FOX Soccer Exclusive
Tijuana faces uphill climb to repeat
Club Tijuana celebrated its first title at La Bombonera little more than a month ago. The memories of that triumph over Toluca and the revelry that followed back home will last for a lifetime, but the glow from that substantial achievement cannot linger any longer. There is too much work ahead to dwell on the achievements of the recent past.
The Xolos will start their Liga MX title defense with a visit to Puebla when the Clausura commences this weekend. They must navigate an array of domestic and foreign tasks to protect their title and share their fairytale story with South America. It isn't an easy brief by any stretch, particularly on the home front.
Fine margins tend to separate the teams in this relatively even competition. The external demands placed upon Club León, Tijuana and Toluca by their participation in the Copa Libertadores create an opening for other sides to challenge their tenuous supremacy. Cruz Azul, Morelia and Tigres join the likes of Club América, CD Guadalajara, Monterrey and Santos Laguna in the pack of clubs waiting for those obligations to impact domestic form and provide an opportunity to climb up the table.
For Tijuana in particular, the road to a second straight title appears perilous. Two of the past three champions have failed to book a return trip to the Liguilla. No club has retained the title since Hugo Sanchez led Pumas to back-to-back victories in the Clausura and the Apertura back in 2004. Few sides have even attempted to do so with a group of players boasting relatively scant experience at the top level and a fixture list that includes three lengthy excursions to another continent.
Other clubs would have decided to chop and change in a bid to alter their fortunes ahead of the 17-game schedule. Tijuana opted to keep the spine of its side together after the triumph and rely on its collective defensive strength to mount its charge on two fronts. The faith isn't misplaced, but the lack of reinforcements increases the magnitude of the challenge ahead for manager Antonio Mohamed.
Defeated finalists Toluca followed a similar approach to prepare for its dual responsibilities, but third-placed Club León imported a pair of high-profile stars ahead of its first stage playoff against Chilean side Deportes Iquique later this month. Former Mexico stalwarts Nery Castillo and Rafa Márquez arrive in León with points to prove and skills to display once again. They also carry rather hard-earned reputations for disruption, but the aggressive and tight-knit side cannot afford to grapple with potential distractions after entering the division so deftly during the fall.
Similar threads of upheaval continue to afflict the country's two largest sides, though there are at least some fleeting signs of stability at Club América. Miguel Herrera retained his job after a fourth-place finish in the Apertura and signed Mexico center back Francisco Rodríguez from VfB Stuttgart this week to improve the side's prospects for the Clausura. Chivas fans will grimace at the sight of their former star man suiting up for the sworn enemy and wince at the potential fallout from the decision to replace beleaguered manager John van't Schip with Benjamin Galindo mere days before the start of the tournament.
Recent powers Monterrey and Santos Laguna enter this season with less dramatic, yet still important, concerns. Both teams started to show cracks during the Apertura after protracted spells at the top of the league and tried to rectify the issues accordingly. Santos responded to missing out on the Liguilla by embarking upon a peculiar series of transfers designed to freshen up the attacking options even with US international striker Hérculez Gómez already in the squad. Monterrey confronted the prospect of losing Humberto Suazo at the end of the season with the two sides yet to strike a new deal and shipped Angel Reyna to Pachuca to end that unsuccessful experiment. With another CONCACAF Champions League defense on tap, Victor Manuel Vucetich's side cannot afford any distractions
Atlas and Querétaro wish they could ponder such lofty concerns heading into this campaign. The bottom two sides from the Apertura start the Clausura as the co-favorites for the drop to Ascenso MX after this season, particularly after Puebla acquired Ecuadorian internationals Félix Borja and Segundo Castillo from Pachuca in December. Only one club will exit the top division based upon a points-per-game average taken from the last six tournaments.
The two likely relegation combatants geared up for their tussle in different ways during the interim period. Atlas splashed the cash on ex-Chivas star Omar Bravo to provide support for the prolific Esteban Paredes up front. Querétaro shuffled its pack with a host of lower-profile changes designed to strengthen the overall outfit within rather modest budgetary constraints.
Every club made similar calculations in a bid to match expectations with reality ahead of the new campaign. Those assessments may prove accurate or wayward depending on how the Clausura unfolds. One outcome, however, looms as a certainty: a champion will emerge from this gauntlet to replicate Tijuana's wild celebrations when the season concludes in May.