Viva Liga MX!

05/07/16

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Viva Liga MX!

The 2016-17 Liga MX season kicks off on 15 July and Kitbag.com is pleased to be on board with all-new replica team jerseys for a number of key contenders in Mexico’s top division.

Split into two equal halves, the 2016-17 Liga MX campaign sees reigning Torneo Apertura champions Tigres UANL defend their Apertura (“opening”) title, before current Torneo Clausura kings Pachuca attempt to cling onto their Clausura (“closing”) crown.

From the thrills and spills of the Liguilla play-off format to the chase for places in the CONCACAF Champions League, the Mexican top tier is sheer soap opera, on and off the field.

Now, with mere days until the fun resumes, the Kitbag blog has put together these notes for the Liga MX newcomer; a brief introduction to the enduring sporting saga south of the border.

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An Américan tale

Club América are Liga MX’s most successful outfit, with a haul of 12 domestic titles to their name. One of only two sides to never be relegated, América are based out of Estadio Azteca; the largest ground in the entire league, with a capacity of some 87,000. Estadio Azteca serves as the home of the Mexican national team, but British fans might be more familiar with the stadium as the site of the infamous England vs Argentina match at the 1986 FIFA World Cup. América are celebrating their centenary this season, having been founded back in October of 1916. Among the more influential figures in their near-century of existence was British-born Percy Clifford, a transatlantic sporting pioneer whose contributions to the development of golf and football in Mexico are still recognised today. Clifford won two championship as América coach in the 1920s, filling the seat now occupied by former Mexican national team captain and Atlético Madrid assistant manager Ignacio Ambríz. Fulfilling the role on a two-year contract, Ambríz has already led América to CONCACAF Champions League success, as his Eagles soared to a 4-1 aggregate win over Tigres in April’s two-legged final.

Mexico’s classic rivalry

Despite capturing only two Liga MX championships this past decade, Club América continue to command staunch support, as well as rabid rivalries with a number of their competitors. América’s foremost foes are the celebrated Chivas, the only other team never to have been relegated from the Mexican top flight. Representing the two chief cities of Mexico City and Guadalajara respectively, América and Chivas come together to contest El Súper Clásico; continuing Mexico’s most prominent club rivalry and a series that stems back over 70 years. Across this period, these two clubs have taken contrasting paths, with América embracing investment and internationalism, while Chivas stuck determinedly to their policy of fielding exclusively Mexican-born players. Trading wins and silverware, 1983 saw the rivalry intensify, as the teams contested what would become known as ‘La Bronca del ’83’ (‘the Riot of ’83’); a notorious play-off that was eventually abandoned, with all 22 players involved suspended. In all of Liga MX, there can be no other inter-club rivalry quite as spicy.

Cruz cement their place

Recognised as the nation’s third most popular club side, Cruz Azul (‘Blue Cross’) are another of América’s adversaries; former long-time occupants of Estadio Azteca, now based seven miles away at their own Estadio Azul. Azul were originally founded by employees by Cemento Cruz Azul, one of Mexico’s most well-known cement making companies. As a result, the club started their existence playing out of the firm’s hometown of Jasso, Hidalgo, before making their move to the bright lights of Mexico City in 1971. The relocation would coincide with Cruz becoming Mexico’s dominant team of the decade, earning them the nickname of ‘La Maquina’ (‘the Machine’) in the process. Meetings between Azul and América have been called the ‘Clásico Joven’; the ‘Young/Juvenile Classic’. To the latter extent, América fans have been prone to refer to their Cruz counterparts as “Los Albañiles” (‘the Bricklayers’). A conflict centred on class and amplified by 25 years of intertwined history, the Cruz vs América feud now rages on, a full two decades after Cruz Azul departed Estadio Azteca. With little to separate the sides over 150+ encounters, February 2016’s latest meeting proved typically competitive, resulting in a 3-3 draw. On another note entirely, Cruz Azul are also well-known across Mexico for their ‘Las Celestes’ cheerleading troupe, who debuted in 2004.

Pumas provide the platform

Despite finishing a disappointing tenth in the 2016 Clausura, UNAM Pumas carry a formidable reputation in Liga MX as the breeding ground for some of the nation’s finest young talents. Among the most notable players to come through the esteemed UNAM youth development system is Hugo Sánchez, the forward often considered as Mexico’s greatest-ever footballer, who would later find stardom at both Atlético and Real Madrid. In more recent times, UNAM gave a start to PSV Eindhoven and Espanyol defender Héctor Moreno, while flamboyant goalkeeper Jorge Campos, whose wildly colourful bespoke kits stole the show at the 1994 World Cup in the United States, also cut his footballing teeth while wearing the Pumas jersey. Today’s Pumas shirts are similarly memorable, bringing the team’s powerful animal motif to the front and centre, while integrating patterns inspired by the murals of the National Autonomous University of Mexico; the body the club represents. A sharp selection for students of the game, the Pumas side were winners of the Clausura only five years ago.

The curious case of Querétaro

One of Liga MX’s more bizarre tales revolves around the fate of FC Querétaro. In 2013, a poor season on the pitch saw the club condemned to relegation, with Querétaro expected to drop to Liga de Ascenso, Mexican football’s second tier. However, and in quite the unorthodox response, Querétaro owner Amado Yañez would soon form part of a takeover of fellow Liga MX outfit Chiapas… who were subsequently relocated to Querétaro! As a result, the Querétaro name maintained its presence at a top flight level. Despite this muddied history, the current Querétaro set-up has made a name for itself in a more conventional manner, most markedly with their 2014 signing of Brazilian icon Ronaldinho. The former FIFA World Cup winner would appear in 25 games for the central Mexican club, en route to a runners-up finish in the 2015 Clausura play-offs. Nicknamed ‘Los Gallos Blancos’ (‘the White Roosters’), Querétaro will hope that 2016 sees them rise to the cock of the walk.

Setting standards

18 teams will contest Liga MX in 2016-17, including current Clausura champions Pachuca. The men from Hidalgo are another side with UK links, having originally been founded by British miners. Among those hoping to usurp Pachuca, as well as Apertura winners Tigres, will be the likes of last year’s Clausura runners-up Monterrey, ten-time title-winners Deportivo Toluca, the green and white Warriors of Santos Laguna and Guadalajara-based Club Atlas, another Mexican institution set to celebrate its centenary in 2016. Former Marseille forward André-Pierre Gignac made headlines earlier this year with his claim Liga MX compares favourably with the standard of France’s Ligue 1. While such a view might be subjective, it is worth considering that Liga MX teams have won the CONCACAF Champions League EVERY season since the birth of its modern format, at the expense of the best of the MLS. With MLS commissioner Don Garber even talking up the strength of the division, Liga MX clearly has much to offer the neutral or novice. So how does any would-be Mexi-fan get their feet wet?

Dissecting the format

The main challenge for any budding Liga MX enthusiast comes not with its standard of play, but with its seemingly-daunting format. It is therefore ironic that the current structure is actually a simplified version of what was previously used, with the climactic Liguilla play-offs retained after their initial introduction in the 1970s. For much of the 21st century to date, the 18 Liga MX clubs had been split into three separate groups, with the group winners, runners-up and top ranking third-placed sides contesting the Liguilla (‘little league’) to determine a champion for the Apertura and Claurura alike. Under the present format however, each team faces each other once during the Apertura, with its top eight clubs then facing off in a two-legged, knockout tournament format for the Apertura crown. The whole process repeats for the Clausura, the lone difference being that the teams switch home advantage. One club is then relegated at the end of the Clausura, though relegation is determined by each side’s points-to-games ratio accrued over the past three years of play, rather than solely the current season. As a result, three Aperturas and three Clausuras are taken into account. At the right end of the table, the Apertura and Clausura winners and runners-up each season secure one of Mexico’s four berths in the CONCACAF Champions League, with two places in South America’s Copa Libertores tournament contested between the remaining eligible clubs and a final spot handed to the winners of the SuperCopa MX. The SuperCopa MX itself sees the winners of the Apertura Copa MX and Clausura Copa MX pitted head-to-head, in what is another marquee fixture on the Mexican football calendar. All things considered, there is plenty for play for across the two parallel mini-seasons; not to mention ample rewards for fans who persevere with this interesting and unusual structure.

Matchday uno

Onto the 2016-17 campaign, the opening matchday of Liga MX sees former Apertura champions Tijuana launch the season with a home game against Monarcas on the Friday evening. Querétaro then kick off their own Apertura challenge against Veracruz the following day, with Clausura kings Pachuca poised to entertain León and newly-promoted Necaxa welcoming Cruz Azul to Estadio Victoria. Atlas, América, Monterrey and Pumas all enjoy home advantage on the initial weekend, which concludes with the visit of Apertura champions Tigres to Santos Laguna. For fans in pursuit of a competitive league football fix, the timing could hardly be better. From fiery feuds to compelling competition, a wealth of Liga MX action awaits – and Kitbag.com is all-set to kit you out, with a host of new jerseys on the way. AC

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