Cuatro grandes and clasicos: A beginner's guide to watching Liga MX
It isn't easy to jump into the Mexican first division.
While countless new fans find difficulties with the language barrier, several others get lost in the long list of idiosyncrasies that define the Liga MX. A quick discussion on promotion and relegation alone is enough to confuse even the most die-hard of soccer supporters.
Nonetheless, it's worth the trouble. With an impressive technical level of play, no lack of enthralling matches and a number of talents hidden among the 18 teams, it's easy to become infatuated with the most popular league in North America.
Although it might be intimidating at first, here's a Liga MX crash course that will help you dive into the 2018 Clausura when it kicks off this Friday.
Lesson 1: The general format
Each year is split into two separate tournaments, the Clausura and Apertura. While the Apertura runs from July through December, the Clausura occurs January through May. Each tournament is a round-robin competition in which all 18 Liga MX clubs face off once in the regular season.
The top eight teams from the regular season qualify for the playoffs, also known as the Liguilla. The champion is decided through a standard knockout phase (No. 1 vs. No. 8, No. 2 vs. No. 7, etc.) that features a home and away leg in each round. Teams are re-seeded in the semifinal stage, pitting the highest-ranked team left against the lowest-ranked team and the other two remaining clubs against each other.
In the quarterfinal and semifinal stages, away goals are used as the first tiebreaker, and higher seeding is used as the second. In the final stage, neither of these is used, leaving only extra time and penalties (if needed) to break the aggregate tie.
Lesson 2: Some of the more atypical rules
In recent years, the league has made a push to change some of its regulations.
One of the recent changes is a rule regarding minutes for young players. Starting this season, each team will need to accumulate a minimum of 765 minutes of playing time for players born in 1997 or after. That number will increase to 1,000 minutes once the 2019 Clausura rolls around for players born in 1998 or after, but 500 of those minutes can be given to those who were born in 1997.
The 9/9 rule is also still in effect, which means that a maximum of nine non-homegrown or "foreign" players can occupy a place on the gameday roster. A minimum of nine gameday roster spots must then be given to homegrown players, i.e., Mexican talent. Although many have argued against its implementation, the idea is supposed to provide more of a focus to domestic players within each roster.
Last but not least is the confusing saga regarding promotion and relegation. At time of writing, pro/rel remains completely up in the air for Mexico. In theory, those in charge are hoping to increase the league from 18 teams to 20 by 2020, but there has yet to be a definite plan as to how it will be accomplished. Only nine teams from the second division are currently eligible for promotion, which would make things complicated if another non-eligible second-division team wins the promotion final, as seen last season.
Whether the league has officially stopped relegation or whether a team can pay a fine to remain in the first division remains puzzling as well, with no official ruling yet from the league.
Lesson 3: The cuatro grandes and the title favorites
Chivas, Club America, Pumas and Cruz Azul.
Traditionally speaking, these cuatro grandes or the "big four" represent not only the most popular teams across the country but also some of the most successful. While Chivas and Club America share the record for most league titles, with 12 apiece, both Cruz Azul and Pumas trail with a total of eight and seven, respectively. Toluca is worthy of mention for the team's 10 titles but lacks the widespread popularity that helps define a grande.
As for this season's favorites, crosstown rivals Monterrey and Tigres are once again looking like the most threatening and talented clubs in the country. Although they don't have the same number of championships as Chivas or Club America, an argument amongst Liga MX fans is whether either of the northern Mexican squads is worthy of becoming one of the big teams in the country.
Looking past Monterrey and Tigres, other Liga MX sides such as Toluca, Club America and Cruz Azul also have the capabilities to become title contenders this season.
Lesson 4: The clasicos
-- Clasico Nacional/Super Clasico: Chivas vs. Club America. By far, the biggest rivalry game of the season between the two most powerful and successful teams in the country.
-- Clasico Regio/Clasico Regiomontano: Monterrey vs. Tigres. A crosstown rivalry in northern Mexico that features some of the most die-hard and spirited fans in the league. With packed and powerful rosters, this series might be the closest that we can get to a Liga MX all-star game.
-- Clasico Capitalino: Club America vs. Pumas. A Mexico City clash between two of the four big teams. While Club America represents much of the league's glitz and glamour with impressive signings and success, Pumas tends to be humbler with its university ties and production of youth talent.
-- Clasico Joven: Club America vs. Cruz Azul. Another Mexico City derby that features two members of the big four. Although Cruz Azul tends to be the butt of jokes for high-profile failures, intriguing summer signings for the club should make this rivalry an alluring one this season.
-- Clasico Tapatio: Chivas vs. Atlas. A Guadalajara rivalry that has lasted more than 100 years, making it the oldest derby in the country. The fight for bragging rights in the major city is one that has existed for generations.
Lesson 5: The compelling style of play
Due to the short season format that features only 17 games per season for each club, most teams employ a high-pressing and proactive style of play.
Knowing full well that three points could be the difference between a No. 4 playoff seed and a place outside the Liguilla, nearly every match proves to be an engaging and attack-minded skirmish with highly technical players.
This, in turn, leads to a number of upsets that also help foster parity within the league. For example, within the past nine seasons, six teams have lifted a Liga MX title.
Lesson 6: The off-field drama
Despite the excitement seen in matches, plenty of the conversation surrounding the league tends to cover things that are off the field.
As the season progresses, the conversation regarding players' rights will likely be a big talking point after the formation of a players union last year. Following a meeting between the union and league representatives earlier in 2018, there is hope for an end to the infamous pacto de caballeros, a "gentleman's pact" between team owners that halts the free movement of players who are out of contract.
Although slight changes have already been made in the Liga MX "draft," a much-criticized event in which players are regularly traded with little or no knowledge, the players union will likely seek to make further alterations in the future.
New fans should also keep an eye on the referees union, a group that went on strike in March 2017 and cancelled a weekend's worth of matches. New issues haven't developed as of late for match officials, but the strike from last year did plenty to highlight the power that the referees can obtain when provoked.
Unfortunately, the anti-gay goalkeeper chant is another off-field issue that must be dealt with. Following a successful intervention from the national team at the World Cup, it is now up to league officials and the clubs themselves to sort out the chant that has stained the Liga MX.