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 By Tom Marshall

Liga MX Femenil starts play with excited crowds and young players

Fans were standing around Chivas' San Rafael complex hoping to get a glimpse of the Guadalajara-Atlas game.

Not too long ago, the notion of Mexico's first-division teams fielding women's sides was an improbable dream, but that changed this weekend with the historic opening matches of Liga MX Femenil.

The first round of games in the Liga MX Femenil 2017 Apertura went smoothly, with nearly 14,000 combined attending the eight matches. Of those games, Morelia's 2-1 win over Veracruz attracted 6,170 fans to Estadio Morelos, while Pachuca's win over Pumas had an attendance of 3,124 in Estadio Hidalgo.

They were the only two matches to be played at the respective clubs' home stadium, with the other six matches taking place at training centers.

At the Clasico Tapatio in Guadalajara early Saturday morning, fans packed around the field at Chivas' San Rafael training complex, scrambling for a view through the wired fencing of Guadalajara's 3-0 victory over Atlas.

The Liga MX listed the attendance as 600, but there would likely have been far more had it been at the first team's Verde Valle installation or even Estadio Chivas.

"If fans continue to show up like that," Chivas coach Fernando Camacho said afterwards, "we'll have no option but to play in a stadium."

The presence of around 30 media members was also a positive.

On the field, the difference in quality between the teams was notable. Chivas have had more time developing their squad and Camacho admitted that the institution had to improve following the team's poor display in the inaugural cup competition back in May, given their status as one of Mexico's most popular clubs.

Atlas' squad, on the other hand, missed out on that cup and has had comparatively little time to prepare. It showed on the field and in the scoreline and the away team's shirts were shorn of sponsorship and appeared to be training ones.

On the sidelines, Mexican national team scouts watched on, pen and notepad in hand. Both Chivas and Atlas -- like the majority of other teams -- have squads with an average age of 20 or younger. Perhaps the most positive thing about the league is that the next generation of Mexican players now have a domestic outlet for their talent.

Indeed, the youngest player in the league is Morelia's 12-year-old Layla Garcia. Each squad is only allowed to field two players over 23 years old, making the league's intent to fuel the national team further down the line very clear.

The first game, in which Pachuca defeated Pumas 3-0, had a total reach of 2.5 million of the Facebook live stream, according to a report. And the Pachuca side -- coached by 31-year-old Eva Espejo -- is an early example of what real planning can produce when it comes to women's football in Mexico.

Pachuca held extensive trials, have played friendlies in the United States to prepare for the season and have been promoting the men's and women's team together, all of which has helped to make the Tuzas an early favorite to carry over recent cup success into the league.

Another team that went on tour to the United States was Tigres, who were able to convince Mexico international Nayeli Rangel to come back from Europe to play in Liga MX Femenil.

"Tigres came in for me months ago," said Rangel before the season. "It's a team I have a lot of affection for since I was very small, so it was an opportunity to show that in Mexico we can do it and to demonstrate that the league can grow a lot with all the support being shown."

Rangel is set to be involved in the game of the weekend next Saturday, as Tigres play Chivas in Estadio Universitario. The fixture is set to be played straight after Tigres host Queretaro in the male Liga MX, and it's a safe bet to suggest a large proportion of Tigres' passionate fan base will stick around.

Of course, there is plenty to iron out in Liga MX Femenil. There remains the unfathomable rule on dual Mexico-U.S. nationals born outside of Mexico not being allowed to play.

The experience that international-caliber players born in the United States such as Olivia Jimenez, Monica Alvarado and Veronica Perez could bring to teams and younger players is something the league is missing out on. It also seems a shame that Puebla and Lobos BUAP haven't been able to field teams. And, of course, in terms of payments to players, sponsorships and television rights, there is much work to do.

These are the early days, and there is naturally a long way to go to live up to the potential Liga MX Femenil has. But the journey has started, and clubs such as Pachuca are showing the way forward. The challenge now is to sustain this league, help it grow and make sure that it becomes solidly established and impossible to erase.

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

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