Chilean footballers' romance with Liga MX continues to grow
MEXICO CITY -- Back in the 2003 Apertura, three Chilean forwards who were stealing the headlines in Liga MX were Sebastian "Chamagol" Gonzalez at Atlante, Luis Quinteros at Puebla, and Reinaldo Navia at Morelia. Gonzalez finished the season with six goals, Navia with 12 and Quinteros with nine. Before the 2003 Apertura, Gonzalez completed the 2003 Clausura with 16 goals and the 2002 Apertura with 13.
It's always been the case to see top Chilean footballers in Liga MX; there's a long list that includes the likes of Carlos Reinoso, who's regarded as one of Club America's biggest idols, or even Ivan "Bam-Bam" Zamorano, who came to Las Aguilas in 2001. Claudio "El Diablo" Nunez was a fan favorite for Tigres in the late 1990s and early 2000s, while Rodrigo "Pony" Ruiz left an important mark in Santos Laguna's history. The relationship between Mexican and Chilean football has persisted for many years, and now in the 2017 Apertura it's being expressed in maximum splendor.
Twenty Chilean footballers are currently playing in Liga MX, and the possibility of seeing that number increase is possible, considering that clubs can still bring in players from abroad. This weekend alone 12 of them appeared in their respective clubs' starting XIs.
There has been a trend since Mexico's catastrophic 7-0 defeat to Chile in the 2016 Copa America Centenario quarterfinal, and it's that in each season since that devastating defeat at least one important Chilean footballer has arrived to Liga MX. It started with Edson Puch in the 2016 Apertura, a season he went on to finish with nine goals for Necaxa. Then in the 2017 Clausura, Nicolas Castillo arrived to Pumas after finishing Chile's 2016 Torneo Apertura as the top goalscorer with 13 goals. In that same season, Eduardo Vargas made the move from Hoffenheim to Tigres. In his first season in Mexico, Castillo ended up scoring eight goals in ten starts for Pumas, while Vargas only scored once in eight starts and would go on to play zero minutes in the playoffs.
Chile's manager, Juan Antonio Pizzi, who coached Leon between 2014-2016, included six Liga MX-based players in his final Confederations Cup list. Pizzi, as Juanma Lillo, admires most of Liga MX clubs' offensive styles, but when ESPN FC asked him to elaborate on his point of view about the league in 2015, his response was cautious.
"Based on what we have been able to see in the year that we have been here, what he says is real [Lillo's idea that Liga MX is world's best]," he said. "But I think there is a margin of improvement in the defensive side of the game. Not only our team, but most of the teams can improve this side of the game. It's not just about seeing the goal in front us."
For the new Apertura, Cruz Azul brought in forward Felipe Mora, who finished Chile's 2017 Torneo Clausura as the top goalscorer with 13 goals. Will he match the immediate impact shown by Puch and Castillo? It remains to be seen because with Martin Cauteruccio, Angel Mena, Martin Rodriguez, and Edgar Mendez, Mora will have to impress Paco Jemez in training sessions in order to get playing time.
Over at Pachuca, the arrival of Keisuke Honda takes a lot of attention away from the fact that the club opted to bring in a Chilean tandem that could ease the transition as the club begins a new chapter without Hirving "Chucky" Lozano. Puch and Angelo Sagal will be two important offensive assets at manager Diego Alonso's disposal. Liga MX knows what Puch can offer, but very few don't know what to expect from Sagal, who's coming from Huachipato. It was Sagal who took Castillo's place in the Confed Cup roster because the Pumas striker couldn't recover from an ankle injury.
After Pachuca presented its new additions, president Jesus Martinez noted to the press that Sagal had offers to play in midtable European sides but decided to come to Liga MX.
"I'm convinced that our league is between the eighth and 10th best in the world," Martinez said. "That's why he's [Honda's] here.
"That's why [Andre-Pierre] Gignac came. That's why [Angelo] Sagal, who had offers from midtable European clubs, preferred to come here than go there. Our league is at a phenomenal level, and that's great for Mexico."
With a year to go until the World Cup, where Chile will have a another opportunity to make history, a significant number of those who can see their name on Chile's final World Cup roster are playing in Mexico. Since Week 1, Castillo, Sagal, Vargas, and even Morelia's Diego Valdez gave impressive displays, as if knowing that each one of their moves will be closely observed by Pizzi and his coaching staff.
Liga MX has always been a great home for many Chilean footballers, and today, that's truer than ever.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.