Wildcard Weekend kicks off Liga MX trophy chase

Chivas captain Jesús Molina (left) and his mates hope to repeat their Matchday 2 success against Puebla. (Photo by Jam Media/Getty Images)
Chivas captain Jesús Molina (left) and his mates hope to repeat their Matchday 2 success against Puebla. (Photo by Jam Media/Getty Images) /
Liga MX wildcard weekend1
Santos midfielder Fernando Gorriarán (left) figures to be in the middle of the action when the Liga MX playoffs kick off Saturday evening as he and his Guerreros welcome Atlético de San Luis to Estadio Corona. (Photo by Armando Marin/Jam Media/Getty Images) /

After a nearly two-week FIFA break (best not to talk about it), Liga MX jumps back into the spotlight with an entertaining Wildcard Weekend featuring three of the league’s Big 4 clubs.

While the top four seeds sit at home and watch, the next eight teams will be looking to advance to the quarterfinals via a one-game, winner-take-all showdown.

Saturday’s double-header features No. 5 Santos Laguna vs No. 12 Atlético de San Luis followed by No. 7 Puebla hosting the No. 10 Chivas. Sunday’s twinbill offers No. 11 UNAM at No. 6 Toluca while two preseason title favorites – No. 8. Cruz Azul and No. 9 Monterrey – will do battle in Estadio Azteca in the nightcap.

The “repechaje,” or wildcard round, is a single-elimination contest played at the home stadium of the higher-seeded team. There must be a winner (the higher seed is not favored by a tie and the away-goals rule is not in play). If the game is tied after 90 minutes, the clubs go directly to a penalty-kick shoot-out.

Santos heavy favorites over Liga MX minnows

Guillermo Almada, coach of last season’s losing finalist, promises the Guerreros will not be looking past San Luis toward a potential quarterfinal showdown against No. 5 Tigres.

“We don’t feel an extra pressure, because we focus on what we need to do,” said the Santos coach, “but we are well aware that (Atlético de San Luis) is a difficult team with good players. We are not looking past them.”

The high-strung Uruguayan was also forced to deny that he is distracted by rumors that he is in line for his national team’s top spot (long-time Uruguay coach Óscar Washington Tabárez was fired on Friday).

Whether true or not, it is certain that Aldama will be toeing the touchline at Estadio Corona tonight, screaming at his players, complaining to the refs and gesticulating wildly. Always entertaining during games, the “Uruguayan Guardiola” will have his squad pressing and hectoring the Tuneros for the entire 90 minutes.

Though not as oppressive as last season (13 goals allowed during the Guardianes 2021, 16 goals allowed this season), the Guerreros shut out their last two opponents (including the Tuneros) and starting goalie Carlos Acevedo is fully fit after missing nine games with a shoulder injury.

Atlético de San Luis, meanwhile, is enjoying its first taste of playoff football in Liga MX since winning promotion in summer 2019. And they are doing so a season after finishing last in the Relegation Standings (a debacle that brought with it a 120 million-peso penalty and almost cost the Tuneros their financial relationship with Atlético de Madrid).

The front office brought in Marcelo Méndez, also a Uruguayan, to take the reins. The 40-year-old former central defender imposed a disciplined system that helped the club to get off to a fast start, hanging around the top 10 through eight games.

After losing 11 games last season, the Tuneros did not lose their second game of the Apertura 2021 until Matchday 9. A prolonged slump (seven winless to close out the season) nearly erased Atleti’s playoff dreams, but three consecutive draws were enough to claim the 12th and final wildcard berth. The 0-0 result against Santos in the season finale allowed the Tuneros to match Mazatlán FC at 20 points and their –4 goal differential was “superior” to the –6 of the Cañoneros.

The result – a rematch with the Guerreros who had little to play for in that Matchday 17 meeting since a win would not have improved their seeding.

Look for Santos to apply pressure from the outset while San Luis will sit back and look for the counter while attempting to limit turnovers. The Guerreros will have to be alert to breaks involving Liga MX scoring champ Germán Berterame (9 goals), while the visitors will have to concern themselves with midfield pitbull Fernando Gorriarán and playmaker Diego Valdés.

Upstart Puebla looks to boot Chivas

Way back in July, on Matchday 2, Guadalajara stole into Estadio Cuauhtémoc – site of tonight’s game – and went back home with all 3 points. Oh, how things have changed since then.

Puebla had undergone a roster overhaul and reigning Liga MX Coach of the Year Nicolás Larcamón was still trying to figure out what he had, and how he was going to replace the production Santi Ormeño, Omar Fernández and Salvador Reyes had supplied in season’s past.

The resulting early-season struggles saw Puebla at 0-3-3 before Larcamón identified line-up preferences and the Camoteros would only lose twice more, finishing the Apertura 2021 on a 6-3-2 run.

Larcamón will field a feisty team in front of grizzled goalie Antony Silva (No. 2 in Liga MX with 99 saves this year). Christian Tabó and Guillermo Martínez lead a scrappy offense, but the Camoteros will win or lose this game on defense.

Puebla conceded just under 1 goal per game while Guadalajara has recorded the fewest goals of any playoff team (13), so we should not expect a high-scoring game unless one or two underperforming Chivas stars finds inspiration.

One such candidate is Alexis Vega. The bronze-medal winner played in just eight games (601 total minutes), missing nine due to assorted injuries, personal issues and absences (Vega missed three games while in Tokyo with El Tri Olímpico). The elusive forward did not contribute a single goal, recording only 13 shots (just four on target).

Another Olympian, winger Uriel Antuna, also went scoreless during the Apertura 2021, a season featuring locker room turmoil, internal suspensions and a coaching change. Víctor Manuel Vucetich was canned in mid-September, replaced by Marcelo Michel Leaño, the director of the Chivas’ academy system, who guided the club to a 2-3-3 record.

So, “El Rebaño Sagrado” enters Liga MX Wildcard Weekend looking for redemption after another turbulent season on and off the pitch. The opportunity to turn disaster into good fortune was provided by Angel Zaldívar’s minute 87 goal in the season finale. The 1-0 win catapulted the Chivas into 10th place.

Several Guadalajara players know this might be a final chance to preserve roster spots, so there’s incentive for goalie Raúl Gudiño, midfielder Fernando Beltrán and even striker Zaldívar to step up tonight.

Next. Liga MX news and notes. dark

Though the Goats did not fulfill GM Ricardo Peláez’s preseason promise of a Top 4 seed, a win in Puebla would silence the critics – and there are many – for another week.