After more than a decade of friendlies and occasional meetings in CONCACAF competitions, MLS is ready to take the Mexican League head-on. And proponents of the SuperLiga, such as D.C. United president and general manager Kevin Payne, can't wait.
"I don't have any doubt that our teams can compete with theirs," says Payne, as D.C. finishes preparations to host Monarcas Morelia Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, TeleFutura). "It will be in their preseason, but I think the format is a good one and will help us."
The format -- two-four teams groups playing a single-round robin in MLS cities - took some tweaking, as Soccer United Marketing and Mexican league officials tried to balance competitive elements with marketing concerns.
Left out was Chivas USA, as the Los Angeles market is being served by the Galaxy, which as MLS champion of 2005 earned a spot despite missing the playoffs entirely last year. Plus, there's that Beckham guy, too.
Also excluded despite a large Mexican-American demographic was Chicago, for whom Cuauhtemoc Blanco will move the attendance needle no matter who - and where - the Fire plays. Colorado isn't in the SuperLiga but Dick's Sporting Goods Park will host the Pachuca-Guadalajara match next week. The Galaxy plays Guadalajara Saturday in the Los Angeles Coliseum, not Home Depot Center.
Most MLS cities have a significant Mexican-American population, and the inclusion of the two most popular clubs - Guadalajara and Club America - ensures vibrant attendances for those teams. So, too, does the strong following built up by D.C. by winning four MLS titles and branding itself from day one as a soccer team that caters to Latino players and fans, starting with Marco Etcheverry, and currently fielding Christian Gomez and Jaime Moreno, not to mention Brazilians Fred and Luciano Emilio.
"The answer long-term for our league is to create greater credibility for our teams with those fans," says Payne. "I think we have that credibility in D.C. We'd love to see more Latino fans but we have a solid representation at all our games. They're there to watch our team.
"We've not spent as much time in this market specifically with the Mexican-American market, because in the past it wasn't that large, but it is growing. Our numbers are still nowhere near the size of a market like New York or LA, but I believe the Mexican-American segment is the fastest-growing group in our market."
United and Morelia are in Group B with Houston and Club America, which play Wednesday at Robertson Stadium (10 p.m. ET, TeleFutura). The MLS teams trade Mexican opponents for their weekend SuperLiga encounters, then play at Houston next week. Morelia and Club America fill the Chicago void by playing their SuperLiga match at Toyota Park.
Yet Payne wants the competitive values to take precedence. Despite the U.S. national team's superiority against its Mexican counterpart, Mexico has performed far better in the Copa America, Confederations Cup and - aside from 2002 - the World Cup, and its clubs have triumphed over South American competition in the Copa Sudamericana, Copa Libertadores, and discontinued Copa Merconorte.
If MLS harbors realistic ambitions of participating in the Copa Libertadores, its teams must display the quality to compete as well as the drawing power to attract fans and sponsors and television companies.
"I was really the first person to make the case," says Payne of creating a formal competition. "I wrote a memo urging us to find ways to merge competitions with the Mexican League, I think, five years ago. I've always been a big believer in that. It's a great first step. I hope it becomes an even broader relationship in the future and I believe it holds great promise for our league."
United played Guadalajara in the CONCACAF Champions Cup semifinals four months ago. A late goal by Emilio earned it a 1-1 tie in the first leg at RFK Stadium. In a rainy second leg at Jalisco Stadium Moreno scored for a 1-0 lead, yet Guadalajara prevailed, 2-1, and won, 3-2, on aggregate with an Adolfo Bautista equalizer and a long-range Gonzalo Pineda winner that squeezed through the hands of D.C. keeper Troy Perkins. (Bautista has since been traded to Mexican rival Jaguares.)
Both semifinal series -- United vs. Guadalajara, Houston vs. Pachuca -- produced riveting, enthralling action. Pachuca's 5-2 overtime win at home, after it lost, 2-0, in Houston, is one of the most exciting games ever played by an MLS team.
"It was very challenging for us to be playing in March and April against them, but I think we'll see our teams be pretty damn competitive this summer," says Payne.