Voices: Jon Arnold

100 days until Leagues Cup 2024: Top group stage storylines


We’re 100 days out from the kickoff of Leagues Cup 2024. It’s not too early, though, to start looking ahead and dreaming of the best storylines and matchups.

Last time around, MLS teams claimed the top three spots. Liga MX clubs will arrive in the U.S. and Canada not only hungry for revenge, but also armed with the knowledge their top teams now have "hub privileges" allowing them to set up base in one region rather than be full-time nomads.

Examples: Club América will play all matches through the semifinal in California. CF Monterrey will be in Texas through the Round of 16.

That travel equalizer could produce even better contests in 2024. Here are five group-stage storylines we'll be watching.

Space City is big enough for Messi vs. Gignac

Lionel Messi and Inter Miami hope to defend their Leagues Cup title, but there’s a marquee matchup right out of the gate. On Aug. 3, the reigning champions of the tournament travel to Houston for a date with André-Pierre Gignac and Tigres.

Two of the most influential players to arrive in the region from abroad in the last decade could put on a show for fans in Houston, where Tigres’ previous Leagues Cup run ended against rival Monterrey at a packed Shell Energy Stadium.

The stage will be even bigger this time around, with Gignac and teammates Nahuel Guzmán and Diego Lainez looking to get a result against Messi, Luis Suárez and Sergio Busquets.

Watching the big-name stars rise to the occasion was one of the joys of Leagues Cup 2023. And you know Messi, an Argentine world champion and Gignac, a French legend, will want to impress in front of a crowd that could top 70,000 at NRG Stadium.

Chivas stars embark on return tour

This winter saw San Jose Earthquakes homegrown Cade Cowell move from Northern California to Guadalajara to join Chivas. The transfer has worked well for the Liga MX club, with Cowell appearing in 13 Liga MX matches so far this season, scoring in a win against Pumas. He also added three goals in Concacaf Champions Cup play, including a goal at Estadio Azteca against rival Club América.

Homecomings are always emotional, and the 20-year-old returning to the Bay Area for a competitive match at Levi’s Stadium (68,000+ capacity) will be worth watching – even if his 15-year-old brother Chance Cowell likely won’t be with San Jose's first team just yet despite signing a homegrown deal in May 2023.

“San Jose fans have always been great to me. They’ve been really nice and kind after games. It’s a great atmosphere, and I’m really happy they’ll still get to root me on if they want,” he said with a laugh in a video released after the transfer was announced.

We’ll have to see what the reception is in Santa Clara to know what Bay Area fans decided.

Chivas’ other group match also includes a homecoming of sorts, with forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez returning to Dignity Health Sports Park to face the LA Galaxy after scoring 38 goals in four seasons with the Galaxy.

LAFC take on noisy neighbor

After going straight into the knockout stages as the defending MLS Cup champion for the 2023 tournament, this year marks the first time LAFC will be in the Leagues Cup group stage.

They open with an appealing showdown against a team that tried to plant its flag in Southern California in the past: Club Tijuana.

A not insignificant number of the most talented young players in the LA region have been enticed to join Xolos academy, and the short distance between the two teams should mean the start of an international series with extra flavor.

LAFC are already familiar with current Tijuana boss Miguel Herrera. The spirited manager was fired after his América team fell to LAFC 3-1 in the 2020 Concacaf Champions Cup, memorably heading to the empty stands at Exploria Stadium after being sent off and using a walkie-talkie apparently to communicate with his staff.

This game will need to take a few twists to get as wacky as that one, but we’ve seen crazy moments in Leagues Cup before.

Souped-up Maquina sees familiar faces in new place

Cruz Azul made it to the 2023 Leagues Cup Round of 32 before falling to goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina and Charlotte FC in a penalty shootout. But that match took place in a neutral site in Texas. This summer, La Maquina step into Charlotte’s actual home, the raucous Bank of America Stadium where crowds to see the third-year MLS team regularly eclipse 30,000, and sometimes approach 70,000.

Of course, Cruz Azul have been rebooted under manager Martin Anselmi, who took over in January. The Mexico City club currently sits fourth in the Liga MX table. Former LA Galaxy winger Uriel Antuna is on fire with eight goals in the ongoing Clausura.

Charlotte aren't doing so poorly themselves, with Patrick Agyemang finding a winner in the 85th minute of the weekend’s match against Toronto FC to put the team into Eastern Conference playoff position eight matches into the campaign.

It’ll be an exciting summer of soccer in Charlotte as fans at Bank of America Stadium await the chance to see their team square off with a Liga MX grande, hoping The Crown once again can see off Los Cementeros in Leagues Cup action.

Austin FC must shake deja vu, facing Monterrey, Pumas

Austin FC weren't able to get out of their Leagues Cup group last year, failing to advance from one of only two groups that included a pair of Liga MX clubs. In 2024, it’s deja vu for the Verde & Black, with Q2 Stadium set to host two historic Liga MX clubs.

One of the most anticipated matches of the group stage will be their fixture vs. Monterrey, one of the seeded Mexican clubs. Fans of both clubs will be in the stadium hoping to see a win in a match that could make or break a team’s Leagues Cup campaign early on.

It also will be a return to U.S. soil for Brandon Vazquez. The former FC Cincinnati attacker left for Rayados in the winter and has five goals in Liga MX play in addition to four in Concacaf Champions Cup – and the team is still alive in both tournaments. He’ll want to continue that hot streak this summer, hoping US men's national team manager Gregg Berhalter takes note of his continued goal-scoring.

After last year’s Leagues Cup run fell just short for Monterrey, with the club falling in the semifinals, look for Vazquez’s club manager, Tano Ortiz, to push for the podium this time around. To do so, he’ll also need to see off Pumas, who open against Austin on July 26.