Liga MX's short tournaments make every season feel like a sprint you weren't sure you were taking part in.
You wander onto the track and BANG! The gun goes off before you're expecting it to as the league returns to action before its European counterparts. The early results don't seem to matter but so often weigh heavily in how teams end up once the race is over. Shockingly, this week will nudge us past the halfway point. We've still got two teams undefeated, and there are a few clear favorites even beyond Monterrey and Cruz Azul (is La Maquina even a favorite?). Then there are other teams that are still total mysteries.
Let's take a look at the most exciting contests and storylines to watch as the Liga MX Apertura goes past the midpoint of the regular season:
Match of the Week ... Tijuana vs. America
When Tijuana fans look at the opposing bench Friday they'll see a familiar face. Miguel Herrera departed Tijuana during the summer to return to Club America, the Mexico City giant he took to a title before leaving to coach the Mexico national team.
It's not just Herrera who Xolos fans will recognize. There has been something of a mini-pipeline from the Pacific coast to the capital with players like Dario Benedetto and Pablo Aguilar moving to the bigger club and midfielder Guido Rodriguez currently part of the Aguilas' setup after moving with Herrera this summer.
And yet, despite all those connections, Herrera doesn't necessarily see the trip to the border as any sort of grudge match.
"It's a totally different team to the one I coached," Herrera said at a news conference. "They changed 12 players, but we're going to go in with the mindset of always looking for the three points. I'm happy to return there and say hello to friends, but my head is totally on America and getting three points.
"It's changed a lot. With me, we played with a four-man back line, today they're playing with five. Of the players I had, there are only a few who play."
He's right in a few respects. Coudet's team does have a very different look in part because he and Rodriguez were just a portion of the exodus from Tijuana this summer. Coudet's style is quite different from the one Herrera uses. That's what will make Friday's showdown so fascinating, seeing the two styles clash. The old steady hand of Liga MX vs. Coudet's foreign and flashier method.
But fans also don't have to think back too hard to remember Herrera and what he meant to Tijuana, a club that he returned to glory in the form of consecutive finishes atop the regular season table. Things are different now for both parties, but Friday night's contest will be a reunion whether Herrera wants to acknowledge it or not.
It's a big weekend for ... Keisuke Honda
While we continue waiting for multiclub ownership to be phased out in Liga MX (we're going to be waiting forever), we can at least consider the fascinating implications between intra-ownership contests like Saturday's when Pachuca heads to face Leon. It's clear which team has taken precedence lately for Grupo Pachuca, which controls both teams. After Pachuca lifted the Liga MX Clausura 2016 title and followed that up with a CONCACAF Champions League triumph, coach Diego Alonso was able to reload with a number of new acquisitions to replace winger Hirving Lozano, who left for PSV, and boost his team in other places.
Yet, it's currently Leon sitting in a better position in the table. Los Esmeraldas have just one more point than Pachuca, but in a tournament that's already seen them change coaches and one that Pachuca was supposed to be able to contend in, that's not how these teams should be aligned.
One of Alono's summer additions is Keisuke Honda, who has been adequate once he got fit and on the field for Tuzos. But Pachuca clearly need Honda to be better than adequate. They need him to create chances and score goals. He wants to do that to give his form a positive charge heading into the 2018 World Cup, which he helped Japan qualifiy for. Saturday would be an excellent time for Honda to add to the debut goal he scored in a rout and show that he's not a luxury player for Pachuca but rather one who can put in the work, week after week, to help the team be competitive both in the region and on a more global scale.
Keep an eye on ... a 'certain' draw
Cruz Azul hosts Santos Laguna on Saturday in a match that may be perfect for you if you're the betting type. In a combined 16 games the two teams have played this year, a stunning 10 have finished in draws. The home side is still undefeated, winning the two matches it didn't draw, while Santos has been a bit worse off with one win and two defeats to compliment its five draws.
Some of this comes down to how the managers play. Cruz Azul coach Paco Jemez is playing a much more restrained style than the one he became famous for in Spain with Rafael Baca and Gabriel Penalba adding bite in the midfield and working to recover balls. Chepo de la Torre at Santos has an attack that has talent but often seems to be either holding back or simply unable to connect.
"I think Cruz Azul has shown it can play together. We know what we want on the field," Cruz Azul midfielder Christian "Chaco" Gimenez said at a Thursday news conference. "Obviously drawing so many times, well, that’s why we’re in seventh place today. But the ties work out if we’re able to win this weekend."
Something specific to keep an eye on will be how the game evolves. While Santos scored several goals late to snatch a point from the jaws of defeat last season, the Guerreros are yet to score in the second half this year away from home. Cruz Azul has conceded only after the 30-minute mark, including three goals in the final hour at home. The switches Jemez and Chepo make late will determine if one team is able to emerge a victor in this contest between the kings of the draw.
Quote of the Week
"There are teams (in Liga MX) that have better squads than whatever institution in Europe, I think we're included in that. We've got a great squad. Not all that's left is to work," Tijuana coach Eduardo Coudet on Radio MarcaClaro
Those are big words from Coudet, whose team was sitting at the bottom of Liga MX just a few weeks ago. But now that the team is clicking, he likely could take on some teams in at least the mid-tier European leagues. He'll have a chance for continental competition when the CONCACAF Champions League kicks off again in the spring, with Xolos one of the four Mexican teams qualified.