The Power Shift

The past several years were marked by a changing of the guard. The usual powers of Mexican soccer slumped while others rose up to claim their coveted positions. That power shift, which seemed to be   potentially long-lasting, has faded away this season.

Fans of any other team in Mexico, generally don't want to hear the 'Big Four' term being used, despite its very applicable use. Club America, Pumas, Chivas, and Cruz Azul are indeed the four biggest teams in Mexico based on their large fan bases.  These clubs have long-term successes and massive trophy collections. That, accompanied with media-ready locations, enabled them to secure not only massive local followings but national ones. These are the teams that are always drawing headlines regardless of their play on the field.  

That play on the field has been, on average, fairly poor this decade. Club America was in shambles before Miguel Herrera took over the team. Pumas, normally a model of steadiness and consistency, have been anything but that in recent seasons. Cruz Azul has continued to do Cruz Azul things (amass painful playoff losses). Chivas has done their best to rewrite a modern day Odyssey with the crap-fest they've been wading through these past years. This 'Big Four' has been anything but big.

Along with this slip in form came quite the opposite from certain teams to the north. The battle for supremacy of Monterrey has always been fierce; yet, in recent seasons, the Clasico Regiomontano was the marquee match in the country - not just a regional one. The battle between America and Chivas has always received the hype, but with every iteration there's an equal amount of talk about how the level of attention is often unwarranted. The Clasico Regio took the reigns as the huge rivalry match that often had the biggest impact to the top of the table rankings. Both Tigres and the Rayados of Monterrey enjoyed great successes in recent years. Monterrey while not always at the peak of the table, have always been present in Liguillas and often made their presence felt once there. On top of that, their seeming invincibility in the Concacaf Champions League further cemented their reputation as a perennial force in Mexico. Tigres, not the historic power like their rivals, have had the much stronger run of form in the league. Tuca Ferretti's lock-down defense was rivaled only in their consistent play with the consistently spectacular play of Lucas Lobos. This was a team that delivered time and time again. They might lose in the Liguilla, but it was going to be a tight battle that and a hard-won victory for the opposition.

The northern rise in power wasn't simply restricted to Monterrey. Santos Laguna staked their claim as one of the "big teams" in the league in recent seasons. The team from Torreon became an offensive strike force under Benjamin Galindo and successfully transitioned to a more well-balanced squad under Pedro Caixinha. But despite the play on the field, the most obvious characteristic of the club that began to take shape was the strength of the team's youth system. Santos built a solid base with young Mexican talent and has done well to incorporate that talent with the top-class veterans in the club.  

On top of these three staking a claim to the top spots in Mexican soccer, a young upstart tossed its hat into the ring. The Xolos of Tijuana came in to the top division with vision and determination. Under the guidance of Antonio Mohammed, Xolos not only made themselves immediately relevant upon their promotion to Liga MX, they claimed the title in just their third season in the league. Their stifling play and significant home field advantage propelled the club to the top of the standings on a regular basis. This was team not to trifle with.

Today, Tijuana should still not be trifled with, but they are not the same team that captured the title and locked up a Copa Libertadores place. They have been unable to secure away wins and haven't displayed the same ability to suffocate the opposition in the Estadio Caliente. The Xolos are a good team; they just aren't currently a serious title contender. How successfully new manager, Cesar Farias, will mold this squad to his vision has yet to be determined.

Santos Laguna, a consistent fixture of Liguillas, have been bounced out in disappointing fashion in the last two tournaments, with lopsided losses to Cruz Azul and Leon. While making the semifinals is nothing to sneeze at, this season's form is a bit more alarming. Five goals and only one win through six weeks is less than what is now expected from Santos Laguna. Certainly, this is only a short time period, and Santos are more than likely to recover in time to climb into decent position. They just aren't playing like the team many thought they were going to be for years to come.

Things are bit more bleak in Monterrey. Tigres are following up a disappointing season that saw them barely sneak in to the final playoff qualifying place with an abysmal start to the Clausura. Tigres are now in last place in the standings and are the only winless team in the league. They've scored two goals through six and keep finding more disappointing ways to drop points. Lucas Lobos is no longer part of the 'best player in the league' conversation. But at least they still have their manager (at the time of publication). Victor Vucetich wasn't able to hang on to the head coaching role with Rayados, despite an immaculate record and numerous trophies. Monterrey, while not presently in the cellar of the table, have been in a much more profound slump. They more often than not play like a team that is washed up. The star-packed lineup has underperformed, failing to live up to the collective set of reputations littering the roster. They've just been so very much mediocre.

Meanwhile, the 'big four' have regained form more becoming of their 'size'. Club America are arguably the strongest team in the league. They possess the highest win percentage over the past year, participated in the last two finals (winning once), and are off to another great start this season, despite the loss of Miguel Herrera to the national team. Anything other than a deep run in the Liguilla will be viewed as abject failure.

Cruz Azul has not been too far behind the Aguilas. They've been one of the more consistent teams through the regular season[1]. They continue to finish safely in postseason position and are always aligned for a at least a puncher's chance at the title. La Maquina is off to a superb start this season, sitting atop the table through six weeks. Their record of thirteen goals with only two conceded reflects their early season dominance (albeit, from a weak schedule).

Three of the 'big four' play in Mexico City, and all three of these DF teams find themselves in the top four of the standings. If you've been watching any Mexican soccer over the past year, you'll understand just how shocking this statement sounds. Pumas have displayed nothing short of relegation-level play over the past six months. Their recent resurgence is quite unexpected. Three straight impressive wins not only saw them capture unanticipated points but do the unthinkable ... score goals. In fact, Martin Bravo is the leading goal-scorer in the league at the moment. Pumas seemed destined for another disgrace of a season, but they have turned course. Pumas are not just getting results but playing in a manner that should make their tremendous fan base proud. They are competing every week and should once again expect a positive result no matter their opposition.

Chivas aren't there yet. Jose Luis Real has them playing better than they have in some time. However, they really only had one direction to go. Real hasn't given hope of anything great with this club, but they're also are much less likely to be embarrassed. They're starting eleven is bizarre, and their matches are borderline unwatchable. But with that being said, if the Liguilla started today, they'd actually be playing. It's hard for hope to exist with a Vergara-owned club, but there is something to be said for no longer being the punchline.

I'm not trying to get too wrapped up in table position after just a third of one short season. Yes, the 'big four' are currently in a good position and the "northern four" have lost some of their momentum; this doesn't necessarily signify anything more than just the vagaries of the game. Yet, it's clear that the narrative has changed. The power shift to the north has been downgraded. The 'big' teams are no longer big just because of something in their past.

Teams with money, as all of the teams in this article would qualify as, don't stay on the bottom for long. No teams stay on the top forever.[2] These things are cyclical. The current turn was inevitable. The power was bound to shift again.  

[1] They've also been consistent in the Liguilla but in a completely different manner.
[2] outside of Spain

** the photo is used under a Creative Commons license from freefotouk