By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (May 2, 2018) US Soccer Players - Typically, sports leagues are more marathons than sprints. It's more of a long-distance challenge that rewards participants who can manage the obstacles better versus a shorter competition that rewards those who start out fast and maintain that speed. Liga MX is definitely more sprint than marathon, and that sprint is quickly heading down the home stretch.
The 2018 Clausura playoffs kick off Wednesday with a pair of games followed by the completion of the quarterfinal away legs with two more matches on Thursday. The highly-anticipated Clasico Capitalino matchup between Mexico City sides Pumas and Club America will get the postseason underway Wednesday followed by Tijuana vs Monterrey. Tigres vs Santos and Morelia vs Toluca is on Thursday.
There is enough intrigue in these matchups to draw in any fan of Liga MX. The same should hold true for the later rounds.
AMERICANS TO FOLLOW
As is typically the case every season, American-born players stand to see some action during the Liga MX postseason. At least one American could hoist the trophy when the dust settles later this month.
Of the eight playoff teams, only Morelia and Toluca have no players with a connection to the United States. Some teams have more American-born players than others but six teams have at least one.
Tijuana has the most Americans on its roster as three players could see playing time. Alejandro Guido has seen the most playing time during the season, appearing in 11 matches for the club over the course of the regular season. Rubio Rubin got into seven games and scored against Chivas on April 13. Michael Orozco started the season off strong, appearing in five matches and logging 412 minutes in that stretch. Orozco though has not played a league game since March 10. Both he and Guido were unused substitutes in Tijuana’s season-ending 1-0 win over Toluca while Rubin played the final 21 minutes.
Tijuana’s rivals also feature an American-born players in Jonathan Gonzalez. The California-born Gonzalez, who has committed to play for the Mexican national team over the USMNT, played in 15 games and saw a total of 824 minutes this season. He did not play in the season finale, a 2-2 draw against rivals Tigres.
Jorge Villafana of Santos Laguna led American-born players in minutes this season, logging 1,322 minutes over 15 matches played. Villafana has become a fixture for the Guerreros, who had the second-most wins this season and had the second-best attack in the league.
Santos will play Tigres, long-time home of Jose Torres who has 26 appearances with the USMNT. Torres has struggled for playing time this season. Tigres also carry backup goalkeeper Lalo Fernandez. The former Real Salt Lake Homegrown Player did not play in league this year but has been the preferred backup to stalwart Nahuel Guzman. Should anything happen to Guzman, the 25-year-old Fernandez would step in and take command. Fernandez did not play for RSL during his five years with the club but appeared in more than 50 games for USL side Real Monarchs before transferring to Tigres.
Pumas also feature an American backup goalkeeper. Like Fernandez, Bernabe Magana did not see minutes in the league but has been the backup of choice this season. Magana did see time during Copa MX matches but has yet to crack the lineup for league play and like will not during the postseason, but should be available in case anything happens to first-choice keeper Alfredo Saldivar.
Across the way from Pumas will be America, who feature Joe Corona. In his first season with the Mexico City side, Corona played 15 matches for a total of 435 minutes as he became a regular in manager Miguel Herrera’s rotation.
The Toluca vs Morelia series will feature the points leader in Toluca and a Morelia side that narrowly made the postseason at the expense of Pachuca and Puebla. There are no American players in this series.
For years, Liga MX was dominated by clubs from the central part of the country. Mexico City sides like Cruz Azul, America, and Necaxa won titles in the 1980s and 1990s before teams like Toluca and Pachuca dominated play around the turn of the century.
League dominance has shifted north. Monterrey, Santos, Tigres, and Tijuana are from the northern part of the country and those four teams finished third through sixth in the regular-season table.
Tigres have played in four of the last five Liga MX finals and have won three of them while Monterrey has reached two finals in the last four seasons, dropping both. Along with Santos and Tijuana, the northern teams have claimed nine of the last 17 league championships and have lost another six titles in that stretch. Mexico City teams have won just twice since 2011 and Guadalajara’s lone contribution in the last dozen years came when Chivas won the Clausura title in 2017.
Toluca enter the postseason as favorites on the strength of its 11-3-3 record, good for 36 points. Toluca did not drop a match at Estadio Nemesio Diez this season, one of just two teams to not lost a home game, and had a league-best +11 goal differential. Monterrey though had the league’s best attack with 30 goals scored while Tijuana had the stingiest defense, allowing just 12 goals all season.
Chivas already claimed a title this year, winning the 2018 Concacaf Champions League with a hard-fought final series win over Toronto FC. The storied Mexican side though is missing in the postseason. Chivas finished the season with a meager 3-8-6 record and won exactly zero home games. The club’s attack was miserable, scoring just 14 goals in 17 games, the third-lowest output this season.
Chivas then must take the good of winning the CONCACAF title and advancing to the 2018 FIFA Club World Cup with the bad of missing out on the postseason yet again. Chivas failed to follow up a successful Clausura 2017 season with a playoff appearance and now missed out on the postseason for a second straight time.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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