There a lot of folks who think the Liga MX Liguilla is too bloated. It cheapens the regular season when almost half the teams qualify, they say. And with a two-season calendar, it borders on absurd. Nevertheless, a lot of the folks have never experienced Mexican League soccer without a liguilla. It is not a new phenomenon; it was put into place over 40 years ago.
They're right, of course. Most liguillas include less than inspiring match-ups with a few sprinkles of quality ties. Every now then, though, we get a liguilla that serves up a scrumptious menu of tasty treats, and that is exactly what what the C13 edition will be offering us.
Which is exaclty why there is a liguilla in the first place.
The only thing missing in the Fiesta Grande is Chivas, but they have bigger issues to sift through. But no one wants to talk about the teams that are setting up fishing trips and tee times, so let's jump into the match-ups.
(3)Atlas-(6)Santos Laguna 1st Leg - Torreón - Thursday - 7:00PM CT 2nd Leg - Guadalajara - Sunday - 8:00PM CT We can't start any preview of any Atlas post-season tie without mentioning the fact that it has been 62 years since the rojinegros have lifted a league trophy. 62 years. Soixante-deux! At the beginning of the season, any thought of a ticket to the fiesta grande would have been considered a massive bonus. Tomás Boy's bunch were in the thick of a relegation fight with Queretaro (who ultimately dropped), but they lost only once in their first 10 games and hovered around the top-3 for most of the campaign.
What was their secret? Defense. The red and black only conceded a baker's dozen in 17 games, while former Guadalajara star, Omar Bravo, returned to the Perla Tapatia to lead his new club with 6 goals.
Goals will be a premium in their match-up with Santos, who tied Atlas for the league lead with only 13 goals conceded. For years, Santos was defined by having one of the most lethal offenses in the Americas, and they won several titles by outscoring their opponents. While Portuguese coach, Pedro Caixinha has put his emphasis on shoring up the defense, every coach in the liguilla would love to have the offensive options at Caixinha's disposal: Oribe Peralta, Hércules Gómez, and Carlos Darwin Quintero: who were responsible for 3/4 of Santos' offensive output.
Who has momentum? Neither side comes into the post-season on a hot streak, but Santos has to be gutted from their 4-goal collapse at the Tec last week.
Atlas wins if... they can secure an early goal and do what they do best. Santos wins if... one of their sharpshooters gets in the mood.
Who wins? Santos. Atlas had a nice run. Besides, when you have been waiting for 62 years, one more shouldn't be much of a bother.
(4)Morelia-(5)Cruz Azul 1st Leg - Mexico City - Thursday - 9:00PM CT 2nd Leg - Morelia - Sunday - 8:00PM CT
These two teams have the most playoff history of the quarterfinal ties, with Morelia advancing 3 of the 4 times they have met. Cruz Azul fans have to like their chances. The perennial bridesmaids won their first trophy of the 21st century in the CopaMX tournament a few weeks ago. They also have the most prolific offense in the tournament with 35 goals scored. A few key players seem to be getting hot at the most opportune moment as well... Argentine Import Mariano Pavone scored a hat trick in the season's last tilt vs Monterrey and Pablo Barrera is showing that he has fully recovered from last season's knee injury with an assist in each of the last 4 games.
But if players on a hot-streak are a leading indicator of a team's success, then it would be hard to ignore Morelia's Hector Mancilla. The Chilean has scored in 5 of Morelia's last 6 games (all Morelia wins). Morelia has yet to lose after Ruben Omar Romano was replaced by Carlos Bustos after Matchday 7: 10 weeks without a loss, including 6 wins. With all the glamour teams in this Liguilla, it is not a surprise if Morelia has flown under the radar. The other teams should be on red alert. Monarcas have as strong a group of foreigners as anyone in the league. They may be the toughest out of the whole tournament, and this may be the most entertaining tie of the quarterfinals. The forecast calls for goals, and a lot of them.
Who has momentum? They both do. Cruz Azul has 5 wins in a row, and they hung up 5 on both the defending champs and the 3-time CCL winners during the streak. Morelia has not lost since February.
Morelia wins if... Their foreign legion continues to excel. Cruz Azul wins if... Goalkeeper Jesús Corona outshines his conterpart Federico Vilar.
Who wins? Morelia makes it interesting, but Cruz Azul may have destiny on their side.
(2)Club América-(7)Pumas UNAM 1st Leg - Ciudad Universitaria - Wednesday - 9:00PM CT 2nd Leg - Estadio Azteca - Saturday - 5:00PM CT
It is the Chilango Derby; a rivalry with two sides dripping with history and tradition. And they have not met in the post season since 2002.
Pumas is back in the fiesta grande after a two year absence. It has been a tumultuous couple of years for the Mexico City side, but they seemed to have finally settled down thanks to two men. The first is Antonio Torres Servín. The Pumas coach took over last season after the rookie front office man, Alberto García Aspe swung and missed after looking outside the family on his first two coaching hires. Torres Servín, a former Pumas youth product, not only stabilized the squad, he was able to reach Javier Cortés, the midfielder who had played so well when Pumas last won the title 2 years ago. The youngster had regressed since his stellar 2011, but bounced back in a big way in the Clausura, leading the team with 7 goals. Pumas is a much better side when the midfielder is playing well, which is not surprising considering their modest roster.
A modest roster is certainly what Club América has. On paper, the Cremas should have no problem defeating their neighbors whose stadiums are separated by just a few miles. They can count on a a three time scoring champion in Christian Benítiez, emerging superstars in Raúl Jiménez and Diego Reyes, established defenders in Aquivaldo Mosquera and Maza Rodríguez, and a solid goalkeeper in Moises Muñoz. Meanwhile, América's coach, Miguel Herrera has taken his to the semi-finals in the last two seasons, which is much better than any of his many, many predecessors had done since their last championship in 2005.
So why isn't the Americanismo convinced that this team has what it takes to lift the trophy? Maybe it's because despite the talent, it's the lack of attention to detail that has dogged them -- unforced errors have played a big part in the club's losses. The fans are finicky and will turn on the team quickly if things take a sour turn. That kind of pressure is a huge intangible, and it may very well decide who moves on.
Who has momentum? América is coming off a loss to Tigres, but did defeat Pumas two weeks ago. It was Pumas' only loss in the past month.
América wins if... They manage the pressure, play to their abilities, and don't beat themselves. UNAM wins if... Someone steps up to help Cortés. He can't do it by himself.
Who wins? Pumas. And Miguel Herrera resigns in the post-game interview on the field with his fellow Televisa employee.
(1)Tigres UANL-(8)Monterrey 1st Leg - Estadio Tecnológico - Wednesday - 7:00PM CT 2nd Leg - El Volcán (Universitario) - Saturday - 7:00PM CT
Chivas-America might be the Clásico Nacional, but for my money, the best rivalry in Mexican soccer is the Monterrey Derby. Both teams have the best fans in the league, and lately the teams haven't been too shabby either. And it doesn't take a Clásico to get a sell out. They'll meet in the post season for the third time in the short season era.
Fresh off their third straight CCL title, Monterrey has absolutely nothing to lose heading into the liguilla. They wopuld not even be in the liguilla were it not for Queretaro's relegation. Queretaro finished 8th to Monterrey's 9th and the rules say the relegated are ineligible for the liguilla. And as if they didn't have it already, the ability to knock off a 1 seed that just happens to be their arch-rivals will give a very talented team more than enough motivation. Suazo, de Nigris, Vucetich and the rest of the Pandilla obviously have what it takes to win. Will they be interested enough to do so? When they are in the mood, they are the best team in North America. The problem is that they have had wild mood swings this season.
Two years ago, Tigres came into the liguilla as the Number 1 seed only to fall victim to the top seed curse (and Chivas). Table toppers once again, they, along with America, will have to overcome the pressure to defeat a rival who is playing with house money. Normally a conservative coach, Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti opened up his offense a lot more than usual this past season to go along with his consistently stingy D. Tigres scored 29 goals, only gave up 14 and did not lose their match until week 14. Tigres has proven that they are solid on every line of the formation, rarely make mistakes, and have proven they are very tough to beat. They are, after all, the number one seed.
One of their two losses, though, came at home to guess who? That's right. Monterrey.
Who has momentum? Tigres has lost two out of their last 4, including the above-mentioned Clásico Regio. Monterrey did not win two in a row in the entire Clausura.
Tigres UANL wins if... Like América, they manage the pressure, play to their abilities, and don't beat themselves. Monterrey wins if... Enough of their players find the inspiration.
Who wins? Tigres. Monterrey has been to inconsistent to string two good games together.