AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new era of soccer in North America begins Friday.
The Leagues Cup, which pits Major League Soccer against Liga MX in a month-long World Cup-style competition, is in its inaugural year and part of an even bigger revamp at the Concacaf level. The Leagues Cup champion, runner-up and third-place teams qualify for the Concacaf Champions Cup (formerly the Champions League), but perhaps the most important prize is continental bragging rights.
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Austin FC takes on Mazatlan FC on Friday and then FC Juarez on July 29 in group play, and head coach Josh Wolff said while there’s a lot of unknown about other Liga MX clubs, the coaching staff has studied their group-stage opponents.
“We’ve prepped for Mazatlan and we’ll look at Juarez as the week goes, but Mazatlan is a good opponent,” Wolff said. “We know it’s going to be difficult, but we’re playing at home in front of our fans so we hope that provides a real element for us. We want to win our group, and you can’t win your group if you don’t win the first game.”
The group stage for Leagues Cup is interesting in that there are just three teams per group rather than the traditional four. The top two teams from all 15 groups advance to Round of 32 and join LAFC and Pachuca who earned byes with their domestic performance last year.
How the teams get out of their groups also has an interesting twist — no group games will end in a tie. Outright wins earn three points and wins in a shootout net two points. The losing team gets one point in the standings.
Austin FC hasn’t been good in tournaments played concurrently with MLS, but the MLS schedule is on pause until Aug. 20, so the Verde and Black can be hyper-focused on the two Liga MX sides they’re about to face and potentially more matches if they perform well.
“We’re treating this the same way we would an MLS game, Concacaf game or Open Cup game,” Wolff said. “We’re utilizing our best players since the league is on pause. Our best players are going to play.”
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Austin FC is 4-1-1 in their last six MLS matches and they’re coming off a gritty 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City on July 15. With the improved form, they’ve jumped seven spots in the Western Conference table from 12th to fifth. Wolff said the team is starting to jell.
“We want to keep utilizing our identity and philosophy to play against the Mexican teams, but ultimately, anything that can put us in a position to get results,” Wolff said. “We’re mindful of what has been successful for us in the last month-and-a-half and we want to keep carrying on with that.”
All matches in the tournament will be hosted at MLS stadiums, and that’s good news for Austin FC. The club is 6-3-3 at home during MLS play this year against a 3-6-2 road mark, and midfielder Owen Wolff said that gives them an edge.
“The fans and the atmosphere definitely help us gain momentum and energy throughout the games and help us push through,” he said. “With the results we’ve had lately, we’re feeling confident.”