MLS is the American soccer league, and the English Premier League might get the most American media coverage, but the viewership statistics don’t lie: More American soccer fans watch Liga MX, the Mexican top division, than any other soccer league. As the league kicks off its 2017-18 season this weekend, it’s worth looking at just how things work south of the border.
The first thing to understand about Liga MX is that there is something undeniably operatic about the league. Roaring, partisan crowds and more than a hundred years of history combine to give matches a certain epic feel. Players tend to be technically gifted but mercurial. Sometimes it seems like every match features three red cards and a teamwide shoving match at the final whistle. American soccer tends to be Premier League Lite, with hard work, effort and physicality the top values; Mexican soccer feels more Italian or Spanish, emotional and more prone to outbursts of both genius and madness.
Also understand that Liga MX is a playoff-focused league, even more so than MLS.
The Mexican season is split into two halves — the Apertura in the fall and the Clausura in the spring. The 18 clubs play each other once apiece, with the top eight teams at the end of the half-season qualifying for the playoffs. The short season and the high number of playoff spots makes every game feel like part of a playoff chase.
The favorite in the Apertura is probably Tigres, the Monterrey-based side that won last year’s fall title and finished as runner-up in the spring. The team added Ecuadorian striker Enner Valencia to its attack, complementing French star Andre-Pierre Gignac. Chivas, the winner of the spring title, is hoping to again provide an obstacle to Tigres’ dominance. Alone among Mexican clubs, Chivas refuses to pick players who aren’t Mexican; it has long been one of the two most popular teams in Mexico. The Clausura title ended a long title drought, and Chivas is looking to pick up more silverware.
Three clubs from Mexico City are arguably among the best known outside of Chivas. Club América is the New York Yankees of Mexican soccer, rich and hated in equal measure. Cruz Azul is the Mexican capital’s working-class team. Pumas is based at a university, and so is the young people’s team.
The most American team, meanwhile, is probably the team closest to the border — Club Tijuana, which plays less than 5 miles from San Diego. The “Xolos” count many Southern Californians among their fans, and have a handful of Americans on their roster.
Whatever team you watch, Liga MX is trying to make the league more accessible to non-Spanish-speaking fans. Univision Deportes broadcasts games in English on its Facebook page. The league already counts the most Americans as viewers. Now it will try to break into the English-speaking market as well.
• This week marks the 25th anniversary of the only Minnesota girls’ soccer team to win a national championship. The Burnsville Giants, led by future Burnsville High, Notre Dame and United States national team star Holly Manthei, took home the 1992 under-16 national title, an almost unheard of feat for any Upper Midwest youth team. The 1990 St. Paul Blackhawks boys under-19 team, led by brothers Manny and Gerard Lagos and coached by Buzz Lagos, their father, is the only other Minnesota youth team to have won a national title.
• Reportedly, team owners in Liga MX prevailed upon the Mexican national team to refrain from calling in reinforcements for the Gold Cup knockout rounds. This does give Mexico the advantage of low expectations for the tournament; if it were to win the Gold Cup, using its JV team, it would be a major embarrassment for the rest of the region.
• MLS will start using video assistant referees on Aug. 5. The video referee will be allowed to review goals, penalty decisions, red cards and cases in which the wrong player is called for a foul. Results from video referees around the world so far have been uneven, as they have slowed the game down terribly while not being much more accurate.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Liga MX: Puebla at Tigres, 7 p.m. Saturday, Univision. Despite nearly winning both halves of the Mexican season last year, Tigres did not dominate in the regular season, with slow starts in both halves dooming them from the chance to chase Tijuana at the top of the standings. A home win would be a better way to start this year.
Gold Cup: United States vs. Costa Rica, 9 p.m. Saturday, FS1. The U.S. called in the big guns for the knockout round, such as Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, and now has to be considered the favorite to win the tournament. The Americans would almost certainly play Mexico if they reach the championship game, but beating Costa Rica is no easy task.
Liga MX: Toluca at Chivas, 9 p.m. Saturday, Univision. Chivas fans were thrilled when the team won both Liga MX and Copa MX last spring, but it lost several key players to other teams and to injury in the offseason, including injured striker Alan Pulido. Repeating as champion in the fall may be a struggle.
MLS: Portland at Vancouver, 5:30 p.m. Sunday, FS1. After a slow start, Vancouver has won five of seven games at home and climbed near the top of the Western Conference standings — and above their Cascadia rivals in Portland and Seattle. The Timbers have failed to win in six consecutive matches, and need to arrest their slide.