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Thursday, June 1, 2023

Five Key Storylines to Watch During the 2020 Liga MX Apertura

Liga MX News Apertura Storylines to Watch
Can Monterrey repeat as Liga MX champions? Jorge Nunez/EPA.

While most European soccer leagues have only just concluded their most recent campaigns, the 2020-21 Liga MX season is already in motion and ready to take the spotlight.

This year’s Torneo Apertura—renamed “Guardianes” in tribute to healthcare workers’ efforts during the coronavirus pandemic—will be the first of five years without promotion or relegation, but the competition remains fierce.

New faces (as well as one new team) will emerge alongside the more established faces of Mexican soccer, and we break down some of this season’s must-watch storylines.

1. Can Monterrey go back-to-back?

Consistency winning silverware isn’t as common a trend in Liga MX as it tends to prove in most other soccer leagues, and back-to-back titles is a feat no team in Mexico has managed since 2013-14. Tigres clinched three consecutive Apertura trophies between 2015 and 2017, but sealing two titles in a calendar year has eluded all who have tried in recent years.

Monterrey have a bright opportunity to end that drought under Antonio Mohamed, who transformed their fortunes following his second appointment in November 2019. Mohamed won the Apertura in his first season back at the Estadio BBVA, and the early signs look positive in their title defence:

It’s not possible for Monterrey to end the aforementioned title curse in a traditional sense considering the 2020 Clausura was cancelled due to the pandemic. Nevertheless, they return to play as one of the outfits with a target on their back, and winning the Guardianes campaign will hold a unique honor of its own.

2. Gignac’s lasting legacy

There’s little understating Andre-Pierre Gignac’s influence on Liga MX as the former France striker enters his sixth campaign in Mexico, having cemented his place as arguably the league’s best import of all time.

The Tigres talisman netted 33 goals during his first season playing for the club and has gone on to  score 128 times in 221 games, which is a little more than he managed in nine combined campaigns for his two previous employers, Marseille and Toulouse.

Rather than act as any sort of indictment on Liga MX, Gignac’s continued success in Mexico serves to remind of the splendour that can come from a player finding their perfect fit:

The veteran may be 34, but Gignac followed up his 22 goals last season by scoring a brace in Week 1 of the Guardianes—the opening strike of this year’s Apertura championship:

Gignac became Tigres’ record scorer in August 2019 and has one more year left on his contract—which expires in June 2021—though his ongoing excellence up front may lead to another extension.

3. Will excitement hold without fear of relegation?

It was suspected for some time in advance that promotion to and relegation from Liga MX would be suspended in the near future, though that didn’t make the decision any less controversial for many around the league when it was confirmed.

The new structure plans to use the Ascenso MX more as a development league for Mexico’s under-23 prospects—a worthy cause, in isolation—but some weren’t happy losing the motivation offered by potential promotion to the top flight.

The certification system previously put into place was to assure clubs were capable of running as a Liga MX operation, but ESPN FC’s Tom Marshall touched upon potential flaws in the new setup:

Moreover, it remains to be seen what effect the change will have in keeping teams already in the top flight motivated to perform well, with no threat of losing their spot among the country’s elite.

The risk of losing millions in a one-off fine might be sufficient to stir the same dread raised by relegation, but one can’t help feel at least a layer of the excitement has been stripped away as a result.

4. Mexico’s next generation

Speaking of the Ascenso MX’s newfound priorities regarding youth, that’s not to say the first tier is liable to abandon its fondness for the next generation anytime soon.

The lower-risk structure in Mexico has long given managers license to promote homegrown products to great effect for years now, the fruits of which Cesar Hernandez pointed out during the opening week:

Players like Jose Macias, Roberto Alvarado and Jonathan Gonzalez (each 21 or younger) are evidence of the quick strides players can make in Liga MX, which fast-tracks its emerging stars into the national team setup as fast as any other.

However, South American nations also profit from posting their players in a league that embraces its youth so gladly, with the likes of Leonardo Fernandez (Uruguay), German Berterame (Argentina) and Jose Ortiz (Colombia) looking set to break out as part of the class of 2020.

5. Mayhem in Mazatlan

One change that brought as much ire as any other in Mexico this season was the decision to relocate Monarcas Morelia and erect a brand-new club: Mazatlan F.C..

Supporters of the club were quick to air their grievances with the move, which was made official on June 2, two days before Morelia was due to celebrate its 70th anniversary.

Life in Liga MX started poorly for Mazatlan, who failed to win in three Copa por Mexico matches before crumbling 4-1 against Puebla in their league opener, though there are some bright signs:

The owners have short-term obstacles ahead of them but face a long-term battle in winning over the public following the nature of their birth, particularly as it came just when the suspension of relegation was confirmed.

Mazatlan are here to stay as far as the competition are concerned, but rest assured the newcomers will be baptised in Liga MX having already made their share of enemies.

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