Probably the most extraordinary development of the 2012 Apertura in Mexico has been the emergence of Club Tijuana and Leon as the two top teams in the tournament through 16 matches.
Third-placed Toluca has a match in hand, but with one date left for everyone else at the top, the two most recently ascended teams in Mexico’s top flight are first and second in the standings.
The emergence of these relative newcomers to top level Mexican soccer -- even if Leon was in the top flight as recently as last decade -- is an interesting story in more ways than one. Success for recently ascended teams suggests that a decades-long monopoly on power for a handful of ensconced, historic teams may be slowly grinding to an end.
Not so long ago, a recently ascended club in Mexico would automatically have its hands full just to avoid going straight back down to the Liga de Ascenso.
Fighting for a Liguilla space, much less the top spots in the tournament, was largely out of the question. Indios de Ciudad Juarez did manage an unlikely Liguilla spot in 2009 after ascending the previous year, but a few months later they were back in second division.
Instead, for years the rule was that recently ascended teams were almost always the ones to go back down. Throughout the last decade, a number of clubs have gone up just to be relegated again within the next year or two, and few long-term members of the top division had ever been sent down until Estudiantes ended up in the second division this year.
It’s no coincidence in the land of the pacto de caballeros, multiple ownership and multi-million peso television revenues that the big clubs have their spots pretty much sewn up at the top level.
Mexico’s unusual formula for calculating which clubs go down has largely seen to that. Historically, it’s been a lot harder for an established club to lose the category than a newcomer. For a team with several years or more in the league, a bad season or three is unlikely to result in relegation.
Many are confused by Mexico’s unusual relegation system, but in reality it’s not that complicated. An average is taken of points from each match over the last three years. If a team has played less than three years, then the average is taken for the time it’s been up. At the end of each year, the team with the lowest percentage goes down.
So established teams have to be consistently bad over a long period of time to be threatened by relegation, while a struggling newcomer can immediately find itself in problems.
But the reverse is also true. A good start in the league, such as Club Tijuana and Leon have experienced over the past 15 and three months, respectively, means a club is likely to stay in the first division for some time.
That’s certain to have longer term consequences for the league’s power structure. Queretaro looks sure to lose the category next year, but after that traditional teams like Atlas and Atlante could be in some serious trouble if the trend of competitive, newly ascended teams holds.
Leon and Club Tijuana, at least, aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. In the current percentages table, Leon is top by a long shot, while Tijuana sits a solid eighth, ahead of clubs like Pumas, Toluca, Chivas and Pachuca -- teams who no one expects to be in trouble anytime soon.
This year, the recently ascended duo is doing much more than just staying up, though. A top three finish would mean a Copa Libertadores place for the upstart clubs, a chance that Tijuana and Leon are sure to grasp with both hands in the course of asserting themselves as budding powers.
In the end, the experience of teams like America, Monterrey and Santos could come to bear in the Liguilla, where nothing is a given. But this campaign, along with the upsets sprung in the Copa MX by Liga de Ascenso teams, has suggested that the newly arrived Mexican first division clubs may be sticking around much longer than before.
With time, that’s likely to significantly alter the face and power structure of Mexican soccer.
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