Liga MX postseason preview: Pachuca aim for title, but Tigres, America might have better shot

Welcome to the start of the Liga MX postseason! After 17 weeks of regular-season play, 12 teams remain in the hunt for the 2022 Clausura title. Beginning with the play-in round ("El Repechaje") on Saturday and Sunday, the Liguilla will kick off with spots five through 12 battling it out for positions in next week's quarterfinal stage, where the top four of the regular season will await them.

Ahead of the first play-in matches, we've got you covered with everything you need to know, beginning with three tiers for the title favorites:

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Tier 1: Front-runners -- Tigres, Pachuca, Club America

It might seem unfair for first-place Pachuca to begin with regular-season runners-up Tigres, but we need to start with the star-heavy club that has one of the best rosters, if not the best, in all of North America. Led by prominent manager Miguel "Piojo" Herrera, there seems to be even more attacking bite to this Tigres side that finished in the semifinals last season under Herrera's first tournament with the club. However, that bite for Tigres will become toothless if the league-leading goal scorer, Andre-Pierre Gignac, isn't fully fit for the quarterfinals.

Unlike second-place Tigres, who rely on marquee names, Pachuca are more of a balance of promising young academy players and smart low-key international signings. With manager Guillermo Almada, who frequently uses a vertical 4-2-3-1 formation, Pachuca cemented a spot at first in the table with not only the joint-top scoring tally of 30 goals, but also the joint-best defense with only 15 allowed. Pachuca have yet to lose at home this season, which could prove to be beneficial when hosting second legs as the No.1 seed.

Coming in at fourth place in the regular season but undoubtedly a part of the front-runners are the Mexico City giants, Club America. Once last in the table after Week 9, Las Aguilas were immediately revived under interim manager Fernando Ortiz. No longer cautious in possession or a defensive mess, Club America powered through the end of the tournament with six wins and one draw. In a league with plenty of parity, momentum is paramount ahead of the Liguilla.


Tier 2: Dark horses -- Atlas, Chivas, Puebla, Monterrey, Pumas

A spot within a possible "Tier 1.5" would probably be appropriate for third-place Atlas. They're resilient in defense (and level with Pachuca on fewest goals allowed), they've held on to most of the players who won last season's 2021 Apertura title, and yet, there's something missing about their attack. Their xG (expected goals) tally of 18.16 is not only the worst from the top four but also the fifth worst in the entire league. Coupled with winger Jairo Torres leaving for Chicago Fire FC last weekend, it's safe to have some doubts about Atlas.

In the conversation of teams heading into the playoffs with momentum, sixth-place Chivas are easily in the mix. Similar to Club America, they've been given a boost in confidence late into the season through an interim manager. Since taking over last month, Ricardo Cadena has been impeccable with four wins in four games. In net, Miguel "Wacho" Jimenez seems to have found a second wind in his career with a growing list of impressive performances in 2022. On Sunday, they'll host Pumas in the play-in round.

On the opposite end of the momentum spectrum, we have fifth-place Puebla. If we're looking at the past three games played for all 18 Liga MX teams, Puebla are the only side to have not gained a single point. It's a shocking drop in form for a club that was sitting at the top of the table for most of the first half of the season. Nonetheless, there's a lot to like about 37-year-old manager Nicolas Larcamon and his scrappy roster. Greater than the sum of their parts, the hard-working squad often scored late game winners and equalizers throughout 2022. The past few weeks may have simply been a break of sorts before another late resurgence, beginning with a play-in round match at home against Mazatlan this Sunday.

Monterrey, on paper, should be a Tier 1 team. Their highly talented roster is the only one in Liga MX that can rival Tigres', they're led by the well-respected and veteran manager Victor Manuel Vucetich, and have one of the most passionate fan bases in Mexico. Success should be a guarantee for Los Rayados, but they are often far too inconsistent for a club of their caliber. With injury issues for a few key players that are up in the air, a Tier 2 spot is more appropriate for the seventh-place team. They'll host San Luis in the play-in round this Saturday.

No matter the fact that Pumas weren't able to secure the 2022 CONCACAF Champions League title on Wednesday, it remains a successful campaign for the team that wasn't expected to make it this far in either the CCL or Liga MX. They'll be hungry for a trophy after recently losing to Seattle Sounders FC, and after defeating the No. 1 seed Pachuca in the Clausura last weekend, any upcoming playoff opponents shouldn't undermine the 11th-place squad that seem to always punch above their weight. Keep an eye on manager Andres Lillini and his motivated roster.


Tier 3: Long shots -- Cruz Azul, Necaxa, San Luis, Mazatlan

Nearly a year since winning the 2021 Apertura title, Cruz Azul are almost unrecognizable from their former selves. A promising start to 2022 quickly led to irregular performances and several worrisome displays from their goal-scoring options. Defensively, they've gone through bad lapses, and neither Jesus Corona nor Sebastian Juarado have been satisfactory for more than a handful of games. It wouldn't be shocking if the eighth-place team ended their Liguilla run against Necaxa during Saturday's play-in match.

Speaking of Necaxa, there's hope for Los Rayos this weekend, but it's tough to imagine they'll go much further in the playoffs. Manager Jaime "Jimmy" Lozano will need all of his top names such as Rodrigo Aguirre, Luis Malagon, Dieter Villalpando, Milton Gimenez and countless others to be firing on all cylinders.

Tenth-place San Luis are easily the most "Jekyll and Hyde" team involved in the Liga MX playoffs. One week they're struggling against last-place FC Juarez, the next, they're dominating Club America at the Estadio Azteca. Unafraid to defensively bunker but also surprisingly good with hitting the target when needed in the attack, they'll be an interesting side to watch, no matter what happens.

Finally, we have 12th-place Mazatlan, who are probably just happy to be invited. Unexciting in the attack and also defensively susceptible, most of their playoff hopes will likely land on the goalkeeping shoulders of Nicolas Vikonis, who did most of the heavy lifting for Mazatlan throughout the Clausura.


Players to watch

There's a reason Gignac is nicknamed "Mr. Liguilla." Few players have been as decisive as the Tigres striker, who has four Liga MX titles since 2015. This season, it also doesn't hurt that he's the leading scorer of the Clausura with 11 goals to his name. The only issue hanging above him is an injury, but as of now, there are no indications that he will miss more than possibly the quarterfinal round.

Elsewhere, Pachuca's Luis Chavez has looked like an MVP candidate with his control of the midfield. Seemingly able to do everything needed, the 26-year-old is a Swiss Army knife of a player who can create chances, intercept the ball, win countless duels and also score from distance. Of the top 35 players with the most duels in the league, only Tigres' Javier Aquino has a higher success rate than Chavez. A recent debut for Mexico's senior national team last week will only boost his morale.

Alexis Vega is another name to follow. After looking inspired with three assists and a goal in his past three matches, Chivas' most talented name might be even more energized in the playoffs after he officially signed an extension with Los Rojiblancos until the end of 2023. Chivas are gaining steam, and if Vega continues his recent form, a possible first Liga MX title with the Guadalajara club could be within reach for the 24-year-old.


Other storylines to keep an eye on

Sometimes a fresh perspective is all you need. For Liga MX's two most successful and popular teams, Chivas and Club America, both have thrived with interim managers. Depending on how things go, a possible playoff matchup could be in the works between America's Ortiz and Chivas' Cadena.

After underdogs Atlas and Cruz Azul shocked the Mexican soccer world with titles in 2021, will we see another unexpected winner in the 2022 Clausura? San Luis and Mazatlan are the only current playoff teams without a title to their name. As for the club who has the longest Mexican first division championship drought, Puebla last lifted a Liga MX trophy in May of 1990 -- Larcamon, their manager, was only 5 years old at the time.

Lastly, all eyes will also be on stadium security and the behavior of Mexican soccer supporters. Since the unfortunate and grim scenes of fan violence in Queretaro that left 26 injured in March, Liga MX has cracked down on not only altercations but also the use of anti-gay chants in the stands. Despite the league announcing in late April that it had already kicked out a total of 411 people from Liga MX stadiums, no major incidents have occurred since the Queretaro fan riot in March.