Liga MX is debuting a new and expanded playoff system that sees 12 clubs as part of the postseason. It isn't to everyone's liking, but certainly adds to the drama now the "2020 Guard1anes" liguilla is here.
The extra one-leg play-in round means that only the top four seeds -- Leon, Pumas, Club America, and Cruz Azul -- are guaranteed places in the quarterfinals, while defending champions Monterrey faces Puebla, Tigres play Toluca, Chivas host Necaxa and Santos Laguna takes on Pachuca in the repechaje. Those games are set to take place over Saturday and Sunday, and with 27 players from Liga MX involved for their national teams over this past window, there is potential for upsets.
The COVID-19 situation has been especially difficult in Mexican football and the clubs will have to be especially vigilant in the postseason. Over 30% of first team Liga MX men's players have tested positive since the pandemic started. Right before the international break, Pachuca recorded 14 cases in the first team.
But despite the worry of a potential outbreak, 12 of the 18 clubs have hopes of celebrating a title in a few weeks, something that is inconceivable in most leagues. Here is how the field is shaping up:
Why they could win it all: Simply put, La Fiera is Liga MX's best team and has been for some time, both in terms of results and playing attractive, effective football. Leon finished first in the regular season, picking up 40 points and losing only once. Central midfielder Luis "Chapito" Montes has been a class apart in the regular season, showing arguably the best form of his entire career at 34, while Leon boast in Angel Mena (37 goals and 21 assists over 68 appearances) one of the most productive Liga MX forwards over recent seasons.
Why they could go home early: It may be a tad harsh, but there is a potential question mark about Nacho Ambriz's team in knockout scenarios. In the 2019 Apertura, Leon crashed out to Morelia in the quarterfinals, then squeezed past Club America in the 2019 Clausura semifinals only to fall short against Tigres in the final. Then there was that disastrous display and 3-0 defeat away against LAFC in the CONCACAF Champions League second leg last February. The other factor is that there is some pressure on Ambriz -- who has said he wants to coach in Europe -- to cap off a sensational stint at the club with silverware.
Why they could win it all: Club America has been consistent in challenging for titles since Miguel Herrera returned to the club in 2017. This is a team with championship pedigree and playoff know-how. The injury crisis is easing up and although this version of Herrera's Las Aguilas isn't the most expansive, it does have a pragmatic streak.
Strikers Federico Vinas and Henry Martin will cause problems for anyone and Sebastian Cordova has shown already this season that he can step up and be an important player. Herrera has a wildcard up his sleeve in Roger Martinez. If "Piojo" can coax performances out of the Colombian, he can be a difference-maker even if Martinez is clearly not happy at the club.
Why they could go home early: With Nico Benedetti injured, Giovani dos Santos inconsistent and Martinez largely absent, there has to be a question about just how much creativity there is at America, especially if Cordova doesn't perform. Fans certainly haven't fallen in love with this team, so far, and not playing those big playoffs games in front of a bubbling Estadio Azteca is a negative.
Why they could win it all: You know what you're getting with Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti's Tigres and they aren't easily knocked out of the playoffs. French striker Andre-Pierre Gignac has looked even hungrier than ever this season (11 goals this campaign) and when it comes to the postseason, the 34-year-old usually shows up.
Why they could go home early: An over-reliance on Gignac could be an issue, with Ferretti agreeing that he'd like more of a distribution of goals. In that respect, losing Eduardo Vargas to Atletico Mineiro was a blow. Also, few expect Tigres to fall against Toluca in the play-in round, but the Nuevo Leon side failed to win in its last three regular season games, including home draws against Atlas and Juarez, neither of who are in the postseason. In fact, the conservative possession game has led to Tigres tying nine of their 27 Liga MX games in 2020, with only 11 wins.
Why they could win it all: Rayados are the reigning Liga MX champions, following the cancelation of last season -- in which they were in last place -- due to the coronavirus. And after a poor start to the season that saw Antonio Mohamed's position as head coach questioned, Monterrey has won four of its last five Liga MX games, as well as winning the Copa MX this month. The squad, led by striker Rogelio Funes Mori and defensive stalwart Cesar Montes, remains arguably the strongest in the league.
Why they could go home early: Monterrey hasn't been consistent for a long time and struggles against teams that cede the initiative. The momentum of the title charge one year ago doesn't feel to be with the team Funes Mori hasn't hit the heights of previous seasons.
The flawed contenders
Why they could win it all: This is a squad with enough quality to mix it with anyone. Uruguayan Jonathan Rodriguez finished the regular season as the league's top scorer with 12 goals and the form of Orbelin Pineda bodes well for Robert Siboldi's experienced and well-drilled team. If things aren't working, there are players like Elias Hernandez, Yoshimar Yotun and Martin Caraglio on the bench.
Why they could go home early: La Maquina has only won once in its last six games, scoring only three times over that period. Past results don't necessarily predict the future, but Cruz Azul will also likely be up against a tough opponent in Monterrey (and if not then Tigres) in the quarterfinal. And then there's the psychological baggage: La Maquina hasn't won a title since 1997, losing in six finals since.
Why they could win it all: It's impossible to write Pumas off. The university team has lost only once all season and finished second in the regular season table. Players have talked about the fantastic team spirit, and it's evident on the field. After a terrible start to the season, with Michel Gonzalez leaving only a couple of days before the tournament started, Andre Lillini has stepped in and shaped an intense team that is difficult to play against. Also, in Juan Dinneno (10 goals) and Carlos Gonzalez (5 goals), Pumas have a strike force that can cause any team problems. Keep an eye on Pumas' set pieces as well: they have 15 goals from set plays in 2020, more than any other team in Liga MX.
Why they could go home early: Goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera has been the signing of the season after joining from Toluca and is a major reason behind the team only losing once, but he is expected to miss out on the quarterfinal with a groin injury. Pumas also outscored its Expected Goals (xG) by five goals over the 17 regular season games. Against an America, Tigres, Monterrey, Leon or Cruz Azul, Pumas would be the underdog.
Why they could win it all: Santos Laguna's home form is sensational. Los Guerreros have lost only once in their last 26 Liga MX games at Estadio Corona. They are also on the rise this season. It took Guillermo Almada some time to adapt the system after key forward Brian Lozano suffered a season-ending injury, but the team has found its groove -- riding a seven-game unbeaten streak -- at the business end of the competition.
Why they could go home early: Santos struggled against the top teams in the regular season, losing to Leon, Tigres, Pumas, America and Cruz Azul. Lozano's absence robbed Santos of their best player and, with it, that difference-maker most of the best teams in Liga MX possess. Carlos Acevedo has been excellent in goal, but the 24-year-old will feel a different kind of challenge in the postseason.
Why they could win it all: Los Tuzos had the joint-best defense in the league with only 14 goals conceded and the xG numbers show Pachuca had the chances to net more than their 18 goals at the other end. If they can finish better, Pachuca could be a dark horse. The team from Hidalgo is involved in a lot of tight games and only lost four times in the regular season.
Why they could go home early: Pachuca has lacked a striker this season. Roberto de la Rosa is a bright young Mexican talent, but hasn't shown himself to be close to the level of the top strikers in Liga MX. Then there are those 14 positive COVID-19 tests earlier this month. Most of the players will likely have recovered, but it will have disrupted the training schedule and plans for the play-in game against Santos.
Why they could win it all: There's enough quality in this Chivas squad to challenge for the title, even if injuries in recent days to Alexis Vega -- who is unlikely to play again in 2020 -- and Jose Juan Macias have done serious damage to the team's chances. The better news is that winger Uriel Antuna has hit form and despite the off-field stories that have plagued the club in 2020, the last regular season game saw Chivas show some grit to overcome Monterrey 3-1. And then there is coach "King Midas" Victor Manuel Vucetich, who has a history of doing well in the postseason.
Why they could go home early: The aforementioned injuries to Vega and Macias are a cruel blow. Those two scored seven of Chivas' 20 goals this season. In the background is also the fuss that the club has kicked up about Cruz Azul's Ignacio Rivero's challenge on Vega in a friendly against Mexico's U-23. That's been a further distraction. It'll take something special for Chivas in their first postseason since 2017, when they won the Clausura.
Why they could win it all: How to rank Necaxa in this list? The truth is that the Aguascalientes club doesn't have the strongest squad in the league, but Los Rayos are arguably the form team in the league, coming into the playoffs with five consecutive victories. David Cabrera has been one of the best midfielders of the season so far and Lucas Passerini is a handful upfront.
Why they could go home early: The game against Chivas is difficult one and even if Necaxa get past the Guadalajara team, you expect one of the bigger teams to get the better of them over two legs, especially as Necaxa only beat one (Santos) of the top eight seeds in the regular season.
Happy to be involved
Why they could win it all: Rubens Sambueza can be a thorn in the side of any team if he is having a good day and forwards Michael Estrada and Alexis Canelo are dangerous. After Toluca struggled with a six-match winless streak under ex-coach Jose Manuel "Chepo" de La Torre, Carlos Morales was brought in mid-September and has steadied the ship. Toluca is also dangerous from set plays, with 10 of its 23 goals this season coming in this fashion from set pieces.
Why they could go home early: It doesn't get much tougher than an away trip to Tigres for the play-in round. And there are too many problems in defense to really believe Los Diablos Rojos can go deep.
Why they could win it all: It's difficult to form an argument for Puebla winning the title, given there are seven games on the way to the championship. It'd be an almighty shock. But that feeling of having absolutely nothing to lose is perhaps La Franja's strength, as well as being direct and compact and generally an awkward team to play against.
Why they could go home early: Monterrey has just too much quality in the play-in round and even if Puebla can cause a major upset, next up would be a quarterfinal series against the exceptional Leon.