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 By Eric Gomez

As Monterrey coasts, Liga MX playoff race focuses on the middle of the pack

Cruz Azul's win puts it in fourth place and squarely among those in contention for the playoffs.

MEXICO CITY -- At the top of the Liga MX league table, Monterrey notched their seventh win of the season and widened the gap on Club America, who were only able to muster a draw in Tijuana on Friday night. At the other end, Puebla, Pumas and Atlas remain at the bottom with seven points; two of the three are also keeping an eye on the relegation table. 

And so, as the season moves forward, the jostling in the middle of the table will see the real race for playoff spot. After nine games, the distance between third-place Toluca and Necaxa, in ninth, is just three points, setting up an exciting final stretch. As the second half of the regular season begins, here are five things we learned from Week 9 of the Apertura 2017:

1. Tigres' defensive woes are taking a toll

In Morelia, an Angel Sepulveda goal with 12 minutes remaining snatched a win away from Tigres in what was a thrilling 3-3 draw. The Monterrey side has given up 10 goals in its last four games in both league and cup, the latter of which they are now eliminated from.

Tuca Ferretti's boys remain in position to make the liguilla due to their impressive offense -- their 18 goals scored leads the league -- but the embarrassment of riches up front has led to the team making some serious concessions in the back.

Timothee Kolodziejczak and Rafael Carioca were added with the thought of balancing the team's defense; It will be interesting to see how the new signings fit into a lineup currently loaded with players of more offensive capabilities.

2. Chivas' struggles are not over yet

The dominant first win of the season for Guadalajara seemed to be a harbinger of better times for Matias Almeyda's squad, but a disappointing 1-1 home draw against Pumas at the weekend brought those hopes down somewhat.

Chivas created a plethora of chances, but without a steady finisher -- Alan Pulido cannot return fast enough from injury -- a near-comical amount of misses piled up. Even the Goats' only goal, a stunning strike from 20-year-old Jose Godinez, came about after a chaotic sequence at the edge of the box in which the ball was smacked around by several players on both sides.

Though Liga MX is notoriously forgiving of slow starts, it's looking less and less likely the defending champs can turn it around in time to seek a second consecutive run in the playoffs.

3. Cruz Azul is finally finding their groove

The Mexico City team has not lost a game since April and, though its has been mostly piling up draws this season, it's still an impressive feat to note they're undefeated through nine games.

This weekend, they overcame an early deficit at home and took advantage of an implosion from Santos Laguna, who ended the game with just eight players on the pitch. Felipe Mora and veteran Christian Gimenez scored in the second half to seal the win and place Cruz Azul fourth.

For years now, it's been a sad cliché to ask if the current season is finally the one in which Cruz Azul can end its extended trophy drought, but a beleaguered fan base has placed its trust in coach Paco Jemez. In response, the Spaniard has built a strong and compact team capable of taking points from anyone, anywhere.

4. Xolos will only get better

Tijuana's run of four straight wins ended Friday night against Club America, but the team delivered a strong performance against a tough opponent. New signing Miller Bolanos scored on his debut to rescue a point at the Caliente Stadium after Oribe Peralta had put the visitors ahead.

Bolanos, an Ecuador international who most recently played in Brazil, is the final addition to a team that started out very slowly under coach Eduardo Coudet but has rocketed into contention lately.

Other impact signings, such as Argentina's Gustavo Bou and Paraguay's Juan Iturbe, have made Xolos an electric offensive unit this season. In the back, Alejandro Donatti might be a low-key candidate for best new player; the six-foot-three defender has been a physical challenge for opposing strikers facing off against Tijuana.

Though the game ended in a draw, this was a statement game for Tijuana, who rapidly look like contenders for a deep playoff run as the season moves along.

5. Monterrey is a joy to watch

Punishing on offense, stingy on defense, league leaders Monterrey have been amazing through nine games. Along with rivals Tigres, they have the best offense in the league with 18 goals, while they also boast the best defensive unit in Liga MX, having conceded just five times.

The Rayados left it late this weekend against a surprisingly tough Atlas squad: Rogelio Funes Mori scored in the 85th minute, effectively washing away an earlier penalty kick miss. The amount of speed up front for Monterrey makes it difficult for any team to defend against them, as evidenced by Aviles Hurtado's first-half goal and his constant connections with Dorlan Pabon and Funes Mori up front.

In the back, meanwhile, the center-back combination of Cesar Montes and Jose Maria Basanta might be the best in the entire league.

All things considered, it looks likely that undefeated Monterrey can coast all the way into the 15th game of the season, when they host Club America. Should they get past the Mexico City giants, their next big test is on the season finale when they face Tigres.

Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.


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