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There is probably no greater method of adding intrigue, interest and hope to so many teams and fan bases than the relegation system. The attention paid to the bottom of the table can often rival that of the top. It also provides a chance for the Cinderella story. Small clubs can work their way up to the top division where they have a shot to face off against the big teams in the big stadiums in front of the big crowds. Once there, though, they often wilt and fade back into oblivion. The little club has their fifteen minutes in the sun and heads back down to the lower divisions. However, every once in a while a team is promoted and proves its place among the top teams.
This story played itself out last season. The Xolos of Tijuana made a meteoric rise from being created in 2007 to being promoted to the top division only four years later. Not only did the Xolos remain in the top division, they avoided the bottom of the table all together. In fact, this past season they qualified for the playoffs. While having the financial backing that disqualifies them from being a true Cinderella story, they have played with all the spirit and fight of a new team. Club Tijuana has brought top flight Mexican soccer to a region that had previously been so greatly excluded by geography alone.
For all the excitement that Tijuana brought to the league, the ante was upped this season as Leon made its way back into the top division (now Liga MX). Leon is at the other end of the spectrum from Tijuana, as one of the most historic teams in Mexico. Leon is now four matches into their first season in the top division in the last ten years. It appears that the years apart made Leon miss the top flight enough to reenter on a mission. They stormed through the preseason and have won three of their first four matches. Most recently, they handed defending champion Santos Laguna their first loss, by way of a 3-0 drubbing last night. It would be hard to find a more exciting team with a more fervent fan base. With money coming in from Grupo Pachuca, Leon seem primed to make a lengthy stay in Liga MX. The Nou Camp in Guanajuato should remain a place opposing teams should fear for the foreseeable future.
Leon and Tijuana are exceptions to the rule, but this rule might continue to be broken in the future. Much has been made of the return of the Copa MX competition. It provides the opportunity for Liga MX squads to give younger players exposure and experience. But more significantly, it gives players on Ascenso MX squads chances to play the big teams. There's less of a chance of cracking when they reach the big stage if they've already been there. The experience gained, however fleeting, could be priceless down the road.
If any lessons are to be learned from the ascent of Leon and Tijuana to the top division it is that of identity. When clubs earn their promotion, they often make wholesale changes to the squad, gathering up loans and cast-offs from their new peers. They adapt their style of play to find the most success in this new division. However, this often has the opposite effect as their new players and style end up breaking whatever magic earned them a promotion in the first place. Tijuana and Leon, while making their fair share of roster additions, managed to retain their style of play and the key players that executed those tactics. The second lesson of course being that it helps to have a solid bankroll.
While we don't know what team will earn promotion next year, it is clear where they should look when preparing for the transition. It is also clear that the basement dwellers of Liga MX are going to need to get their act together fast. They may have a hard time of finding their way back once relegation catches up to them.