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How Leagues Cup works: 2024 format tweaks as MLS vs Liga MX tournament looks to build on Messi Mania

After Lionel Messi helped stamp the Leagues Cup onto North American soccer culture in explosive fashion, the tournament looks to put on another dramatic show for its second edition in 2024.

As Major League Soccer and Liga MX broke league play for the inaugural Leagues Cup last year, Inter Miami sat dead last in the MLS table. Yet as Messi arrived for his U.S. debut in the cross-country tournament, David Beckham’s side toppled the hierarchy and won the first silverware in club history.

“The universal acclaim for the tournament was very strong,” said Nelson Rodriguez, Executive Vice President of Sporting Product & Competition at MLS, speaking to The Sporting News.

Messi’s arrival with Inter Miami, playing his first games for the club in this competition amidst great media attention and fanfare, provided an exceptional launching pad from which the Leagues Cup could grow.

MORE: Full Leagues Cup groups, bracket, and schedule for 2024 tournament

“With what we saw in that month, it was exciting, it was fun, there was a lot of drama, plenty of upsets and great games,” former U.S. National Team star and Leagues Cup ambassador DaMarcus Beasley, who played for both MLS and Liga MX clubs in his career, told The Sporting News. “As a whole, I think the Leagues Cup won.”

“It’s going to be a great 2024. Forty-six teams are going to want to take the title away from Messi and company at Inter Miami. I’m looking forward to it.”

Still, it will be a test for the tournament to stand on its own, should Inter Miami fall early during what could be a challenging season. Amidst a squad with holes and aging players, injuries and poor form could theoretically scupper their title defense, and if that happens, the Leagues Cup will need to sustain itself without its biggest storyline and star.

To give the biggest Mexican clubs a boost after an inaugural tournament that faced criticism for being skewed towards MLS franchises who host all matches, this year’s tournament will give the best Liga MX sides “hub” privileges in an effort to mitigate their excessive travel abroad. Even as all games will be played in the United States, the strongest Mexican clubs will earn the right to remain in a designated city while MLS teams are forced to travel to them.

“I give the organizing committee credit for stepping back and saying ‘how do we make it better?’ Two things jumped out: one was a need for more competitive balance within the groups, and the second was a recognition that many of the Mexican clubs had excessive travel,” said Rodriguez.

The Sporting News has all the details on how the second-ever Leagues Cup will work in 2024, with the schedule and layout of the competition as the information is released.

How to watch 2024 Leagues Cup


As was the case in 2023, all Leagues Cup matches across the entirety of the tournament will stream on MLS Season Pass for all subscribers across the world.

In the United States, select matches will be broadcast on FOX Sports, while TSN and RDS will have select games for air on TV in Canada. For those games, FOX and FS1 are available to stream on Fubo USA, while TSN and RDS are available to stream on Fubo Canada.

There will also be Spanish-language broadcasts of select matches in the USA, with that channel also available on Fubo.

Leagues Cup 2024 format

The 2024 Leagues Cup will proceed largely as it did in its inaugural 2023 season, with a few format tweaks.

As was the case in its first year, all 47 teams from across the United States, Canada, and Mexico (29 from MLS and 18 from Liga MX) will take part in the tournament, first contesting a group stage before a 32-team knockout bracket determines the eventual winner.

Group stage

The group stage consists of 45 teams, with the previous year’s league champions from both leagues — Columbus Crew and Club America — earning a bye to the knockout round. All other clubs were arranged into 15 groups of three by a selection process with both recent results and geographical proximity taken into account.

Each club was categorized into three tiers, with each group featuring one club from each tier. The rankings were done by awarding points based on each club’s performance over their past 34 league games: for MLS clubs, that’s simply the 2023 season, while for Liga MX clubs, it’s the combination of the previous Apertura and Clausura results.

The top two teams in each group will qualify for the knockout round, with all group matches played across 90 minutes. Three points are awarded for a win and one point for a draw, but there’s an additional quirk: all matches ending in a draw proceed to a penalty shootout, whereby the winner earns an additional point, much like the NHL.

“I love it,” DaMarcus Beasley said emphatically about the penalty shootout for group-stage draws, interjecting when the subject was brought up. “I think it’s great, I’m really glad they instituted and kept that rule. It makes the game for the average football fan even more watchable.”

Knockout stage

Once the knockout-round bracket is set, play proceeds as usual in single-elimination competition until a winner is crowned.

Thirty teams enter the knockout stage as group qualifiers, joining the two league champions who earned a bye to the Round of 32.

Hub rights for Liga MX clubs

One new feature of the 2024 Leagues Cup is the “hub” system to give deserving Liga MX clubs a lighter travel burden. This was instituted after feedback about excessive travel for Mexican clubs through the 2023 competition, meant to soften their schedule as they contest the tournament away in a foreign country, which was largely received as a significant disadvantage across the inaugural tournament.

For the 2024 competition, the four highest-ranking Liga MX clubs in the Leagues Cup tiered system are given “hosting rights” through various stages of the group and knockout rounds, seeing them designated with a “host city” that allows the club to avoid traveling up to a certain point should they reach deeper into the knockout round. Should they progress through the competition, they would “host” a visiting MLS or Liga MX club in their designated host city until progressing past the stage to which they were assigned.

Club Rights through Hub city
Club America Semifinals TBD
Monterrey Round of 16 TBD
Chivas Guadalajara Round of 32 TBD
Tigres Group stage TBD

CONCACAF Champions Cup qualification

As was the case last year, the 2024 Leagues Cup winner will earn a berth in next year’s continental club championship, the CONCACAF Champions Cup.

Even more valuable, the qualifying spot designated for the Leagues Cup winner is earmarked for a bye in the First Round, earning passage straight through to the Round of 16.

In addition, the winner also earns a spot in the revitalized Copa Interamericana, a collaborative four-team showcase between CONCACAF and CONMEBOL. This new competition features the Leagues Cup defending champion alongside the most recent winners of the CONCACAF Champions Cup, the Copa Libertadores, and the Copa Sudamericana.

Leagues Cup schedule for 2024

Round Dates Teams
Group Stage Jul. 26-TBD 47
Round of 32 TBD 32
Round of 16 TBD 16
Quarterfinals TBD 8
Semifinals TBD 4
Final Sun, Aug. 25 2

Both MLS and Liga MX will pause its league schedule for a month while the Leagues Cup is contested, which Nelson Rodriguez tells The Sporting News serves a dual purpose: the month-long slot both reduces the need for back-and-forth travel between league and cup play, while also creating its own mini-season for fans to experience.

“It comes from the genuine spirit of collaboration and cooperation that exists between Liga MX and MLS,” Rodriguez said. “Both parties went into it to build something that could be and would be great.

“Much like March Madness, it’s easy to follow when it’s self-contained in a defined period of time. Four weeks makes it really easy for someone to follow the tournament and get into it, and pick storylines and follow a storyline. The idea, sporting-wise, reducing mass travel across borders while creating an event that’s easily followed were the drivers.”

The competition will begin with group-stage play on July 26, played through the final on August 25.

Leagues Cup looking to build rivalries on back of inaugural success

A major effort of the competition committee for the 2024 tournament is to build the air of rivalries off certain matchups and storylines from the inaugural edition last year.

First and foremost, the Leagues Cup hopes that the success of MLS clubs last year will energize the domestic fanbase, while also giving Liga MX supporters a reason to hope for revenge after being knocked from their perceived continental dominance.

“Fans of MLS clubs had a direct reference point, saying, ‘hey man, we’ve been telling you we’re really good and now we showed it,'” Rodriguez said. “Three of the final four, both finalists — and we showed not only good football, but we showed our fandom. It averaged 17,000 fans per game, 1.3 million across the tournament. So the MLS fan is chest out, head high, saying, ‘here I am, I’ve always been here and I’m glad you could see it.’

“The Mexican fan, experiencing the same thing but perhaps surprised at the results — there’s a proud tradition and heritage there. We expect the teams and the fans to come back seeking redemption to re-establish themselves as the focal point of soccer in this region.”

“Now that people have seen what the Leagues Cup can bring, and how exciting it was in the first year, it’s only going to be better in 2024,” Beasley said. “Last year, people showed up to matches, people watched the matches from a lot of different countries, so while Lionel Messi’s still a big part of the Leagues Cup, people still want to see how this tournament will play out.”

While the competition committee efforted to avoid group-stage matchups in this year’s competition that featured repeats of last year’s group construction, they looked at pitting teams together that met in the knockout stage of the 2023 bracket.

“One of the things as part of the 2024 format revamp is that there’s no repeat group-stage matches, but there are interesting storylines,” Rodriguez said of their format tweaks for this season’s tournament. “For example, Toluca and Sporting Kansas City met in the knockout stage last year, so now they’ll meet in the group stage — that’s the seed for a rivalry that can now be watered.

“When Inter Miami has to go play Tigres outside of Miami, which shows the competition comes first, that’s going to matter. It was an amazing first edition, but we think the improvements will be positively received.”

Will Leagues Cup replace US Open Cup?

While nobody has explicitly said as such, the feeling around the investment and attention given to the Leagues Cup feels as if MLS is aiming to make it the preeminent knockout competition in the United States soccer landscape.

The U.S. Open Cup has been in existence for over 100 years, but there have been recent attempts to transition MLS clubs away from the longest-running tournament in the country and towards the sparkly new Leagues Cup. Both MLS and Liga MX have been open about the heavy investment they have poured into their recent collaborative effort, while MLS simultaneously made an attempt to transition away from the U.S. Open Cup.

While MLS failed to withdraw its first-team clubs from the U.S. Open Cup in favor of their MLS NEXT developmental sides, the idea felt like just the beginning of a colder relationship.

“Open Cup competitions around the world have a standing and a history and a status,” Rodriguez said to The Sporting News. “I say this with respect, and I hope it comes across that way: we just think it needs to evolve. That evolution is based on standards, it’s based on investment. MLS and Liga MX invested a lot in this tournament, in prize money, broadcasts, stadiums, fields, branding, promotion… so there’s room for things to co-exist, but there has to be a willingness to reimagine and work together.”

When asked if the Leagues Cup is their vision of the new evolution of the U.S. Open Cup, Rodriguez replied that, while he wouldn’t go that far, the Leagues Cup certainly reflects the type of innovations that they hope the U.S. Open Cup can be open-minded about.

“I would say it’s an evolved form of a tournament, it’s not the evolved form, I’m not prepared to say that,” Rodriguez said. “But it came through an iterative process, a lot of planning, a lot of subsequent investment, and some serendipity for sure. I like to think that they [Leagues Cup and U.S. Open Cup] can co-exist, that the history of the game can be honored, but we shouldn’t be shackled to it.”

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