Welcome to the start of the Liga MX playoffs! After 17 weeks of regular season play, 12 teams remain in the hunt for the 2022 Apertura title.
Beginning with the play-in round this Saturday and Sunday, the Liguilla will kick-off with spots five through 12 battling it out for positions in next week's quarterfinal stage, where the top four of the regular season will await them. Here's how the schedule looks:
Byes: No. 1 Club America, No. 2 Monterrey, No. 3 Santos Laguna, No. 4 Pachuca
Ahead of the first playoff matches, we've got you covered with everything you need to know, beginning with three tiers for the title favorites.
Tier 1: The Front-runners
Regular season record: 17W-2D-3L (1st place)
Number of league titles: 13 (most in Liga MX)
First-place Club America were by far the best team of the Apertura regular season. After a shaky start through three losses in their first five games, manager Fernando Ortiz rejuvenated his side that then went on to an ongoing 12-game undefeated streak. Within the squad, there are too many high-performing players to name, including leading striker Henry Martin, game-changing midfielder Alvaro Fidalgo, energetic and brilliant winger Alejandro Zendejas, up-and-coming defender Emilio Lara, and many more.
Ortiz's squad love to hold possession and quickly win the ball back as needed, leading to countless entries in the final third where someone like Martin has been efficient with his 10 goals to date. The playoffs are an entirely different situation though, and as Ortiz noted after Club America's latest result: "The 12th qualified team has the same opportunity as us in first place."
Regular season record: 10W-5D-2L (2nd place)
Number of league titles: 5
But what about Monterrey? They only finished three points behind Club America in second place, and back in July, they even defeated the Mexico City team 3-2. There's a lot to like about the talent-heavy squad that boasted six national team call-ups (five for Mexico) in the latest international window.
Typically thriving on through balls and long passes that break past defenses, Los Rayados don't necessarily need possession as much as Club America. Defensively, they have a reliable backline and are great in the air. They can be a bit too scrappy though, meaning that we shouldn't rule out an unnecessary foul or yellow that hurts them in the playoffs.
Tier 2: The Dark Horses
Regular season record: 10W-3D-4L (3rd place)
Number of league titles: 6
Santos Laguna have almost gone under-the-radar with their success, which has given them a first-round bye. Carried by goalkeeper Carlos Acevedo and attack-minded players like Leonardo Suarez, Harold Preciado and Fernando Gorriaran, Los Guerreros went from fringe playoff contenders to strong finishers with only one loss in their last 10. There is an efficiency to the third place team that is great at intercepting the ball and playing direct soccer -- and have 38 goals to show for it over 17 games.
But do they have the roster depth to compete with bigger clubs? Luckily, thanks to their top three finish, Santos Laguna won't have to test themselves until the quarterfinal stage.
Regular season record: 9W-5D-3L (4th place)
Number of league titles: 6
Fourth-place Pachuca also won't have to deal with the play-in stage and will join Santos Laguna in the quarterfinal round. Once there, they should be able to showcase their almost reckless number of shots and 1v1 dribbling that has overwhelmed teams. Manager Guillermo Alamada isn't afraid to throw numbers forward and trust young domestic talent in his risk-taking style of play, but this also sometimes leads to losing the ball far too many times.
Regular season record: 9W-3D-5L (5th place)
Number of league titles: 7
At the risk of offending third-place Santos Laguna and fourth-place Pachuca, Tigres are probably the best of the second-tier group. Roster-wise, the fifth place team should be a true title-contender with names like Andre-Pierre Gignac, Nahuel Guzman, Florian Thauvin, Sebastian Cordova and several other skillful options. And yet, an inconsistent end to the season has left them out of the top four, meaning they'll first need to take part in a preliminary play-in round match against 12th-place Necaxa.
Since stepping in as coach last summer at Tigres, Miguel "Piojo" Hererra has collected more ejections than titles with the organization that has given him a roster that is a Liga MX All-Star team all on their own. With the investment being made, the larger-than-life boss needs to win something soon and if not, he might be looking for a job in the near future.
Regular season: 7W-6D-4L (6th place)
Number of league titles: 10
Sixth-place Toluca are an interesting squad as well. They took a chance on a roster overhaul over the summer and it has paid off with a return to the playoffs after missing out last season. Midfielders Leonardo Fernandez and Jean Meneses are Liga MX Best XI-caliber players for the 2022 Apertura, meanwhile manager Ignacio Ambriz appears motivated after a failed run with Huesca in Spain's second division.
The most glaring problem for them though is a noteworthy drop in energy, claiming just one win (against bottom of the table Queretaro) in their last eight matches. Toluca will kick off the play-in round as hosts against FC Juarez.
Regular season record: 7W-3D-7L (7th place)
Number of league titles: 9
Seventh-place Cruz Azul have something that is vital before a playoff run: Momentum. They've got four wins in their last four games, which includes victories over fellow playoff teams like Chivas and Leon. Interim manager Raul "Potro" Gutierrez has reawaked the Mexico City giants that have the luck of playing Leon once again in the play-in round this weekend. After that? That's where some serious doubts remain, especially when you consider how much Cruz Azul have struggled against Liga MX's best this season.
Tier 3: The Long-shots
Regular season record: 4W-10D-3L (8th place)
Number of league titles: 2
Puebla have the strange notoriety of having the most ties this season -- with 10 to their name through 17 games. Credit should be given to the young but shrewd manager Nicolas Larcamon for keeping pace in so many games, but of those 10, Puebla held the lead seven times before eventually losing it. Lots to prove for the 8th-place team that will face Chivas in the play-in round.
They are currently the Liga MX team with the longest title drought -- last won in 1990 -- they could be next in line after the recent unexpected championships won by underdogs Atlas and Cruz Azul since 2021. Larcamon tends to have a few tricks up his sleeve during big games, and as seen in previous playoff runs, Puebla's roster can become greater than the sum of its parts in high-profile Liguilla games.
Regular season record: 5W-7D-5L (9th place)
Number of league titles: 12
Outside of a handful of games at the midpoint of the season, Chivas have been largely ineffectual and poor in the attack. After floundering to ninth place, manager Ricardo Cadena will have to revive the squad that has scored just 19 times over 17 games. Three consecutive losses (which stretches to five if you include friendlies) to close out the season won't help much either.
What will likely irk Chivas fans is that Club America look poised to further increase their title tally, currently at 13. However, if Chivas exceed expectations and somehow clinch an unlikely trophy, they would equal Club America. Stranger things have happened in Liga MX.
Regular season record: 6W-4D-7L (10th place)
Number of league titles: 8
10th-place Leon have been average at best, regularly having issues with stringing satisfactory performances together. The good news for them, and for manager Renato Paiva, is that new striker Lucas Di Yoiro is gaining some form at the end of the season. Up against Cruz Azul in the play-in round, the Argentine will be heading in with four goals and two assists over his last seven appearances.
Regular season record: 4W-7D-6L (11th place)
Number of league titles: None
FC Juarez breathed a sigh of relief recently, knowing that they needed some results to work in their favor to finish at 11th place. Manager Hernan Cristante and veteran goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera have done well to tighten up the backline, but going forward, there is little hope for the team that has the fewest goals scored (17) from the clubs remaining in the playoffs.
Regular season record: 5W-4D-8L (12th place)
Number of league titles: 3
Finally, we close out with 12th-place Necaxa, who also needed some results to work in their favor last weekend. They have question marks throughout their XI and with only one victory since mid-August, Los Rayos should just be happy to be here and won't be much of a challenge to Tigres.
Players to watch
We have to highlight Club America's Martin. No player has had a higher total of combined goals (10) and assists (five) this season than the 29-year-old forward. Currently in the running for valuable World Cup minutes and appearances for Mexico, Martin should be more than motivated to continue his excellent run of form. In support at Club America, Spanish midfielder Alvaro Fidalgo has been incredible as well and is arguably the most impactful Liga MX player in his position in the Apertura.
As Santos Laguna's leader in net, Acevedo will have a point to prove in the playoffs. In spite of being one of the top goalkeepers of the season, and also in spite of his stunning goal he scored in early September, the 26-year-old was surprisingly left out of Mexico's latest call-up last month. A strong finish in the Liguilla could do plenty to help win over El Tri manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino ahead of Qatar.
League-leading goalscorer Ibañez deserves a special shout after topping the Liga MX regular season charts with 11 goals for Pachuca. Thanks to the Argentine's clever positioning and excellent placement of the ball through headers, he'll be a threat to any and all defenders in the Liguilla.