The regular season has come to a close. To say it went as expected would be to lie unashamedly. Tijuana came out of nowhere to finish in the first position, newly promoted Necaxa somehow is fighting for the title and last tournament's No. 1 regular-season team and Liguilla runner-up, Monterrey, missed out on the top eight and won't be playing in the postseason.
There were some things that went as planned. Pachuca and Tigres stayed in the upper echelon of the league, while Veracruz and Chiapas floundered at the bottom. But the variation in Liga MX continued, as it typically does.
There will be more surprises to come in the playoffs, but before the games begin let's take a look at five things we learned from the weekend with a few pre-playoff thoughts in the mix as well:
For the sixth and seventh time in 2016, Mexico's two biggest rivals will meet. No. 4 Chivas will face No. 5 America in the quarterfinals of the Liguilla after both teams drew this weekend. Chivas couldn't get past Necaxa (more in item No. 3), while America played out to a thrilling 3-3 draw against Pachuca. The teams clashed once in each short tournament, in a Copa MX semifinal and also met in the Clausura playoffs.
With the exception of Chivas' 3-0 league win in August, all the matches have been close. But with the exception of the cup match, all have been a bit disappointing for quality. Both teams have been solid over the past few weeks, with America quietly putting together an eight-match unbeaten streak in the league (quiet perhaps because five of those games were draws) and Chivas unbeaten in three.
Darwin Quintero, who missed most of the season with a blood clot issue, returned to the pitch and had a positive match for America against Pachuca. A dynamic attacking player like him, especially with Renato Ibarra now a factor wide as well, could make the difference. But streaking Alan Pulido and now-healthy Angel Zaldivar, plus Orbelin Pineda and resurgent Carlos Pena may have something to say about that from the Chivas side. Perhaps these final two Clasicos of the year will be the thrillers we'll remember when we look back at a year filled with meetings between the clubs.
There was plenty of overreaction in the north of Mexico when Tigres fell 2-1 to Queretaro - a team with little to play for but pride - in the final week of the season. While we've discussed in this column in the past that the Tigres' back line could be more vulnerable than its low goals-against tally would indicate, the defeat hardly merits the alarm bells that some are ringing.
Left back Jorge Torres Nilo was suspended for the game, and Neri Cardozo was able to take advantage in his assists on both goals, lofting balls in his replacement's direction when able. But Tigres' strength still goes beyond the veteran back line. The whole team has talent. Now it's about getting that talent working together in the postseason.
It's no surprise that the man whose job it is to make that happen, Tigres boss Tuca Ferretti, was measured in his summation of Saturday's loss.
"I don't agree that we didn't play a good game. Well, we didn't play a bad game," Ferretti said. "We knew how the game was going to be when it was 0-0 and 1-0 in their favor. It was played in midfield and you're taking a lot of risks. I'm not satisfied with the performance, but I don't have a lot to criticize."
Tigres do have a few injury worries with midfielders Lucas Zelarayan and Manuel Viniegra doubts for the playoff series against Pumas. But Javier Aquino and Damian Alvarez could return to the fold for the postseason, something that would make Tigres even more potent. It's true that Ferretti's side doesn't look like the favorite to win the league, but it's hardly panic time.
Necaxa coach Alfonso Sosa complained about the officiating after Saturday's 1-1 draw with Chivas. He had to be frustrated when his team went down to 10 men in the 41st minute. But despite Chivas' continued attacking pressure, his team was able to get the point it needed to get into the postseason - the first time in four years the club most recently promoted was able to clinch a playoff spot.
"I'm happy. We've really been able to overcome adversity. It's not easy for a recently promoted team," Sosa said. "We've found stability, equilibrium and also being in the Liguilla is satisfying for everyone. We've got to compete in this Liguilla as hard as possible."
Though not having leading scorer Edson Puch because of a red card suspension will hurt the Bolts in their home leg, there's no reason to think the organization the team showed in the final portion of Saturday's draw can't carry over to the playoff matchup against Pachuca. The defenders on the flanks will be tested, though, as they were against Chivas. Brayan Beckeles and Jairo Gonzalez get an average mark for their performances Saturday. They'll have to be better against the reigning champion with Hirving Lozano and Rodolfo Pizarro putting pressure on them.
Getting into the Liguilla is an accomplishment for Necaxa. Anything else in this tournament will be bonus before Sosa and Co. go back to accumulating points in the Clausura to try to guarantee top-division survival.
Leon's playoff charge very nearly fell short. Needing a victory and a few results going the right way, Leon was level at two goals each with Cruz Azul on Saturday. But Fernando Navarro surged forward from the right and crossed to Guillermo Burdisso who headed in. With Toluca's defeat Sunday, Leon is into the playoffs.
That Leon is even in this position is remarkable. While manager switches are too frequent in Liga MX, bringing in the enthusiastic Torrente to implement his high-pressuring system in place of Luis Fernando Tena was clearly just what Leon needed. The team was off to a horrible start, sitting in the last place in the league after just one win in its first seven matches.
But over the final six weeks of the season, Leon is the best team in the league with 14 of 18 possible points. The team is undefeated in 10 matches, and with Leon sitting in the eighth seed and facing superlider (top spot in the table) Tijuana, the opportunity is there for Torrrente to get the team deep into the playoffs. The Xolos have three wins and three defeats in that same stretch. The teams also have a historic rivalry, with both ascending to the top division at the same time. This rematch of the 2012 Apertura semifinal could have plenty of excitement.
After watching Toluca needing a win and failing to get it earlier Sunday, Pumas avoided the same mistake - and did it on the road. That's big for Pumas - Sunday's 3-0 victory at Puebla was just the second win away from home of the campaign.
First-year manager Paco Palencia has guided Pumas into the Liguilla, though the team did need a last-day win aided in part by two red cards for Puebla and a penalty in its favor. Still, the team earned its spot. The offseason additions of two Spaniards with Old Testament names (Abraham and Saul) and a rethink of the attack, giving young winger Jesus Gallardo an influential role and dropping Eduardo "Lalo" Herrera to the bench with Matias Britos taking the lead, benefited the team in the short term and should continue to pay dividends.
"I think that it’s thanks to the players, for the great effort they’ve put in and for believing in the coaching staff’s idea," Palencia said. "We’ve gone forward in all respects, now achieving the goal of getting into the Liguilla, and we’ve got to think about what’s coming up, in the league title. It’s all been from the work of the players, of this great task that we’ve achieved."
And maybe that's part of the sign of a good manager, that he directs the praise to his players. But as one of few young Mexican managers in the league, Palencia also has achieved a fair deal in his first campaign. The league title seems a bit ambitious, but the 43-year-old boss has the capital team back to relevancy much sooner than expected.