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A third of the teams in Mexico’s top professional soccer league are in San Antonio this week for a series of exhibition matches.

Organizers hope the games will pave the way for closer ties between the city and Liga MX, the premier soccer league in Mexico. The league’s U.S. counterpart, Major League Soccer (MLS), snubbed San Antonio two years ago when it allowed Austin to acquire an MLS franchise at San Antonio’s expense.

Fernando Orvananos, a partner at promoting group Primetime Sports, said he saw the city’s appetite for soccer, and especially Mexican soccer, from the strong fan attendance at the Mexican national team’s annual games at the Alamodome.

Primetime Sports has organized what is being billed as the inaugural Pretemporada MX. Club América will face off against Tigres UANL on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. A second game between northern Mexican teams Chivas de Guadalajara and Monterrey will be played Sunday at 4 p.m. Tickets are available here.

The two games are the first of what Orvananos said will be many more. “We want to make the city a destination for soccer every year — that when you think of preseason Mexican soccer, you think of San Antonio and Alamodome.”

In an unrelated pair of games, San Antonio FC is also facing Pumas UNAM on Friday. The minor league club played Querétaro on Tuesday. San Antonio FC lost to the Pumas UNAM 2-4. It also lost to Querétaro by the same score.

All of the games are so-called “friendlies,” exhibition matches with no effect on the teams’ rankings.

Local officials have taken an active role in encouraging the games, with San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg hosting an official welcome for the teams on Friday. Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff have been in talks with the Mexican league since 2017, a spokesperson for Mayor Ron Nirenberg confirmed.

Facilitating some of those meetings in recent years are Andrew Casillas, a local attorney who previously served as Nirenberg’s campaign director, as well as Brandon Seale, president of Howard Energy México.

Before the pandemic, Casillas and Seale, with the blessing of local officials, met with representatives of the Mexican soccer federation and teams to gauge their interest in San Antonio.

Separately, the pair also proposed to San Antonio officials a series of games much like the Pretemporada MX games happening this weekend, but they were shelved when the pandemic struck.

Both described the games this week as a milestone.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a time where six Mexican league soccer teams have played in the same city in the same week outside of Mexico,” Seale said.

“If we can get this excited for games that don’t matter for anything, imagine how excited we’d be if, in the long term, [the Mexican league] decided to come here and play competitive games,” Casillas said.

Liga MX is the most-watched soccer league in the U.S., with more viewers than the English Premier League and UEFA Champions League. Roughly 3 million people watched the 2021 Clausura Final in May – drawing nearly twice the viewers as the Stanley Cup finals this year.

Liga MX’s new president, Mikel Arriola, hired in December, has made it a goal to grow the league’s fan base in the United States, where soccer’s popularity is quickly growing. MLS’ expansion is outpacing its Latin American counterparts.

“We have a huge capacity as a league,” he told the Los Angeles Times last month. “We want to grow two digits like MLS.”

San Antonio is an attractive frontier. More than 65,000 tickets were sold for the friendly between the U.S. and Mexican teams in April 2015.

USA fans celebrate at the USA vs Mexico friendly match at the Alamodome. Photo by Scott Ball.
Fans of the U.S. men’s national soccer team celebrate a goal during the USA vs. Mexico friendly match at the Alamodome in 2015. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The city, too, has its own reasons to pursue closer ties. San Antonio for years sought an MLS team, but those efforts ended in 2019 when the league announced that Austin, only 80 miles up the road, would enjoy its own expansion team.

But by that point, the city and county had already spent $18 million to buy Toyota Field. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff later said of the purchase: “The only reason we did this deal was to get to MLS.”

It wasn’t just public officials either. Spurs Sports & Entertainment had contributed $3 million toward a 20-year lease of the field and began San Antonio FC with the intention of joining MLS.

Wolff has since then raised the possibility of San Antonio at some point having a franchise in Liga MX. “My belief would be that if we could do that, we would be better off than we would be with Major League Soccer,” Wolff told News Radio 1200 WOAI in 2018.

But for now, it’s a long shot. The United States Soccer Federation would need to approve any such arrangement, and the rules of its parent organization, FIFA, dictate that each country is supposed to have its own particular league. There are exceptions, however, including several MLS teams in Canada.  

There has also been talk of one day merging the two leagues.

Until then, however, San Antonio may have to make itself content with exhibition matches. The good news for soccer fans is that many more are likely to come.

Disclosure: Brandon Seale has produced podcasts for the San Antonio Report.

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.