The Liga MX quarterfinals is officially set! While the top four in the 2022 Clausura regular season were given byes, seeds 5 through 12 all battled it out this past weekend in an enthralling play-in round. With eight teams now remaining, here are four talking points from the latest batch of play-in games and some thoughts ahead of this week's two-legged quarterfinal matches.
- MLS, LaLiga, Bundesliga on ESPN+: LIVE games, replays
- Soccer on ESPN+: FC Daily | Futbol Americas
- Don't have ESPN? Get instant access
Chivas cruise past Pumas, get rivals Atlas
Over the past few years, and outside of the Matias Almeyda era that saw the team win two Liga MX crowns and a CONCACAF Champions League title, there has been no period of time as exciting and promising for Chivas as there is now. The No. 6 seed side not only brushed aside No. 11 seed Pumas 4-1 on Sunday in the play-in round, but also seemed to once again rejuvenate their players and the Estadio Akron crowd that has become more boisterous and engaging with each passing week.
Under interim manager Ricardo Cadena, Chivas are in the middle of a perfect five-game winning streak since he took charge after Marcelo Michel Leano was fired last month.
Sunday's victory, which happened to land on goal scorer Fernando Beltran's birthday and on the club's 116th anniversary, was also important for forward Alexis Vega, who celebrated his contract extension with Chivas during a presentation before kickoff.
"I'm totally grateful [for the fans], it was also for them that I stayed. I signed [my extension] without any fear," Vega said following his goal and assist in the win. "I'm in the best team in Mexico."
Up next for Chivas in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs: A Clásico Tapatío series against crosstown rivals and current title-holders, No. 3 seed Atlas.
While Chivas will have more momentum, Atlas will have more defensive solidity with Camilo Vargas leading in net. Absences for both teams could also impact the quarterfinal series. For an Atlas side that have had a few question marks over their frontline, some setbacks might be felt by the exit of attacking midfielder Jairo Torres to the Chicago Fire earlier this month.
Over at Chivas, their celebrations on Sunday were somewhat bittersweet after the club announced that winger Jesus Angulo's season is over and will require surgery for a fibula fracture that will sideline him for 12 weeks.
Jurado's heroics sets up Cruz Azul-Tigres clash
Cruz Azul goalkeeper Sebastian Jurado had one of the best performances in his career on Saturday, helping lead No. 8 seed Los Cementeros to a narrow play-in victory over No. 9 Necaxa through a penalty shootout. Despite allowing a late equalizer in the 88th minute that cemented a 1-1 scoreline, 24-year-old Jurado was hugely influential with his six saves in regulation time and two additional stops in the ensuing round of penalties -- which ended 3-1 in Cruz Azul's favor.
"It's an indescribable emotion. To have my parents, my brother here [as well]," said the goalkeeper after the match to TUDN while looking up at the Estadio Azteca crowd that was chanting his name.
In the recent past, this wasn't always the case for Jurado. While long-time starter and captain Jose de Jesus Corona was recovering from an injury, Jurado was often criticized for a handful of uninspiring outings in net. Now, with Corona fully fit, it remains up in the air if manager Juan Reynoso will give a starting spot back to the 41-year-old veteran or to Jurado in the upcoming quarterfinal series against No. 2 seed Tigres.
The regular season runner-ups will be a much more difficult test for Cruz Azul, and even if star striker Andre-Pierre Gignac isn't fully fit, Tigres have no lack of firepower in their squad that scored 30 goals over 17 matches. Keep in mind that the away-goal tiebreaker is no longer utilized in the Liga MX playoff structure, meaning that if both sides are level after the two quarterfinal legs, Tigres would go through as the higher seed.
San Luis upsets high-powered Monterrey
Heading into a penalty shootout after a 2-2 scoreline in regulation time, it at first seemed as though the soccer gods were looking more kindly toward No. 7 seed Monterrey. Former Tottenham Hotspur striker Vincent Janssen had scored once again after ending a 2022 goal drought in his previous match, and following two goals from No. 10 seed San Luis in the second half, Monterrey fought back valiantly and eventually earned a dramatic equalizer from 21-year-old Michell Rodriguez in the 96th minute.
Monterrey's Estadio BBVA Bancomer erupted into a frenzy on Saturday, sensing that an invitation into the next playoff round could be within their grasp.
Then, things began to fall apart for Los Rayados in the penalty shootout. With former Monterrey goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero in net for San Luis, the Argentine took charge with two stops that secured a 3-1 win through penalties for the away side. Monterrey, whose talent-heavy roster has reportedly the highest total market value in Liga MX, had just lost at home to a team whose value is the sixth-lowest in the league.
Since leading Brazil's U23s to a gold medal in the 2020 Olympics, San Luis manager Andre Jardine has turned heads after joining them earlier this year and pushing them to the quarterfinals. That said, performances from his roster are typically erratic, which isn't exactly a promising sign ahead of a two-legged series against No. 1 seed Pachuca.
To make matters more difficult, starting San Luis defender Unai Bilbao suffered a ligament injury that could possibly leave him out of the rest of the playoffs.
Puebla survives on pens, will face America
Less than 24 hours after Saturday's play-in matches went to penalties, Sunday's first game between No. 5 seed Puebla and No. 12 seed Mazatlan followed suit. Puebla, initially up 2-0 by the 14th minute, found themselves pinned back by a Mazatlan side that came roaring back with goals in the 37th and in the 91st.
Across Puebla's Estadio Cuauhtemoc, Mazatlan's away fans celebrated wildly with little knowledge that every team that scored a late equalizer that Liga MX weekend would go on to lose 3-1 in a penalty shootout.
This time, it was Puebla goalkeeper Antony Silva that shined in net. With two saves in the shootout, the goalkeeper perfectly set up 21-year-old Israel Reyes for the game-winning opportunity.
The result was emblematic of the never-say-die attitude that has defined Puebla and their 37-year-old manager Nicolas Larcamon this season. Looking back at the aforementioned total market values, it's important to remember that despite being ranked as the fourth-lowest in Liga MX, they were also one that emerged as the league-leaders in the first half of the 2022 Clausura. Despite a drop in form at the end of the regular season, Larcamon and his men are an exciting dark horse that will be eager to start their quarterfinal challenge against No. 4 seed Club America.
"We're going for a great series [against Club America]. A historic series for the club, for the group, and that's what we're here for," said Larcamon in the post-game news conference.