Rafa Marquez and his mates play as many games in the US as on Mexican Soil these days/ Photo from esmas.com
Many I speak to wonder sometime quietly why the Mexican National Team seem to play all its friendlies on US soil and not in its home country. These same people wonder what affect this has on the US National Team, as their big rival often plays to bigger and more vocal crowds. The truth is that the Mexican National Federation (FMF) and Soccer United Marketing (SUM), the marketing arm of Major League Soccer have a complex marketing agreement.
Many times in the last few years on the very same day the United States National Team plays in front of half empty stadiums somewhere else in the USA, the Mexican National Team is playing in front of a ruckus full stadium. That alone should not be alarming: After all the Mexican National Team rightfully enjoys more support in the United States than does the US National Team. This is due in large part to the massive Mexican-American population in the states. What should be alarming is who markets and makes a big profit off the gate at these matches: Soccer United Marketing, aka MLS. What’s even more interesting is that the Mexican League, arguably the best in the world outside of Europe determined two Copa Libertadoras spots not on its league table or playoffs but on a two week tournament held at MLS venues marketed by MLS, known as Interliga. Most Mexican coaches and players rightfully dislike the event. It takes place in between the Clausura and Apertura tournaments, when the players of the Mexican clubs should be resting and recharging their batteries. But the tournament is a great boon financially both to the FMF and MLS. Interliga takes on a significance it should not since the tournament is not even played on Mexican soil. For whatever reason FIFA and COMNEBOL have allowed Mexico to use this sham of an event which simply is designed to help fill MLS and FMF coffers to determine participants in the world’s second most prestigious club competition.
Major League Soccer’s marketing relationship with the Mexican Federation is from what I can tell unique to the world of Football. Can you imagine the French Ligue Un entering into a similar relationship with the Mali or Algerian Football federation both of whom have large immigrant communities in France. Or how about the German Bundesliga entering into a similar relationship with the Turkish Federation due to the massive Turkish population in Germany? How about the Premier League entering into a relationship with the Australian or Indian Federations to promote those national teams on UK soil?
The obvious answer to this is that MLS is not as financially healthy as they claim. From my vantage point Major League Soccer was struggling with bad attendance and an even worse perception between the contraction year of 2001 and the signing of David Beckham in 2007. The result was the need for MLS to branch out and stay afloat in some manner. The shrewdness of Don Garber cannot be underestimated. His business and marketing smarts have kept MLS in business. But as time goes on and MLS is more established as a business entity, the relationship becomes more extensive and worrying. As mentioned above Mexico has not played a friendly at home in some time: in fact the last home Mexican friendly not held on American soil was prior to the 2006 World Cup. In addition, the concocated Superliga Tournament between FMF and MLS sides has netted decent TV ratings and entertaining football but has found itself to be little more than a cash grab. At the same time MLS due to this tournament is forced to play right through qualifiers involving the US National Team, in some cases playing matches at the exact same time. Now this for certain would not be tolerated in any other country on the planet. For example, last year as the United States began Copa America play, MLS was kicking off a match on ESPN 2. Last September as the US played Brazil at Soldier Field, DC United and New England were playing live on Telefutura. Most recently, The United States played a qualifier against Barbados while DC United and San Jose did battle on Telefutura. MLS’ schedule is not flexible for international dates because its top teams take more than a month off from MLS competition because of Superliga, an entertaining tournament no doubt, but one that is proving to be merely a cash cow.
A strain between MLS and US Soccer has been reported in some place. Others tell me the relationship is fine. One thing is for sure: MLS, the US/Canadian domestic league has a stronger more developed relationship at least outwardly with the Mexican Federation than with its own federations. While the need to keep MLS afloat dictated the forming of this relationship at this point its more counter productive from my vantage point to US Soccer and the success of the US National Team long term. Moreover, as the relationship becomes closer and closer at what point do FIFA and CONCACAF become alarmed. It’s not unusual for clubs to partner with other clubs across national boundaries. But from what I can tell this is by far the most established relationship between a national federation and a domestic league in another country. The simple motivation is money for both parties. What a beautiful friendship.