The biggest storylines to watch as the new Liga MX Apertura season kicks off.
Mexico’s top division, Liga MX, returns Friday, July 21, with the 2017 Apertura tournament, and this season, like so many recent ones before it, brings many new and noteworthy storylines.
Can Chivas Guadalajara win back-to-back titles and add to its Mexican record? What does Miguel “Piojo” Herrera’s return to Club America mean for the league’s power structure? And what teams are fighting to stay in the league and avoid relegation?
Plenty of star players, both new and established, have the chance to make some noise on the world stage next summer, as well, and this is the start of their chances to impress in the run up to next season's World Cup.
Add it all together, and the next few months should be an entertaining and thrilling ride.
Here are the biggest things to watch ahead of another season in Liga MX:
Can Chivas keep its momentum?
Chivas’s 2017 Clausura victory was as impressive as it was entertaining. The squad, an all-Mexican unit, is managed by 43-year-old Argentinian Matias Almeyda, who achieved 35 playing caps for La Albiceleste. It is an exciting, hard-working team where discipline and team cohesion rule the land. The fact that Chivas was able to defeat the all-powerful Tigres, made last season’s title that much sweeter.
But the process of repeating is not going to be easy and the biggest issue is the injury to star striker Alan Pulido. The 26-year-old returned to Mexico last summer after playing in the Greek league for two seasons, and scored 14 goals in all competitions for Guadalajara. But earlier this month, during a pre-Gold Cup friendly against Paraguay, Pulido broke his arm after colliding with Luis Cardozo in the air. This is a big loss, as Pulido is the focal point of the team’s offense and it's a problem for a team that typically plays with one striker, always looking to overload the midfield.
The Gold Cup is not exactly Chivas’s best friend, as five other players will stay with the national team until at least the end of next week. Almeyda can only hope there will be no more injuries to worry about.
Piojo takes on America again
Four years ago, Herrera led Club America to the club’s 11th title by beating Cruz Azul 4-2 on penalties, after coming back from a 1-0 loss in the first leg. This victory was Herrera’s first league championship, but more importantly, it became the moment when his international reputation escalated to a new level. A few months later he was appointed Mexico’s manager, a journey that would take the nation to the round of 16 of the 2014 World Cup, followed by a record seventh Gold Cup title a year later.
But two days after this victory, Herrera was released as head coach after a physical altercation against a reporter in Philadelphia.
After a stint with Tijuana, where he took the club to two playoff appearances, Herrera returned to Club America in May–and the timing is perfect timing.
At the end of the last Clausura, America was pitiful from an offensive perspective, scoring 19 goals in 17 matches and failing to qualify for the playoffs. That goal tally was only one more than Chiapas, which was relegated.
Herrera’s aggressive, all-out, entertaining philosophy is something that the club sorely needs, so it will be interesting to see how it responds to the new manager’s approach.
"We have to be attractive, we have to generate spectacle," said Herrera last month to Milenio, a Mexican newspaper. "This team has to focus on going out and generating entertainment."
Only time will tell if excitement will translate into success.
The unbearable, inevitable relegation battle
Liga MX’s relegation system relies on a points-per-match-played ratio based on the last three seasons (or six tournaments) so the focus on who will drop is complex. Take Atlas, for example.
The team’s 2014-2015 disappointing campaign meant it lost a lot of points, and it was only a successful 2017 Clausura tournament–in which the club ended sixth and a spot in the playoffs–that helped its ratio, so its 2017 Apertura is crucial.
Another club that could be facing the drop is Querétaro, one of the thinnest squads in the league, which ended 15th and 11th in the last two tournaments. Last year, the club won the Apertura’s Copa MX and recently defeated America for the SuperCopa, but its recent league struggles mean there is a tough mountain to climb ahead and a lot to think about for newly appointed manager, Jaime Lozano.
The 10/8 rule change and the new faces
It’s important to remember the controversial 10/8 league rule, introduced last year and permits teams to have no more than 10 foreign players on the roster, reserving at least eight spots for Mexican internationals, has been altered to a 9/9 ratio. The rule also makes a distinction between Mexicans who were born in the country, naturalized citizens and Mexicans-Americans. In the past, many players were gaining fast-tracked citizenship, and young, homegrown players found themselves not getting first-team opportunities.
But Rafa Marquez, who has captained Mexico at four World Cups, came out against the rule last year, stating that it did the complete opposite as the rule also allowed any team to fill the starting lineup with all of its foreign players. In the past, the maximum was five. So even though you'd have at least eight Mexican players on the matchday roster, there's no guarantee of playing time.
To that end, Pachuca has been extremely aggressive in the international transfer market, turning to Chile's golden generation. Players like Angelo Sagal, for example, moved to the club from Chilean team Deportivo Huachipato. Sagal was a member of Chile’s Confederations Cup team and is perhaps best remembered for missing a gigantic scoring opportunity on the 84th minute of the final when La Roja was 1-0 down against Germany. The player who created that chance for Sagal is now also a Pachuca player. Edson Puch left Necaxa to join Diego Alonso’s side.
The biggest name, of course, is Japan’s Keisuke Honda, who also joined Pachuca as a free agent and can help fill the void left behind by new PSV signing Hirving Lozano.
The pressure to perform is now on for the Mexican side, which won the 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League title and will play in the 2017 FIFA Club World Cup with heightened expectations.
Tigres UANL has also bolstered its squad. In addition to holding onto the in-demand Andre-Pierre Gignac, it added Enner Valencia, bringing the Ecuadorian back to Mexico to add to an already dangerous core.