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Jul 19, 2013

Sizing up the Liga MX Apertura contenders

The Liga MX Apertura of 2013 will soon kick off and ring in a number of changes. Beyond the usual shift of players from one team to another, there have been ownership changes, rule changes and wholesale moves of team franchises. The number of changes makes for an unpredictable season, yet I still foresee some of the usual suspects as candidates to grab the trophy at the end of the season.

- Apertura 2013: No frills for Santos Laguna - Apertura 2013: Azul wonder what could have been - Apertura 2013: Rayados has earned its stripes

At this point, as defending champions, it is Club America's trophy to lose. Now holding a record-tying 11 titles, Las Aguilas are flying high. Though they lost star striker Christian Benitez, they have kept most of their squad intact. Raul Jimenez will now be expected to shoulder more of the scoring load. With his irrepressibly emotive style of sideline leadership, coach Miguel Herrera is going to be looking to take the club back to the championship final. Though it will be impossible to top the miracle game that won them the Clausura title, the squad should contend for the trophy.

Another contender for the title is Tigres, a club that may likely begin the season with a considerable sense of vengeance. Though they led Liga MX for much of the season, even flirting with an unprecedented unbeaten run, Tigres bowed out of the playoffs early. The lesson imparted by elimination games is that focus must be maintained at all times and at all costs. Newly naturalized Mexican citizen and Tigres captain Lucas Lobos will make sure that recent arrivals such as Guido Hernan Pizarro learn that well.

Redemption may also be on the agenda for Cruz Azul, who might still be reeling from their narrow loss in the Clausura final, where they were mere moments away from victory. Another newly naturalized Mexican citizen, Christian Gimenez, directs the squad from midfield. Though the drama involving Teofilo Gutierrez has overshadowed the club's preparation to the season, the squad is probably better off to part ways with the problematic player, who has expressed a desire to join Argentine side River Plate. With their Copa MX trophy in hand, Los Cementeros plan to defend that title and also seal the deal on the league championship. It could happen.

An outside contender for the league title is Club Tijuana. Xolos coach Jorge Francisco has assembled a team true to its border heritage. Three players on the squad are Mexican-Americans: Joe Benny Corona, Herculez Gomez and Edgar Castillo. Earlier in the year, the Xolos squad was distracted from their Liga MX campaign by matches in other competitions, namely the Copa Libertadores. They didn't even make the Liga MX playoffs. This Apertura season look for a recharged and refocused Club Tijuana to do well.

The mid-tier of Liga MX is full of teams who will give the top squads trouble, win games, probably make the playoffs, but somehow fall short of the final hurdle because of aging personnel, injuries or divisive team management. Granted, Liga MX isn't as stratified as say, England's Premier League, where frankly, there's just a reshuffling of the wealthiest teams every year, leaving other squads with less riches and virtually no hope of a title run. In Liga MX, it's more about form, organization and a lineup that works.

Over the years, Club Monarcas Morelia has improved in many ways. Their fans can count on consistently good results from the squad, but getting over the hump to really contend for a title has proved elusive since 2000.

Atlas, for one, is a club that overachieved last season and may not go as far this year when other clubs remember not to overlook Leandro Cufre and his cohorts. A new coach, Omar Asad, will also need a period of adjustment.

Meanwhile, Monterrey must shake off the disappointment of the rule change that doesn't allow them to defend their CONCACAF Champions Cup trophy. Humberto Suazo won't have Aldo de Nigris by his side in the attack, but Dorlan Pabon can and will do some serious damage.

Like their talented midfielder Luis Montes, Leon is a squad that can surprise with unexpected danger and skill, but consistent results elude them.

Another cat club, UNAM Pumas, also plans to stalk the top squads. Coach Antonio Torres has kept most of the roster intact and that cohesion should yield good results.

The whys and ways of coach Pedro Caixinha are a conundrum at times to fans of Santos Laguna, but if Oribe Peralta is able to stay healthy, the squad will be in the playoffs again.

Toluca still has the seemingly ageless and creative Antonio "Zinha" Naelson making magic in the midfield, but new coach Jose Saturnino will probably need time to figure out the quirks of Liga MX.

The lowest tier of teams in Liga MX contains not only those clubs whose main hope is to avoid the relegation drop, but also clubs who will probably have a stinker of a season for a multitude of reasons.

Sadly, Club Deportivo Guadalajara, the legendary Chivas squad, belongs here not only because of their poor finish to the previous season, but also because their big move for striker Aldo de Nigris backfired due to his recent leg injury. The bottom line is also that the ownership of Jorge Vergara has turned toxic, with his meddling tendencies creating major problems.

Pachuca joins Chivas as a formerly great club that has fallen on tough times, though they seem to be taking concrete steps to climb out of their pit of despair.

Queretaro Futbol Club, though, has to contend with a tainted legacy of being something of a stolen team, given that they are what remains of Jaguares de Chiapas. Though the squad finished out strong last season, their tangled history could compromise their fan base and support.

The newly christened Chiapas club (formerly San Luis) also will attempt to win over fans with a completely different roster. This instant rebranding by owners will probably have consequences, but perhaps Chiapas will overcome the issues in a pleasant surprise.

Another "made over" club is Veracruz -- formerly Club La Piedad -- which will likely also struggle to establish itself in Liga MX this season.

Atlante, meanwhile, shipped out a number of players in their quest to improve and avoid the threat of relegation. It's going to take some time for the squad and their new coach to jell.

Puebla, following the wise old man Manuel Lapuente, also plans to inch their way along to safety slowly but surely.

Yet nothing is sure in Liga MX. Unexpected elements are part of the allure. Half the fun is guessing what will happen next, then watching the games to find out.