Mexican clubs’ game at Rio Tinto shows potential for what a merger of MLS and Liga MX could bring

Festive atmosphere surrounds Club América’s 1-0 exhibition victory over Santos Laguna.

(Alex Goodlett | AP) Santos Laguna forward Jesús Ocejo, right, defends Club América forward Roger Martínez, left, during a Liga MX friendly soccer match Sunday, July 4, 2021, in Sandy.

Members of the mostly Hispanic supporter group La Barra Real, which supports Real Salt Lake, donned different colors and flags on Sunday at Rio Tinto Stadium. They traded the claret and cobalt for navy blue, red and yellow.

Instead of cheering and drumming for RSL, they did so for Club América of Liga MX. Flags that showed the group’s logo were replaced by recently made ones that said “Utah” and donned the logo of Ritual del Kaos, the barra of Club América.

Additionally, scattered throughout the stadium sat and cheered fans of Santos Laguna of Liga MX. Flags of green and white waved on the north side of the field. Before the game even started, fans of both teams did the wave.

This party atmosphere is not often seen to that extent during RSL games. It’s a rare sight at many stadiums around Major League Soccer. But it could be something that becomes the norm if MLS and Liga MX were to merge to create one league.

Talks about an impending merger are mostly hypothetical at this point. But in recent years, there’s been some indications that a formal unification is coming at some point.

Just in the past three years, MLS and Liga MX have introduced competitions that specifically pit teams from both leagues. In the Campeones Cup, the champions of MLS and Liga MX play each other. In Leagues Cup, four teams from each league compete in a tournament.

And this year, the MLS All-Star Game will feature the best players from both leagues playing against each other. Recently, MLS Commissioner Don Garber didn’t completely swat away the idea of a merger, per the L.A. Times.

“If it makes sense at the right time, then we’ll take that step,” Garber said.

While Sunday’s game between Santos Laguna and Club América — which ended in a 1-0 victory for Club América — wasn’t an MLS team vs. a Liga MX team, it was an MLS team in RSL opening its doors and welcoming two Mexican teams and allowing them to showcase their talents in front of the Hispanic fans in the area who support them.

Dante Elizalde, executive president of Santos Laguna, told The Salt Lake Tribune that the current partnership allows both leagues to grow. And he wasn’t shy about the club’s desire to penetrate the market of soccer fans throughout the United States.

That’s why Elizalde thinks a merger between MLS and Liga MX would make sense if it were to happen.

“It seems to me that uniting the most powerful economy in the world with the product that is Liga MX and with MLS can generate growth not only in the income of the clubs or in their financial valuation,” Elizalde said, “but also in the level soccer in the area that, at the end of the day, will result in better players, in better youth tournaments and, at the end of the day, in better participation of the three countries [including Canada] in World Cups.”

RSL Interim President John Kimball told The Tribune that MLS tying itself in any way to the Mexican league is “only going to benefit soccer here in America.” Whether that comes in a formal merger remains to be seen, but Kimball shares Elizalde’s view about the benefit the current partnership brings.

“Our league is still growing, still maturing,” Kimball said. “The Mexican league is extremely established. But they also know the Hispanic population is growing dramatically in the United States. So it’s a win-win.”

Club executives aren’t the only ones who would welcome a merger of the two leagues. Maria Rivera, a Utah resident for 18 years, is a huge fan of both Club América and RSL and attended Sunday’s game. In her view, merging the leagues would allow fans to mesh together in the space and enjoy the game they love in a way that doesn’t happen often.

“It’s a different atmosphere than Real Salt Lake or an only-Mexican team playing,” Rivera said. “If you merge them, I think it’s awesome.”