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 By Tom Marshall

Liga MX 2018 Apertura: What you need to know before kickoff

Andre-Pierre Gignac and Tigres should continue to be a contender for the Liga MX Apertura crown as usual.
Andre-Pierre Gignac and Tigres should continue to be a contender for the Liga MX Apertura crown as usual.

Russia 2018 may be over and leagues in Europe are still a couple of weeks away from starting up but a cure for the post-World Cup blues can be found in Liga MX, with the 2018 Apertura starting this Friday.

Here are 10 key questions leading into the new season in Mexico:

Which teams are the favorites to win this time around?

The same ones as last season and the season before: northern powerhouses Tigres and Monterrey.

Tigres has had a stable summer and looks even stronger this Apertura. The return of Guido Pizarro brings balance to the midfield and 21-year-old Colombian forward Julian Quinones comes back from loan at Lobos BUAP after netting 17 goals in 28 games. Add the fact that Tigres, finalists in the past three seasons before the 2018 Clausura, come into the Apertura rested and with a full preseason behind them. It's not controversial to suggest that Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti's team is favorite for the title.

Over at Monterrey, Diego Alonso has replaced Antonio Mohamed as head coach. That could mean Rayados need time to adapt to a more possession-based style but with goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero (from Necaxa), Mexico international Jesus Gallardo (Pumas) and Rodolfo Pizarro (Chivas) -- arguably the best Mexican player in Liga MX -- all new signings, Monterrey has assembled a formidable squad.

Is Cruz Azul really a title contender?

Yes, given that Cruz Azul is the biggest winner this offseason. Sporting director Ricardo Pelaez has been given money to spend and seems to have done so wisely, mainly on players already established in Liga MX. Winger Elias Hernandez from Leon is a consistent assist machine; Milton Caraglio (Atlas) is a dependable and hard-working center-forward, Igor Lichnovsky (Necaxa) and Pablo Aguilar (Club Tijuana) should give the defense stability while Ivan Marcone from Lanus is an experienced holding midfielder.

Add into the mix winger Roberto Alvarado, one of Mexico's most exciting youngsters, from Necaxa as well as manager Pedro Caixinha's experience in winning the Liga MX title and it's clear: Cruz Azul is in a strong position to make a run at winning its first championship since 1997.

What's going on with pro/rel? Does it still exist?

The promotion/relegation system in Liga MX has caused much confusion. Cafetaleros de Tapachula remains in the second division despite earning promotion because they didn't meet Liga MX entry requirements. "Relegated" Lobos BUAP paid (just over $6 million) to stay up.

For the 2018-19 seasons, the team that wins promotion from the Ascenso MX will go up if it meets Liga MX entry requirements and if it does, it appears there will also be relegation. At least that was the conclusion from Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla's June press conference. There has been some suggestion that the team that is "relegated" could pay to remain in Liga MX but there has been nothing official from the league and the regulations for 2018-19 have not yet been published on the website.

The idea appears to be that the league will increase to 20 teams, although how that is to happen has not been fully explained and only nine of the second division clubs have the infrastructure required to win promotion: Mineros, Dorados, Leones Negros, Zacatepec, Alebrijes, Tampico Madero, Atletico San Luis, FC Juarez and Cimarrones.

Djaniny's departure from Santos Laguna is just one major loss the team will need to overcome in its title defense.
Djaniny's departure from Santos Laguna is just one major loss the team will need to overcome in its title defense.

What's this new youngster rule?

Let's lay out the new rule: Each club must give players born in 1997 (or after) at least 765 minutes of playing time during the Apertura regular season, although at the time of writing the league hasn't announced the punishment for not fulfilling the criteria.

The number of minutes will be increased to 1000 by the 2019 Clausura. Also, only 12 non home-grown players are allowed to be registered by each club and only nine of those can be included in the match day squad.

The idea is to hand more Mexican youngsters chances to gain experience and hopefully boost the national team over the long run. The stipulations are similar to the 20/11 rule between 2005-11 that is credited by some for the emergence of Javier Hernandez, Andres Guardado, Hector Moreno and others.

What are the chances of Santos Laguna winning back-to-back titles?

Not great. The center-back partnership of Carlos Izquierdoz and Nestor Araujo provided a solid base to the title-winning team even if the injured Araujo was replaced by Gerardo Alcoba during their recent playoff run. Meanwhile Djaniny was the top goalscorer in the competition. But this summer, Izquierdoz has left for Boca Juniors, Araujo has moved to Celta Vigo and Djaniny has departed for Al-Ahli. Defender Hugo Nervo has come in from Argentine side Huracan but it'll take an almighty effort to make up for those three key losses.

Can Cardozo replicate Almeyda's success at Chivas?

Jose Cardozo replaced the much-loved Matias Almeyda at Chivas over the summer and the Guadalajara club goes into the Apertura with low expectations.

To be fair to Cardozo, the problem lies mainly in the playing squad. The club is in the midst of "financial consolidation" and has lost the core of its 2017 Clausura winning side. Goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota will be at Leon next season, Oswaldo Alanis is with Getafe, Nestor Calderon is at Celaya, Jose Juan Vazquez at Santos Laguna and Pizarro with Monterrey.

All in all, Chivas could be in for a tough and turbulent Apertura.

What about Club America?

On the other side of Mexican football's great rivalry, Las Aguilas should be making the playoffs and in Roger Martinez, they have a striker capable of taking the goal-scoring pressure off veteran Oribe Peralta. But the problem at Club America is that French forward Jeremy Menez is set to miss most the season with an ACL tear and Cecilio Dominguez won't be ready for the start of the Apertura due to a fractured jaw.

It'll be difficult to make up for those two in the creativity department although in general terms, Club America under Miguel Herrera is well set.

Any other contenders to keep an eye out for?

Morelia has been the surprise over the last couple of seasons but without Raul Ruidiaz's goals, it's difficult to see Monarcas keeping it up. Pachuca under new coach Pako Ayestaran will be hoping to get back into the playoffs, while Leon could make a run with the likes of Leonel Lopez and Pedro Aquino combining in midfield. But the other team primed to again go far is losing Clausura finalist Toluca, who added midfielder William da Silva from Club America to an already strong side.

Talking about goals, where are they going to come from?

This might be the biggest question. Of the top five regular season scorers last season, four have set sail to other leagues, with Nico Castillo (Pumas) now at Benfica, Fernando Uribe (Toluca) at Flamengo and Raul Ruidiaz (Morelia) at Seattle Sounders and Djaniny (Santos) in Saudi Arabia.

The stage looks set for Tigres' Andre-Pierre Gignac to recapture the scoring title although Club America's Martinez is a decent bet, as is Leon's Mauro Boselli.

Who have been the major offseason signings?

It's been a relatively quiet transfer window, with no Landon Donovan-esque surprise move and no big-name player like Keisuke Honda, Gignac or Ronaldinho coming into the league.

It's too early to say this represents a period of austerity in Liga MX but when the season kicks off and the biggest incoming signing is Martinez (Club America, from Jiangsu Suning), it's difficult to come to any other conclusion.

So far, the biggest transfers have been internal although that could change with the World Cup now over and the transfer window not closing until the end of August.

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

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