The Clausura 2013 campaign is winding itself down to its conclusion. And with the end comes the beginning of the short tournament of crazy, the Liguilla. While a few teams have separated out and made themselves locks for the postseason (and serious contenders for the title), the majority of the league is still looking to qualify and legitimize hopes for a trophy.
Four games still remain on the regular season calendar. Plenty could happen during this stretch to alter the playoff picture and thus the title race. However, through thirteen matches there’s enough of a sampling to assess the general make-up and capabilities of these clubs.
Hence, I give you the title chances for each of the eighteen clubs broken down in to eight categories. Please feel free to hold these against me in a few months when Chivas, Morelia or Puebla is crowned champion.
The ‘At Least We’re Not Getting Relegated’ Category: Atlante, San Luis, Leon, Chiapas
Well, at least it appears that all members of this group will be in Liga MX next year. The plummeting play of both Atlante and San Luis made things interesting for a minute. Yet, the gap is still likely too large for Queretaro to save themselves. Atlante sits seven points up on Queretaro with only four games to play. They should be able to hang on, despite their abhorrent play of late. San Luis's recent resurgence has bolstered the team to nine points, safe from relegation. The Liguilla is not even remotely on the mind of these teams.
Chiapas and Leon are each having terrible Clausura campaigns. Only one of them came in to the season with serious expectations. After finishing third in their first top-flight tournament, reaching the Liguilla semifinals, and qualifying for Copa Libertadores, Leon was expected to enter this season as a serious contender. They've done little with their positive momentum from last season. They have been hanging out at the bottom of the table for the entire season. After flaming out of Copa Libertadores before it even really began, the writing was clearly on the wall. A lost season was in the works. The best Leon (and Chiapas) could hope for is gaining some positive results the rest of the way for the sake of the fans and the managers.
The ‘Happy to Be Here’ Category: Puebla, Toluca, Queretaro
This crew is all in contention for a Liguilla place. For Puebla and Queretaro this is an extremely positive development. Puebla has bottomed out in recent seasons. A move to mid-table is one to celebrate. They generally give opponents, regardless of their stature, a tough match. They also tend to give up one ridiculous goal every week. Their defense is not terrible, but suffers the worst kinds of lapses with regularity. If they qualify for the playoffs, their stay will be short.
Queretaro can also be pleased with a potential Liguilla qualification. Few had them pegged for any place outside of the bottom three going in to the season. Unfortunately, despite this solid season, they appear to be heading to the dreaded fate of relegation. Securing a Liguilla place may just be a good sending-off for this squad and their fans.
Toluca, on the other hand, is working through a season of utter disappointment. This was the same team that finished atop the table only five months ago. They recently failed to get out of the group stage in the Copa Libertadores. Their fight is to now qualify for the playoffs. However, this season they won't be making a deep run. In some ways their problems remain the same as last season; they've just been amplified and accompanied by some new issues. Toluca still struggles to score with any inconsistency. When facing a stronger, defensive-minded side, they have little hope of breaking through to find a goal. With the increased number of teams playing stiff defense this season, it's not surprising to see Toluca's fate. Toluca has also brought in the unwelcome addition of a sketchy defense. Their back four was never all star quality, but have stooped to an ever lower threshold in recent months. This Toluca squad is too deeply flawed to get out of the first round of the playoffs (if they even qualify).
The ‘So You’re Telling Me There’s a Chance’ Category: Chivas, Morelia
It feels like Monarcas of Morelia are in the same position year after year. Their team has changed greatly over the past few seasons through acquisitions, departures, and managerial changes; yet, they find themselves heading towards a 5 or 6-seed in the playoffs, once again. I'll skip the part where I explain the strengths and weaknesses of the club, and get directly to the end result. They will give their favored opponent one and a half tough matches in the first round before eventually being edged by a team that is simply better. Mark it down.
Chivas of Guadalajara are a bit more tricky to nail down. At full strength, I wouldn't doubt the team. Benjamin Galindo has done yeoman's work getting Chivas to this point. Then came the Clasico. Attached to their cruel loss that they suffered in the Omnilife, was a plethora of injuries that will greatly hurt their chances of Liguilla qualification. They will need to work on overdrive to reach the playoffs. If by miraculous effort and luck they are able to qualify, I wouldn't expect much to be left in the tank.
The ‘Fictional Momentum’ Category: Monterrey, Cruz Azul
Both Monterrey and Cruz Azul are coming off important recent victories. Monterrey pushed past one of the toughest MLS competitors, the LA Galaxy, this week to once again qualify for the final in the Concacaf Champions League. The repeated to chance to represent the entire region in the Club World Cup surely has the team and fans excited about moving forward.
Cruz Azul ended their sixteen year title drought by converting enough penalties to capture the recently reincarnated Copa MX this week. Cruz Azul fans are likely more excited than most to, at the very least, move on from the endless line of 'sub-champion' jokes. Their manager, Guillermo Vasquez, is more likely looking to use this positive force to drive the team in to the Liguiilla and make a run at the more sought after trophy.
Neither of these teams has any chance of doing this. Cruz Azul got through the later stages of this cup tournament by the skin of their teeth. Yes, they captured long sought-after silverware, but their play in doing so was nothing to behold. Edging past a bottom-basement Atlante shouldn't really inspire a ton of confidence. It was great for the fans, great for Vasquez, and great for the players. That's about all of the greatness that will be coming this season.
Monterrey hasn’t been right all season. Honestly, they weren't even very impressive in the Concacaf champions league. They played a poor game in Los Angeles, but were able to steal some late goals and the win. Following that with a home draw qualified them for the final, but didn't really give the impression of the dominant Monterrey. The Rayados may qualify for the Liguilla, but their play has demonstrated they won't be taking down any real contenders once there.
The ‘Dark Horses’ Category: Pachuca, Pumas, Tijuana
I'm still a little surprised to be slotting the Xolos in to this category. Their title run last season was just short of awe-inspiring. Their gritty defensive play combined with sparks of offensive flair made them a must-watch every week.
Much has been written on Antonio Mohamed's choice to prioritize Copa Libertadores play over that of the league. Whether or not that is truly causal to Tijuana's slipping in the league can't be said with certainty. What is certain is that Tijuana is no longer favored to take the title. It would be foolish to count them out, but an early exit or failure to qualify won't be met with shock at this point, either.
Pachuca and Pumas have plenty in common. They're two historically powerful teams that are coming off a nightmarish run last season. They are both newly refurbished and almost certain to be Liguilla teams again. That is where the comparisons end, because in their play they are near mirror opposites. Pumas are a solid, organized squad that concedes very few cheap goals. Their defense is one of the best in the league and rarely allows multiple goals, if any. Now, if they could just score some goals. They lack any punch in the final third. Nothing comes easy to them on the offensive end. Every game they play is on the knife's edge, as any concessions will likely destroy their chance of coming out on top. On the other hand, Pachuca plays a more wide-open game. They can score quickly and with clinical finishing, but are likely to have the favor returned with equal speed. I wouldn't want to see my team heading to Estadio Hidalgo in a must-win match, because Pachuca is a different team in front of their supporters. Yet, I would know that there will be plenty of scoring chances for the taking.
Any of these three could win the title this season; it will just need to come with a big pile of good fortune.
The ‘Hold Your Horses’ Category: Atlas
Whoa, slow down there Atlas!
Yes, you are riding an unbelievable season that has inexplicably ended regulation worries. Yes, you are sitting in second place in the table with a real chance of being this year's 'Superlider'. But no, you aren't likely to be champions.
The miracle-season is going to have to be ratcheted up to another level to have a serious impact in the Liguilla. With a league-low nine goals allowed, Atlas has been propelled by their stoutness in defense and the resurgent Omar Bravo to great heights. They've narrowed out opponents week after week by thinnest of margins. Getting this done over two legs in a playoff situation is another thing all together.
If the opportunity of capturing their first title since 1950 didn't carry enough weight, the slim margins they will need to continue to navigate makes their title chances a long shot. It won't be impossible, but it's going to require Herculean efforts (no reference to Santos Laguna intended).
The ‘Un-favorites’ Category: America
Club America is built like a favorite. Their roster is nearly as talent-rich as their owners are just…well… rich. Yet, their recent form has clearly revealed that making a run at a title won’t be smooth sailing. They have an inability to retain possession and gel as a cohesive unit. They often resemble a team roughly thrown together of talented individuals who play like just that … individuals. When everything is going right, this team could beat anyone. It just hasn’t gone right in a while.
America can get things right by the time the Liguilla rolls around. It’s just going to take some positive steps over the next few weeks. Whether Miguel Herrera is once again able to get this team on track remains to be seen. If he can pull this feat, they have a great chance of contending.
The ‘Favorites’ Category: Tigres, Santos
Tigres began this season as one of the perceived favorites. They’ve done nothing along the way to stray from that perception. Through thirteen matches they are still undefeated and have a Liguilla place locked up.
Things have been a bit rocky of late for the club. An early exit from the Concacaf Champions League is surprising considering their talent (but not when considering their manager). The wealth of goals from the early part of the season is a thing of the past. Tigres are grinding out results in the way they are naturally accustomed. A suffocating defense that is as equally skilled at controlling the ball as taking it away from the opposition is the hallmark of Tuca Ferretti’s squad. This is the constant that continues to make this team an easy pick for another title.
The lack of scoring would be concerning with other teams, but not this Tigres team. The absence of Emanuel ‘Tito’ Villa is a one clear cause of this. In finding his previous form, Villa has been a revelation for Tigres. Ferretti is clearly not rushing to get Villa back, knowing that he will be ready when he is most needed. If any manager wouldn’t mind keeping some aces up his sleeve until the playoffs, it would be ‘Tuca’ Ferretti.
The other clear favorite, despite being in fourth place is Santos Laguna. A month ago, I picked them to win the title. I feel more confident than ever in my prediction. Under the leadership of Pedro Caixinha, Santos has reinvented themselves as a defensive squad. With only nine goals allowed this season, they have matched Atlas for the fewest conceded. Combining this effective defensive approach with their arsenal of scoring talent makes for a team that has no ceiling.