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Atlas-Querétaro Signals Worrying Future for Liga MX

Saturday’s abhorrent affair between two of the division’s lesser lights reflect poorly on recent structural changes.

Atlas v Queretaro - Torneo Guard1anes 2020 Liga MX Photo by Refugio Ruiz/Getty Images

Unlike many other top leagues, Liga MX is not dominated by one or two super clubs. Even the country’s worst teams are capable of beating the best, and this egalitarianism is fomented through an inclusive liguilla system that gives more than half the top flight a shot at the title.

Yet, the effect this parity has on the quality of the on-field product is a subject of intense debate. Some claim that equality promotes mediocrity, while others believe it signals a high level of competitiveness.

Querétaro’s recent wins over Mexico City giants Cruz Azul and América reignited the discussion. Twenty-seven players had left Gallos in the summer, leaving a shell of the squad that impressed under Víctor Manuel Vucetich. Nevertheless, novice head coach Alex Diego engineered shock victories over two of the country’s aristocracy.

Even though they entered Saturday rooted to the bottom of the table, Los Zorros promised to provide a stern examination of the visitor’s progress. Unlike their two previous encounters, Gallos would have to handle the pressure of being favorites.

Their insipid showing at the Estadio Jalisco demonstrated that they were not up to the task. An early goal from home midfielder Édgar Zaldívar meant that Querétaro could not revert to the counterattacking strategy that had served them so well in the last two matches. They tried to take the game to the hosts, but looked bereft of ideas without any wide-open spaces to run into.

For their part, Atlas were unconvincing bar fleeting interventions from creative hub Luciano Acosta. They looked like a side that had won only once in their last eleven league contests, with that disastrous run culminating in the dismissal of former manager Rafael Puente Jr. It was not pretty, but new boss Diego Cocca will be delighted to take three points on his debut.

Although Atlas fans can bask in the glow of a rare victory, the dearth of quality on display in Guadalajara is a damning indictment of recent changes made by league officials. Scrapping promotion and relegation has eliminated the incentive for teams near the bottom of the table to improve. Furthermore, reinstalling the repechaje means that liguilla qualification can be obtained by taking less than 40% of the regular season points on offer.

Sadly, these decisions prioritized profit over sporting success. TV ratings will be boosted by the repechaje, as two-thirds of fan bases will still have a horse in the race come playoff time. The status of Liga MX clubs as quasi-franchises for the next half-decade will surely increase their market value.

Owners and directors will continue to line their pockets, but Mexico’s top division will stagnate on the field. A rapidly growing MLS has closed the gap in quality between North America’s two most powerful leagues in recent years, and that process promises to accelerate if Liga MX continues to foster mediocrity. Soon enough, a league that has fought to be considered the best on the continent will not even be the best in their own backyard.