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Liga MX Clausura preview: Can Atlas once again defy odds? Will Monterrey add to trophy case?

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Gomez: Cruz Azul got the better deal in 3-player swap with Chivas (1:20)

Herculez Gomez says Cruz Azul got the better end of the deal that saw Uriel Antuna and Alejandro Mayorga join La Máquina, while Roberto Alvarado became a Chivas player. (1:20)

Atlas will have little time to celebrate before defending the Liga MX 2021 Apertura title. Just 25 days after hoisting the trophy, Atlas and the rest of Mexico's top flight will resume play on Jan. 6 with the start of the 2022 Clausura tournament.

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Similar to the Apertura, Liga MX's rules and structure will remain the same. 17 regular season matches will be played by each team, the top four in the table will automatically qualify for the quarterfinal round of the Liguilla playoffs, while spots 5 through 12 will take part in a wildcard weekend.

Promotion and relegation is still on pause, meaning that the bottom three teams of the coefficient table -- which we'll dive into later -- will pay a fee instead of potentially moving down to the 2nd division.

But enough about the rules. With no lack of storylines, transfers or players to analyze in the always entertaining top league from North America, here's everything you need to know before things kick off on Jan 6th.

Jump to: Can Atlas repeat? | Who won the transfer market? | Monterrey do the Double? | Who needs to improve | Under the radar? | El Tri youngsters to eye | Bottom-feeder battle | So, who'll win the title?! |

Can Atlas build on historic run and repeat?

Although Atlas' Liga MX championship was their first in 70 years, a second trophy in a row isn't an outlandish proposition. In a fickle league that often sees coaches ousted after just a few months in charge, Atlas manager Diego Cocca has been given enough time to cement his ideas through a defensively organized 5-3-2 system.

"The truth is that the mentality that we have built with these guys, with this institution, is very strong," said Cocca in a post-game news conference last month after winning the Liga MX title. "And today, this proves it."

There is a clear character and identity to his team, and with Jesus Angulo (to Tigres) as the only noteworthy departure from the club, Cocca will be able to rely on plenty of recognizable names who will be well-versed in his approach.

At the very least, they'll be dark horses for another championship.

Will Tigres, Cruz Azul, America, Chivas benefit from transfers?

One of the stories of the winter offseason, if not the story of the winter offseason, was the absence of European transfers for several high-profile Mexican talents that were instead moved to another Liga MX side.

From those specific winter deals, no team seemed to benefit more than Tigres. Already top-heavy with marquee names like Andre-Pierre Gignac, Guido Pizarro and Florian Thauvin, Tigres stole headlines with the additions of Sebastian Cordova from Club America and the aforementioned Angulo from Atlas.

Cruz Azul also made plenty of eye-catching domestic additions with Uriel Antuna from Chivas, Carlos "Charly" Rodriguez from Monterrey and Erik Lira from Pumas being thrown into the mix, among others. The only issue is whether this will be a gamble for the club that have let go a growing list of players that includes Roberto Alvarado (to Chivas), Orbelin Pineda (who is set to join LaLiga's Celta Vigo) and Luis Romo (to Monterrey). Without these starters -- and perhaps a few more in the near future -- Cruz Azul might not be able to recreate the same magic that carried them to their title drought-ending championship in the 2021 Clausura.

Speaking of Alvarado, it remains up in the air if he'll will be enough to resolve Chivas' problems. Coupled with the exit of Antuna and also Alejandro Mayorga from the squad, Alvarado might struggle with reawakening the sleeping giant that lost in the wildcard round after a spot at 10th in the table last season.

And although it may not be a transfer from one Liga MX squad to another, if we're talking about major Mexican signings, we need to bring up Rodolfo Pizarro to Monterrey and Jonathan dos Santos to Club America. Both players are coming back from time in Major League Soccer (Inter Miami CF and LA Galaxy, respectively) and are carrying big expectations already.

Will a team win the Champions League and Liga MX double?

Since Monterrey last accomplished it in 2019, the next opportunity at gaining the two biggest prizes for Mexican clubs will come down to four teams: Leon, Cruz Azul, Pumas and Santos Laguna.

As last season's Liga MX finalists, Leon could make a case for themselves as a strong CCL contender in 2022. Cruz Azul might be a mixed bag at the moment ahead of the Liga MX season, but in the CCL, they'll undoubtedly be a favorite.

Things are a bit more complicated for Santos Laguna and Pumas. Despite the fact that Santos manager Pedro Caixinha has CCL and Liga MX experience, the Portuguese head coach may want to prioritize domestic play in his first season back. As for Pumas, it's difficult to imagine that they'll have the depth to make a dent.

Keep an eye on Monterrey in February's Club World Cup as well, where they could face the likes of Chelsea and Palmeiras. It's a big hill to climb, but Los Rayados could be bringing up a different kind of Double this spring to Estadio BBVA.

Stars that must show improvement

Florian Thauvin, who is reportedly the highest paid player in Liga MX, needs to offer much more for Tigres. Granted, he had injury problems and a late start due to participating in the Olympics, but the French winger and ex-Marseille man didn't reach the lofty heights that were expected of him. A red card in his debut last August wasn't exactly the best introduction.

What's next for Jonathan Gonzalez? No longer the exciting up-and-comer that was stuck in a battle between representing the United States or Mexico -- and ultimately choosing Mexico -- Gonzalez has now been on a slow decline over the last several tournaments. Following an underwhelming stint with Necaxa, the 2017-18 Liga MX rookie of the year is now with Queretaro. The good news for him: He's still only 22.

Monterrey's Jesus Gallardo also seems to be on a decline. Regardless of his constant minutes for club and country, the Mexican left-back appears to have lost some of his speed and defensive abilities. With a World Cup coming up, the 27-year-old must start to pick up some of the slack.

Who are some under-the-radar stars?

Midfielder Alejandro Zendejas is an easy candidate. After a quiet start to his Liga MX career, the FC Dallas academy product eventually became an invaluable figure to Necaxa since 2020. Once a former U.S. youth national team player that has switched to Mexico, Zendejas' stock is now rising as a well-rounded midfielder who can play in the heart of the XI or on the flanks. It's not a shock to see that Club America are currently chasing the 23-year-old.

Although a few other Atlas players are worthy of a spot in this category, defender Anderson Santamaria stands out with his aggressive and imposing presence in the backline. The 29-year-old Peruvian always seemed to position himself perfectly with his well-timed tackles and interceptions that were vital in Atlas' championship run.

27-year-old Arturo Alfonso "Ponchito" Gonzalez is also going through a renaissance in his career. In a Monterrey roster that has a number of international talent within the squad, the Mexican midfielder has found a way to outshine most of them through his playmaking and vision. If his form continues, he might force his way into a more prominent role with the national team.

Mexican youngsters that could emerge

Can Pachuca's Bryan Gonzalez become the next Hirving Lozano or Erick Gutierrez? The 18-year-old left winger/attacking midfielder collected a goal and assist in his previous four starts for Pachuca last season. It's perhaps due to his association with their respected development academy, but hype is starting to increase for the player. More opportunities will surely follow for the pacey Mexican.

Leon's Fidel Ambriz has also gained traction with his eight Liga MX appearances last season. The 18-year-old central midfielder provides plenty of leadership for a player of his age, and in November, he captained Mexico's youth national team in the Revelations Cup.

Whether he stays with Club Tijuana or makes a rumored move over to Club America, defender Victor Guzman is another promising figure to note. Thanks to his strength, aerial abilities and speed, the 19-year-old has been a constant starter with Xolos since mid-2020.

Which clubs are in the running for the bottom three?

Relegation will be paused for at least one more summer in Liga MX. Therefore, the teams at the bottom three of the coefficient table, which is settled by a points-per-game ratio over the last three years (six seasons), are given fines at the end of each Clausura.

Necaxa, Tijuana and Juarez will be starting off the season in the bottom three.

Unsurprisingly, each team finished in the last five spots of the league table last season, with Tijuana sitting at dead last. Of the three, Necaxa appear the most likely to avoid fines. Along with a slight advantage in points-per-game, they've also made interesting acquisitions in the transfer window through the signings of Nico Castillo and Dieter Villalpando.

If Necaxa make improvements, and/or if Tijuana and Juarez quickly garner points, other candidates like Toluca, San Luis, Mazatlan and Queretaro could get dragged into the bottom three.

Which club will win the 2022 Clausura title?

Will it be Atlas? As mentioned earlier, they're a dark horse that have held onto most of their championship-winning roster. With Cocca on the sideline, they'll be pushing for two in a row.

Tigres will be a contender as well. Their already daunting squad has somehow become even stronger after the winter additions of Angulo and Cordova. Assuming Thauvin can improve after more time to adjust, it's scary to think of what they'll be able to accomplish in the near future. Of course, they also have the ultimate clutch player in Gignac.

Monterrey should be in the running, but things didn't click for manager Javier Aguirre and his squad in late 2021. Club America finished at the top of the regular season table last season, and they now have Dos Santos, but doubts remain over manager Santiago Solari's cautious approach in the playoffs.

Cruz Azul's roster gamble could prove to pay off handsomely, Leon now seem to regularly find themselves in finals, and elsewhere, Santos Laguna always tend to punch above their weight.

Any other team winning it all would be a stunning turn of events, but then again, that could be said for Liga MX's last two champions...