Legendary former Arsenal manager and FIFA’s current chief of global football development Arsene Wenger made surprising news when he revealed — contrary to previous belief — the 2026 FIFA World Cup format had not been finalized.
Until those remarks early this month, a format of 16 three-team groups followed by a 32-team knockout stage had been assumed since FIFA in 2017 approved the tournament’s expansion to 48 teams. That would guarantee each team two matches at the tournament and continue to give 32 teams at least three games, while also keeping the number of matches played required to win the tournament at seven.
But a lot would be lost from the tournament’s appeal — particularly the high drama of the final day of group games, when all four teams play at once and each can see their fortunes change at a moment’s notice. In a three-team group, one team would be idle on each of the three matchdays. On the last matchday, theoretically two teams could conspire to arrive at a result in which they both advance at the expense of the third.
The 2022 World Cup had plenty of Matchday 3 drama, which might have influenced Wenger and FIFA to reconsider the format shift. And if they are reconsidering, they could be paying very close attention to another tournament that will be played between MLS and Liga MX teams next summer.
Beginning in 2023, the Leagues Cup will pit every team from North America’s two top leagues into a tournament organized in virtually the exact original format proposed for the 48-team World Cup.
Because there are only 47 teams between the two divisions, two teams will earn a bye to the round of 32. But the remaining 45 clubs will play in 15 three-team groups, with the top two advancing.
That could provide FIFA with a precious dress rehearsal to gauge whether three-team groups are actually less compelling than the four-team groups used in last seven 32-team World Cups.
And the Leagues Cup will also include other potential competitive wrinkles FIFA is reportedly considering.
For example, each group game that finishes tied will be decided by penalties, with 2 points awarded to the shootout winner and 1 point to the loser, in order to guard against those dreaded matchday 3 compromises.
But there could also be a danger to drawing too many conclusions from the new tournament. Yes, both leagues are pausing their domestic schedules to play the event. But that alone won’t force every team to take it as seriously as domestic league or cup competitions.
For Liga MX teams, the event comes before their Apertura season, meaning some managers could treat Leagues Cup like a high-level preseason affair. The event falls in the middle of the regular season for MLS teams, but also during the summer transfer window, meaning it could provide MLS managers with a chance to experiment with new players, tactics and formations in what they perceive as lower stakes.
And if those clubs are competing with one eye toward preparing for domestic play, that lessens the likelihood they would engage in the of gamesmanship critics of three-team groups are concerned about.
If the Leagues Cup does prove to be a test case for the new World Cup format, it wouldn’t be the first time MLS has pioneered FIFA initiatives.
The league was an early adopter of the VAR video review initiative, and longtime MLS referee Ismael Elfath was the first official anywhere to use the system in a live competition, albeit at the USL Championship level. It was also one of the first to utilize one of FIFA’s concussion substitution protocols.
Both of those initiatives are now in use at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in some form.