Liga MX playoffs preview: Favorites, sleepers, top players

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Is Lozano's future in danger if Mexico fail to advance past Honduras? (1:54)

Mauricio Pedroza debates whether Jaime Lozano will be sacked if Mexico fail to progress to the Nations League semifinals. (1:54)

Welcome to the start of the Liga MX playoffs! After 17 weeks of regular-season play and a recently finished play-in round for wild-card teams, eight candidates remain in the hunt for the 2023 Apertura title.

Liga MX quarterfinals

No. 1 Club America vs. No. 8 Leon

1st leg: Wednesday at 5:06 p.m. PT/8:06 p.m. ET
2nd leg: Saturday at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET

No. 2 Monterrey vs. No. 7 Atletico San Luis

1st leg: Wednesday at 7:10 p.m. PT/10:10 p.m. ET
2nd leg: Saturday at 7:10 p.m. PT/10:10 p.m. ET

No. 3 Tigres vs. No. 6 Puebla

1st leg: Thursday at 5:00 p.m. PT/8:00 p.m. ET
2nd leg: Sunday at 6:10 p.m. PT/9:10 p.m. ET

No. 4 Pumas vs. No. 5 Chivas

1st leg: Thursday at 7:05 p.m. PT/10:05 p.m. ET
2nd leg: Sunday at 4 p.m. PT/7 p.m. ET

Ahead of this week's upcoming matches, we've got you covered with everything you need to know, beginning with team-by-team analysis through three tiers.

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Tier 1: The title contenders

CLUB AMERICA

Regular-season record: 12W-4D-1L (1st place)
Number of league titles: 13 (most in Liga MX)

Where else to start than with Club America? With both the best attack and defense in Mexico's top flight -- and an ongoing 16-game unbeaten run in Liga MX play -- Las Aguilas soared to first in the standings with a robust seven-point cushion over second place Monterrey.

Guided by Brazilian manager Andre Jardine in his first season with the club, the Mexico City giants thrived with strong finishes to matches (10 goals scored after the 75th minute), the highest xG tally in the Apertura, a deep roster and a reliable presence in net with Luis Malagon. Through a style that focuses on possession and a wealth of accurate line-breaking through balls, it's no wonder they've been able to accumulate 37 goals in just 17 games.

They're the clear favorites to win the Apertura championship, although their latest underwhelming 0-0 draw with current title-holders Tigres could be a sign of problems ahead. As seen in that match, they can also feel a bit ponderous with their possession in attack.

MONTERREY

Regular-season record: 10W-3D-4L (2nd place)
Number of league titles: 5

A strong defense can carry teams far in the playoffs, and outside of the league leaders mentioned earlier, no other side allowed fewer goals (15) in the regular season than Monterrey. Led by former Club America coach Fernando Ortiz, Los Rayados have made a name for themselves this season as an exceptionally solid defensive unit that can win countless duels and battles in the air.

Monterrey excel with regaining the ball back high up the field, and even when needing to rely on goalkeeper Esteban Andrada after occasional losses of possession, the Argentine shot-stopper has more than made up for the slack as one the most imposing Liga MX figures between the sticks this season.

The only thing that's missing from Monterrey: better decision-making in the final third. They aren't exactly efficient with their shots on target or with their accuracy off crosses. If they want to lift a title, they'll need to improve both.

TIGRES UANL

Regular-season record: 8W-6D-3L (3rd place)
Number of league titles: 8

The current champions have just one loss in their past 10 games in all competitions, and most importantly, they have the ultimate clutch Liga MX player: French striker Andre-Pierre Gignac. No matter the fact that the former Ligue 1 leading goal scorer is about to turn 38, Gignac continues to have a massive impact with nine goals and four assists in his past 13 appearances.

In support, Gignac's teammates have done well in a playing style that produces a long list of dangerous crosses and passes into the 18-yard box. Young game-changers like wingers Diego Lainez and Marcelo Flores are also exciting prospects who seem to be gaining more confidence with each game. Defensively, Tigres have excelled when it comes to holding opponents to low-percentage shots.

That said, they do have serious struggles with duels, both on the ground and in the air. Often playing narrow when in possession, it can also be easy to predict what Tigres throw at opponents going forward. Those crosses, while plenty (374, third highest in Liga MX), aren't the most accurate either (23%, third lowest in Liga MX).


Tier 2: The sleepers

PUEBLA

Regular-season record: 7W-4D-6L (6th place)
Number of league titles: 2

Why start with sixth-place Puebla for the dark horses? It's all about momentum. Los Camoteros are on a four-game undefeated run and have just one loss since late September.

Defensively, they're well-equipped with absorbing pressure and moving the ball forward, often having little trouble winning the ball back in their own half of the pitch. Other teams could have problems with their backs against the wall, but for Puebla manager Ricardo Carbajal (who was brought on earlier this season), he's more than happy to let opposition take control of possession.

Up top, striker Guillermo Martinez has been a revelation with his eight goals in his past seven appearances, and in net, Jesus Rodriguez is one of the most underrated players in Liga MX. And yet, this is also a team that can't consistently provide danger in the final third. Their xG tally (19.44) was the fourth worst in the regular season and they can also go through long stretches of time without enough touches in the opposition's 18-yard box.

UNAM PUMAS

Regular-season record: 8W-4D-5L (4th place)
Number of league titles: 7

There's a lot to like about Pumas. They create excellent shot opportunities, they're willing to dash forward with risk-taking movement with the ball, and they like to get forward without wasting much time. It's typically attractive soccer, and on one of the wings, they have one of the most exciting up-and-coming players, 22-year-old Mexican international Cesar Huerta.

All that said, there's a real lack of consistency from the team that can score eight goals within two games and then collect a worrisome tally of just one goal in the next three matches. Success in a two-legged playoff format also demands being resilient away from home, which is something that Pumas have yet to showcase in the Apertura tournament.

Huerta and standout goalkeeper Julio Gonzalez have the ability to single-handedly carry this team in games, but it's unlikely they'll be able to do so all the way to a possible championship.

LEON

Regular-season record: 6W-5D-6L (8th place)
Number of league titles: 8

Although Leon needed a quarterfinal invitation through the play-in round, they should in no way be taken lightly.

Manager Nicolas Larcamon has a history of helping his teams punch above their weight in knockout-round situations -- they are the current Concacaf Champions League winners after all -- and through a proactive style of play that prioritizes possession and chance creation at all costs, they'll be a headache against any opponent in the playoffs. Let's also not overlook the growing form of Federico Viñas, who has five goals and an assist in his past four Liga MX appearances.

It's all fun to watch, but it also can lead to unpredictable performances that can swing in any direction, and to the frustration of fans, some erratic results from Larcamon. No matter the long list of shots that they are able to collect, they don't always consistently hit the target either. Eleven goals allowed in their past four matches also isn't a sign of a strong playoff team.

And with the Club World Cup just around the corner in December, there's a sense that Leon are likely saving up their energy for their first entry into the international tournament.


Tier 3: The long shots

CHIVAS

Regular-season record: 8W-3D-6L (5th place)
Number of league titles: 12

A perfect start to the Apertura led to a midseason collapse, and since October, Chivas narrowly secured enough points to stumble into fifth in the standings.

Looking more like long shots than dark horses, Los Rojiblancos have been able to slightly pick themselves up thanks to the efforts of their well-rounded attacking midfielder, Roberto "Piojo" Alvarado. Providing consistency in places where his teammates haven't been able to do so, the 25-year-old has amassed four goals and an assist since late September.

Credit should also be given to Chivas' defensive line that has kept them alive in a number of games, but the reality is that the team just doesn't create enough in the attack to fight for a championship this season. Whether it be through shots or key passes going forward, the Guadalajara club will need to do much, much more in the final third if they hope to avoid an early exit in the playoffs.

ATLETICO SAN LUIS

Regular-season record: 7W-2D-8L (7th place)
Number of league titles: none

A promising start to the Apertura then developed into a dismal finish for Atletico San Luis. Despite beating Leon 3-2 in their last match that gifted them a spot into the quarterfinals, the narrow win marked just the second victory for manager Gustavo Leal and his roster in their past nine games.

There's definitely something worth noting here about their ability to capitalize on chances in the final third and scrappily winning back lots of possession off duels -- their midfield is an unassumingly strong one with Rodrigo Dourado, Javier Guemez and Dieter Villalpando pulling the strings -- but they're a mess defensively and lose the ball far too often. In net, their goalkeepers haven't provided the best protection either.

Their lack of energy and problems in the final minutes of matches also foreshadow similar problems that could emerge once the quarterfinals kick off.


Players to watch

Cesar Huerta, Pumas

There are few Liga MX players, if any, who are playing with the same level of energy and confidence as the 22-year-old. Deployed as a risk-taking winger or forward, Huerta loves to aggressively run directly up the pitch in possession and also hunt the ball back through his tackles. It's not always precise, but there's clearly a high ceiling for the player who has been given recent opportunities for the Mexican national team.

Alejandro Zendejas, Club America

The U.S. men's national team player has stepped up as a game-changer for Las Aguilas with three goals in his past five appearances, which includes a match winner against Santos Laguna. Others like Henry Martín and Jonathan "Cabecita" Rodriguez have been just as efficient over the past handful of weeks, but Zendejas seems to be hitting another level for Club America as they seek a historic 14th title.

Guillermo Martinez, Puebla

Playing second-division soccer just a few years ago, Martinez is one of the stories of the season with his 10 goals that placed him second in the league's goal-scoring charts. With eight of those arriving since September, the 28-year-old is gaining some rhythm before a playoff run that could be a surprisingly successful one for Puebla, who are looking like one of the sleeper teams for the Apertura title.