TOYOTA, JAPAN - DECEMBER 11: Humberto Suazo of Monterrey celebrates his goal against Kashiwa Reysol during the FIFA Club World Cup Quarter Final match between Kashiwa Reysol and Club de Futbol Monterrey at Toyota Stadium on December 11, 2011 in Toyota, Japan. (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)
There will be plenty on the line when Monterrey and Santos Laguna kick off the 2012 CONCACAF Champions League final this week. The two-legged championship series is a battle for both local bragging rights and continental supremacy -- not to mention a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup. The series is also a showdown between two of Mexico's most successful clubs over the past few years. That these two clubs also happen to be from the northern region of the country is no accident. The CCL finals match-up between Monterrey and Santos only provides further affirmation of the recent polemic shift in the world of Mexican football.
The northern region of the country has historically been somewhat of an afterthought in terms of the national football conversation. The traditional focus has been on the capital in Mexico City -- with its three grande clubs, the big city money, and the headquarters of the national football federation. The spotlight has also shone brightly on Guadalajara -- the nation's second biggest city, and home to the country's most popular club, as well as the historic Chivas-Atlas rivalry. In recent years, though, there's been a noticeable change. A seismic shift in the football landscape has suddenly brought the northern region to the forefront. The 200-mile stretch connecting Torreon and Monterrey is now the epicenter of sporting success.
No area of the country has experienced the collective achievements of these two northern cities in recent seasons. Monterrey is the home of the defending CCL champion Rayados as well as defending Primera champions Tigres. Torreon's Santos Laguna has appeared in three of the last five Liguilla finals. Collectively, the three clubs have brought about a new era of dominance, and the evidence speaks for itself.
During the last five Primera seasons, only two clubs have multiple appearances in the finals: Santos (3) and Monterrey (2). Of those last five Liguilla playoffs, only once did the finals not include either Santos or Monterrey. When you break it down from a geographical standpoint, things are even clearer. Of the ten total spots in the last five league championships, three came from the city of Torreon and three from the city of Monterrey. Despite having three teams each, Mexico City was represented in the finals just twice during that time period, while the city of Guadalajara didn’t make a single appearance.
The recent success has occurred in the regular season as well. Only three teams in the league have had at least three finishes in the top 5 of the Primera standings over the past five seasons. Monterrey and Santos are two of those teams, with three top 5 finishes each (Cruz Azul is the other, with four top 5 finishes).
And then of course there are the titles. The city of Monterrey has captured three of the last five Primera trophies -- Tigres last season and Monterrey in the Apertura 2009 and Apertura 2010. This is where Torreon takes a slight backseat. Santos, despite three trips to the league finals in that period, remains on the hunt.
This may just be the season that a piece of silverware finds it way back to Torreon. Currently in second place in the league standings, Santos has clearly been one of the top teams all season long. In fact, it’s no stretch to say that Santos, Monterrey, and Tigres are the three leading favorites to win the Clausura 2012 title.
All of this recent regional success makes it fitting that two of the northern giants are now meeting for the continental crown. When the first leg kicks off on Wednesday night at Estadio Tecnologico, Monterrey will be looking to defend their title, while Santos hope to finally claim a trophy after so many recent near-misses (they also hope to earn a bit of revenge for the loss to Monterrey in the Apertura 2010 finals).
Will it be a new feather in the Warrior's headdress, or another crown for the Rayados? Either way the result will bring another title to "El Norte," as the northern stars remain aligned in the sky over the current center of the Mexican football landscape.