A glance at the Liguilla picture reveals mostly what Liga MX fans would expect heading into the final five weeks of the Clausura. The two big-spending Monterrey clubs are there. The previous finalists, grandes Club America and Cruz Azul are in. A plucky Puebla is fighting off Tijuana for the final spot.
The surprise is at the top, where Leon leads the way. Somehow their meeting this weekend against Necaxa is the only battle between teams currently in the playoff positions. There's more at stake than simply locking up a playoff position. With a win this weekend, Leon will have achieved history, matching the longest winning streak ever in Mexican soccer history.
How has Leon done it? Angel Mena's breakout season scoring a dozen goals has gotten some attention (though still not enough in the capital-centric media environment), but Leon's defense has gone from downright awful to downright masterful. Last tournament, Leon allowed 23 goals in the regular season, a mark of 1.35 goals against per game. Through a dozen matches this tournament, the unit has conceded only eight, good for a .66 (repeating) mark.
La Fiera have ridden the newly discovered defense to a club-record nine-match winning streak and now sit on the verge of history with the potential to equal the 1971-72 Cruz Azul squad's Mexican record of 10 wins in a row and stand alone with a record winning streak in short tournament era.
"It'd be really great to go down in history, not just Club Leon history but Mexican soccer history, but sincerely it's not the priority for us," winger Rubens Sambueza said earlier this week. "The priority is a different goal. First, to get into the Liguilla, to which we're very close, and after that to fight for the championship with teams that definitely are going to be really strong in the Liguilla as well."
Even if the title charge falls short, it's been a remarkable tournament as the club burst out of nowhere to summit the table.
Leon bought smart this window, signing Mena from Cruz Azul, finally putting an end to Costa Rica international Joel Campbell's European odyssey and snagging Argentine defender Romario Gonzalez Hernandez from Chilean club Union Espanola. While his name is the least recognizable, finally putting a first-division-quality partner next to Andres Mosquera. Liga MX veteran Sambueza, who recently returned from injury, and Mexico U-20 forward Jose Macias also have had their part to play.
It also sold smart. Alexander Mejia had run his course with the club, and though there was a fair bit of controversy in how it happened, bidding farewell to long-timer goalscorer Mauro Boselli was overdue.
All of it has been orchestrated by manager Nacho Ambriz, a coach who had been pretty boring at previous stops, including in his last job at Necaxa. Despite the conservative tactics deployed with Saturday's opponent and during his stint with Club America, Leon is a fun team to watch with Campbell serving as a hinge for counter-attacks, Mena tearing up and down the wing and Luis Montes enjoying the opportunity to play off vibrant attackers once again.
Of course, all of it - the potential top scorer crown for Mena, the potential record win streak, the positive vibe in Guanajuato - means little if it doesn't end with the club's first trophy since the Bicampeonato in 2013-14.
"Beyond the stats, which always are nice and pretty, I think the priority right now is to keep up our level and obviously keep growing and correcting things," Mena said Thursday. "We want the team to work together as well as possible so we go into the Liguilla strong."
First up, though, it's Necaxa standing in between Leon and Liga MX history, with almost a mini-Leon model helping it to the fifth-place spot and a four-match undefeated streak of its own. Like Leon, Necaxa has seen a breakout scorer emerge in Brian Fernandez. The Rayos' defense also has helped tilt the balance, with former U.S. international center back Ventura Alvarado and young Mexican defender Alexis Pena
Guillermo Vazquez, another well-traveled manager in Liga MX, has been freed from the situation that is Veracruz and has his team playing well. Getting the club back into the postseason for the first time since the 2016 Apertura would be a big achievement for the 51-year-old, though not as historic as the streak former Necaxa player and coach Ambriz is working on with Leon.
When the teams come together it will be a fascinating game, one that will test each of them ahead of likely playoff action few thought would come for either side. The match is occurring outside the spotlight of Mexican soccer, which stays fixed on America in the league, Tigres and Monterrey in the Concacaf Champions League, and the issues at Chivas, but it should be center stage for a weekend.