chosen “based on results in recent competitions.”
Requests for clarification made to MLS were not immediately returned.
While many within the RSL organization have said the tournament is yet another opportunity to showcase itself and all of MLS against formidable competition, it’s still unclear what the value of Leagues Cup is and will be. The winner will receive a trophy and an undisclosed amount of money, but that’s all.
“I don’t know what the competition means right now because it’s not a way into [CONCACAF], it’s not a way into another bigger competition,” Waibel said Saturday. “And right now, it’s four [MLS] teams and four [Liga MX] teams. I think everything starts somewhere. This is the first step. So it’ll be interesting to see what Step 2 is in terms of competition and level and commitment from both leagues.”
REAL SALT LAKE VS. TIGRES
Where • Rio Tinto Stadium
When • Wednesday, 8:30 p.m.
The second step may have already happened. Five days before the start of the tournament, which began Tuesday with L.A. Galaxy hosting Club Tijuana, the two leagues announced that the field will be expanding to 16 teams in the 2020 iteration.
But without knowing how the other MLS clubs — not to mention their Liga MX counterparts — will approach the new tournament from a competitive standpoint, its potential is a wait-and-see, Waibel said.
“It’s a reveal on Tuesday and Wednesday night, so to say,” Waibel said. “We’re all in the experimental phase of trying to create a new competition that’s meaningful.”
RSL, however, plans to take the Leagues Cup “very seriously,” coach Mike Petke said after his team drew Minnesota United on Saturday. During a press conference Tuesday, he expanded on what that means.
“This is not a competition that we’re just saying, ‘Oh it’s getting in the way of the season, it doesn’t mean anything,’” Petke said. “As an organization — from the owner down to my bosses to me and the players — we’re taking this as a great opportunity to win this game first and foremost tomorrow night and then see how far it can go.”
The Leagues Cup starts with the quarterfinal round this week. The semifinals are Aug. 20 and the final is Sept. 18 in Las Vegas. All the games are knockout format. In the event of a tie, the games go straight to penalty kicks.
For MLS teams that advance in the tournament, there’s a potential to add three more midweek games into an already difficult schedule. Waibel admitted he felt some frustration when faced with that possibility because it throws off this plan for RSL’s season.
Petke said that while it’s not the best situation, he and the team will take it in stride.
“While it’s not ideal in some aspects because we’re in the middle of the season and the heat and the travel, it’s an excellent opportunity for us — not just the players and the team, but the organization as a whole,” Petke said.
The league released the 23-man rosters for teams participating in the Leagues Cup. Almost all of RSL’s regular starters are listed with the exception of Sam Johnson and Nedum Onuoha, who have missed games recently due to injury. But it goes in keeping with what Petke said about how Salt Lake is approaching Wednesday’s game.
“We’re going to field the best team due to players who are physically ready to play that we possibly can,” Petke said.
Some of Real’s players are welcoming the opportunity to face a Tigres team that is the reigning Campeones Cup champion and the seven-time reigning Liga MX champion.
“I think it’s a really good opportunity where people think higher of the Mexican league and if we can get some results there, show that, hey, we’re competing with them, we’re not some lesser league, I think it gives our league a lot more respect,” Corey Baird said in May. “I think it just shows the world that we’re not just some small league. We’re growing, we’ve getting better every year. I think that’s really good for us.”
LEAGUES CUP AT A GLANCE
• Four MLS teams
• Four Liga MX teams
• Three knockout rounds
• No overtime periods in the event of a tie
• Will expand to 16 teams in 2020