With Argentine referee Nestor Pitana’s final whistle at the World Cup final on June 15 came the sound of the end; the end of France’s 20-year-long search for another world championship, the end of a month-long vacation in the Russian Federation and the end of the international soccer season. Coincidentally, it also signaled the beginning; the beginning of the 2018-19 club soccer season. One of the first leagues to get the ball rolling? Liga MX. The Mexican league starts on Friday and while not even half of the 18 total teams have a predictable chance at winning the Apertura, there is still at least one reason to watch each of them.
Is this the year of Diego Lainez?
Of course after August 3 that is. If you didn’t know, Lainez’s Club America debut this season will have to wait until at least week four due to his participation in Mexico’s U-21 squad for the Central American and Caribbean Games. Once he returns to Mexico, though, he needs to begin starting for Las Águilas. His big move to Europe never came after his golden ball-award-winning performance at the 2018 Toulon Tournament, so now is the time for him to make his true mark in Liga MX. It’s no secret that for the Mexican National Team to improve, it needs young players to develop and move to Europe sooner than later. This could be that chance for Lainez. The preseason injuries to Jérémy Ménez and Cecilio Dominguez are unfortunate, but they do scream one thing to coach Miguel Herrera: Start Diego Lainez!
What will Rafa Marquez’s influence be?
Atlas’ No. 1 fútbol icon Rafael Marquez had an emotional retirement from club competition last season, and followed that by saying goodbye to international competition after Mexico’s exit in the World Cup. Now, Rafa is taking his next step in Mexican fútbol with his new position as Sporting President with Los Zorros. Marquez is an uberly-respected figure in the country, and will bring an incredible amount of experience to the boardroom at Atlas. Before his U.S. Treasury investigation, he was assisting in setting up the Mexican footballers association, a force meant to shield players from the destructive forces that come with the Liga MX owners’ Gentleman’s Pact. He’s shown he can be a positive figure for the players at Atlas, and Rojinegros fans will hope Marquez can lead his boyhood club to more growth and success in the future.
Can Lobos leave it all on the field and prove they belong in the First Division?
After a bizarre decision to sack Rafael Puente, Jr. from the coaching spot midway through last season, doom was inevitable for Lobos. They went on to get relegated, but have been given another chance in the first division thanks to some questionable new Liga MX relegation rules and a little pocket change in the sum of about $6.3 million. They shouldn’t be here, but they are. Fans know that. Other teams know that. Lobos had a great year two seasons ago when they finished with 23 points, and they must hope for a replication of that if they wish to regain the respect of casual fans and prove to all that they belong in Mexico’s top flight.
Respected coach. New Stadium. Promising, new team (again). Is this the year?
How many times have we seen this before? How many times have we heard Cruz Azul’s front office claim this new group of players will be the difference? The answer is a lot, and Maquina fans have to be getting tired of it by now. There is one thing different; Ricardo Peláez as the new director of football. He did great things at Club America, winning two titles during his tenure there. Coincidentally, Cruz Azul will be sharing a stadium with Las Águilas after demolishing their “cursed” Estadio Azul earlier this year. Is the Cruz Azul curse gone with the stadium? Or will it follow Cruz Azul across the capital city?
Can Cardozo still make the Liguilla with this team?
When El Rebaño Sagrado lifted the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League title in May, no Chivas fan could have imagined the weeks that would come from that successful date. A history of maltreatment and unpaid bonuses caused the team to absolutely implode. It was a war that pitted the front office vs. players and coaches and it took casualties: Matias Almeyda left, Rodolfo Pizarro was sold to Monterrey, Rodolfo Cota left for Leon, Oswaldo Alanis left for Getafe, the list goes on. In the end, Jose Saturnino Cardozo was brought in to manage the team, and Chivas is still left with some solid pieces like Isaac Brizuela, Alan Pulido, Ángel Sepúlveda, Javier Lopez and Michael Perez to play around. Will it be enough?
A once great team is still in there. Can they unleash La Fiera?
Once back-to-back champions Club Leon had a very unusual Clausura season. They had the worst defense in the league, letting in 33 goals, and failed to make the playoffs. This season they let go of their two best midfielders in Elias Hernandez and Andres Andrade, but brought in William Tesillo and Pedro Aquino. They still have Mauro Boselli, a shoo-in for top goalscorer, Luis Montes, an assist-machine still, and two veteran pacey players in Fernando Navarro and Hernan Burbano. Los Panzas Verdes still have the foundation of their championship roster, is this the year they rise again?
So. Many. Good. Signings. Will Rayados redeem themselves?
Rayados seem determined to win a championship this season. They parted ways with former coach Antonio Mohamed, who couldn’t manage to win in two title matches, and brought in Diego Alonso, who sports a Liga MX title already. Monterrey also nabbed Rodolfo Pizarro, arguably the best Mexican player in the league and Jesus Gallardo, a standout with El Tri at the World Cup. If that wasn’t enough, they attracted up-and-coming prospect Paolo Medina from Benfica and upgraded to Marcelo Barovero, one of the most efficient goalkeepers in the league. Who wouldn’t want to follow this team?
Can they replace Ruidiaz?
Morelia weren’t a one-man team by any means, but you’d be lying if you said Peruvian international Raul Ruidiaz didn’t impact the teams success over the last few seasons. Ruidiaz scored 41 times in his Monarcas career and led the league in goals twice. He was sold to the Seattle Sounders over the summer and his goal scoring prowess will be missed in the entire league, let alone in Morelia. In response to his exit, Monarcas brought in forwards Irven Avila and Sebastian Ferreira. Will they be enough to compensate for all the offense lost this summer?
Two titles this year already. Flukes or signs of what’s to come?
When talking about teams that stack up championships, Necaxa might be one of the last ones that make that list, and yet, Los Rayos have won a Copa MX and a Supercopa MX title so far in 2018. They’ve upset powerhouses like Toluca and Monterrey, and their youthful squad and balanced team play have defied odds all year. There’s still one thing eluding Necaxa, however, and it’s the reason former manager Ignacio Ambriz was let go. They haven’t made the playoffs in three seasons. The trophies Necaxa have won aren’t the most respected or threatening, but maybe they can provide a boost of confidence for Los Rayos to overachieve.
Can Victor Guzman come back the same?
Before his season-ending ACL injury in January, Victor Guzman was looking like one of the best Mexican players playing in Liga MX. A crafty midfielder who can both score and be a playmaker, Guzman was well on his way to a World Cup squad call-up before he went under the knife. Guzman will forever be remembered for scoring the last-minute goal that awarded Pachuca with their last Liga MX title against Monterrey in the 2016 Clausura. He also led all Mexican players with eight goals in the 2017 Apertura. He’s a bright spot for the future of the Mexican National Team and for Pachuca. Pocho is back in action for this tournament and he has time to make up for. Opponents of Los Tuzos beware.
Will Enrique Meza lead them to the promised land?
Puebla has never been a club known for exceeding expectations. That being said, La Franja did come dangerously close to the Liguilla last season in legendary manager Enrique Meza’s first season with the Poblano club. The team finished with 23 points, one point away from eighth place, and if it weren’t for a horribly timed five-game losing streak near the end of the season, the Clausura could have been a success for Puebla. Saturday is the beginning of a new journey for Los Camoteros. They retained all of their core players, which may not sound like a big achievement, but for a team like Puebla, it really is. They get one more chance to exceed all odds and finish in the top eight.
Bad last season but so much potential
It’s going to be really interesting to see what Rafael Puente, Jr. does with this team. The 39-year-old coach valiantly led Lobos BUAP back to the first division, and made them look stronger than anyone thought possible at times. Now, Puente finds himself with higher quality talent to work with. Tiago Volpi is easily one of the league’s best shot-stoppers, and the front three of Edson Puch, Daniel Villalva and Camilo Sanvezzo are deadly when healthy. Bringing out the best in players is something Puente specializes in, so can Los Gallos Blancos step it up and get back in the limelight?
Youth talent development
The defending champions took a different approach to this new season. Instead of retaining their top players, they sold captain Carlos Izquierdoz to Boca Juniors, top scorer Djaniny Tavares to Saudi club Al-Hilal, and top defender Nestor Araujo to Celta de Vigo. It may seem peculiar, but Santos’ main attraction this season will be their youth players. Santos’ academy has produced more and more impressive players as of late, and it’s going to be much more exciting to see players like Jesus Angulo, Edwuin Cetre, Gerardo Arteaga and Eduardo Aguirre develop more than it would seeing an unlikely championship repeat.
Huge makeover. This is Cocca’s team now.
Last season, Tijuana was a top-eight team in the league with a squad made up of players brought on by former manager Eduardo Coudet. As for this season, Xolos let go of a lot of those players and current manager Diego Cocca now has HIS team ready for the Apertura. Tijuana will debut a multitude of foreign players this season whose goal will be to bring back a championship to the Mexican border town.
Two finals. Two losses. Redemption is a must
Toluca had a problem before Hernan Cristante. Former coach Jose Cardozo would lead Los Diablos Rojos to the playoffs often, but always came up short in the semifinals. Enter Cristante, and Toluca finally hurdled that obstacle only to hit another wall; losing finals. They lost both the 2018 Clausura Copa MX and Liga MX final and that has to sting. There’s little room left for error at the Estadio Nemesio Diez, and only one thing has to be on the roster’s mind: a trophy.
The best roster in the league. Enough said.
Easily the best Mexican team this decade, Tigres is not done firing on all cylinders. On par with the Golden State Warriors of the NBA, you never imagine it would be possible for a team like Tigres to improve with its stacked roster until they do just that. They returned Guido Pizarro from Sevilla and Julián Quiñones from Lobos BUAP, pushing their talent level beyond measure. It’s business as usual for Tigres, and one of the most exciting teams in Mexico certainly has another title within their reach.
Can they replace Gallardo and Castillo?
Similar to Morelia’s situation, Pumas must replace their two best players in Jesus Gallardo and Nicolas Castillo. Castillo was UNAM’s goalscoring hero, netting 26 of them in his two seasons at the capital club. Los Universitarios brought on former Cruz Azul striker Felipe Mora and former Necaxa forward Carlos Gonzalez to cover the offensive load. Will they be enough to forget Castillo’s iconic presence?
Who will be the coach at the end of the season?
No disrespect to Veracruz fans, but if it weren’t for Lobos’ late-season meltdown, they’d clearly be the ones stressing with relegation issues. A new season is here, but their low-level squad remains. Guillermo Vazquez is currently the one chosen to lead the team out of the abyss, but with the Tiburones Rojos’ history of recycling coaches, one has to wonder whether he will even make it half the season.