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 By Tom Marshall

Chivas Guadalajara will struggle to retain Liga MX title this Apertura

After winning the 2017 Clausura title, not much has gone to plan in the offseason for Chivas.

Winning back-to-back titles in Mexican soccer is notoriously difficult. The playoff system, with eight of the 18 teams qualifying to the postseason, means there is an element of peaking at the right time. It is rare that a club dominates the league from start to finish.

In fact, if Mexico had a European-style league format, Club Tijuana would've won the 2016-17 campaign by nine points, but that Xolos finished top of the regular season of both the Apertura 2016 and Clausura 2017 will go down as just an interesting footnote.

The big story was Chivas, the all-Mexican side that has been resurrected from relegation contender to Liga MX champion under Argentine coach Matias Almeyda, fueled by some heavy and consistent investment in the playing staff by owner Jorge Vergara.

The crescendo to the 2017 Clausura title, the performance of the all-Mexican team in the final against Tigres' expensively assembled international cast and the atmosphere around Guadalajara as the Rebano Sagrado edged closer to the title, was special.

But following it up is going to be difficult. Not much has gone to plan in the offseason ahead of the 2017 Apertura.

The best news for Chivas fans is that Almeyda is still at the club. The former River Plate manager has established a firm playing identity at the club, is keeping his eye on the development of the youngsters and is very clearly a coach who will be receiving increasingly tempting offers from Europe.

Chivas will be without striker Alan Pulido until November.

Almeyda has not been given any new signings for the new season, flying in the face of the theory that championship-winning squads should continue to build -- to foster internal competition, as well as keep existing players on their toes. Squad players such as Miguel Ponce and Nestor Calderon -- key in the Copa MX victory and in providing depth in case of injury -- have also left, with Ponce now at Necaxa and Calderon at Pumas.

Preseason results aren't always indicative of how a side is coming into a season, but Chivas has lost three and drawn one of its matches so far.

Then there is the loss of Alan Pulido. The striker will be out until November with a broken arm, which he picked up in the pre-Gold Cup friendly against Paraguay on July 1. Pulido was a huge signing for Chivas last summer, and while he took time to adapt in the 2016 Apertura season, he showed his quality in the Clausura playoffs, with his physicality and work rate difficult to replace. He provides a focal point for a team that usually plays with only one striker.

Pulido isn't the only absentee, however.

Oswaldo Alanis and Jose Juan "Gallito" Vazquez both exited the field in the first half of Chivas' 1-0 loss to Tigres in the Campeon de Campeones match in Los Angeles on Sunday. Winger Carlos Cisneros -- who hasn't played in 2017 -- is still out for another few weeks.

And then Chivas will start the season without Jair Pereira, Hedgardo Marin, Alejandro Mayorga, Rodolfo Pizarro and Orbelin Pineda, who are all with the Mexican national team at the Gold Cup, although they'll get back to Guadalajara on July 27 at the latest.

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On the positive side, forwards Angel Zaldivar and Isaac Brizuela are both nearing returns following injuries at the back end of last season. And then there is the intriguing prospect of young hopefuls such as talented 17-year-old Jose Juan Macias, 21-year-old midfielder Angel Lopez, Mayorga, Fernando Beltran and Kevin Magana. Still, it's a big step up from the Under-20s or Under-17s into the first team.

Of the other challengers, Clausura runners-up Tigres are likely to be a better side than last season, even without Guido Pizarro. Ecuadorian international Enner Valencia has already signed and Colombian Mateus Uribe and Chilean Gary Medel could also be moving in before the summer window closes.

And then around the league, Monterrey has strengthened substantially, Club America looks more balanced with Miguel Herrera at the helm and Pachuca has brought in Japan international Keisuke Honda. All should be considered above Chivas in the pecking order as the Apertura gets underway.

Chivas opens against Toluca at home Saturday, before traveling to Cruz Azul away, then Necaxa at home and Monterrey on the road. It's a tricky start to the Apertura, especially given the absentees, but Guadalajara just needs to get over the line and into the playoffs. If they can recover Pulido by then and possibly have a bit more luck with injuries, anything is possible, especially with Chivas now having the experience of navigating through a liguilla in the bank.

The excitement surrounding Chivas has not dissipated since the Clausura 2017 victory, but whether the team can back that up with another memorable season this Apertura has to be in doubt.

Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.

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