Welcome to the start of the Liga MX playoffs! After 17 weeks of regular-season play, 12 teams remain in the hunt for the 2023 Clausura title. While the top four in the standings will enter in next week's quarterfinal stage, the next eight best-ranked teams will kick off the Liguilla this Saturday and Sunday in a preliminary play-in round.
Saturday, May 6 (play-in round, advance to quarterfinals)
No. 8 Cruz Azul vs. No. 9 Atlas
No. 5 Pachuca vs. No. 13 Santos Laguna
Saturday, May 7 (play-in round, advance to quarterfinals)
No. 6 Leon vs. No. 12 Atletico San Luis
No. 7 Tigres vs. No. 11 Puebla
Byes: No. 1 Monterrey, No. 2 Club America, No. 3 Chivas, No. 4 Toluca
Ahead of those first matches, we've got you covered with everything you need to know, beginning with three tiers for those left in the title chase.
Tier 1: The front-runners
Regular-season record: 17W-1D-3L (1st place)
Number of league titles: 5
As the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Monterrey are the favorites to win the Clausura title. They have a solid defense with just 14 goals allowed over 17 games, a threatening attack that has a long list of playmakers, one of the most passionate fan bases in the country that'll pack their home ground, and the leadership of a seasoned head coach in Victor Manuel Vucetich.
Everything seems to be going right for the team that has benefitted from a well-balanced style that has led them to the best goal differential (+21) in the Clausura. Assuming they don't make any of the rare errors seen through April's two defeats, Monterrey should be first in line for a Liga MX championship.
Regular-season record: 17W-9D-7L (2nd place)
Number of league titles: 13 (most in Liga MX)
Next up is No. 2 Club America, who led the regular season in goals scored with a total of 36 collected over 17 matches. There's a large number of players to highlight within the squad that have made their own impact in the final third, but most of the plaudits should go to 30-year-old Mexican international Henry Martin. With 14 opportunities finding the back of the net this season, the striker not only led Las Aguilas in scoring, but was also the overall league-leader for the Clausura.
Looking at their defense, Club America will need to rely on the efforts of their new starting goalkeeper: Luis Angel Malagon. Once a backup earlier this season, the 26-year-old recently took over for the more experienced Oscar Jimenez and has been a game-changer since stepping into net during Week 11. A noteworthy playoff run could also possibly lead to more minutes for Malagon this summer with the Mexican national team.
Regular-season record: 10W-4D-3L (3rd place)
Number of league titles: 12
Last but not least from the title favorites, we have No. 3 Chivas. Revived through the organized and at times pragmatic approach from coach Veljko Paunovic, the Liga MX giants have quickly gone from an underwhelming midtable team in 2022 to true championship contenders. Typically more associated with tight matches that have frustrated opponents through hard-fought results, Chivas seem to have hit another gear with their current four-game winning streak.
Carried by the latest efforts from Alexis Vega and Victor Guzman, keep an eye on the duo that has collectively totaled three goals and three assists over the past four games.
Tier 2: The sleepers
Regular-season record: 9W-5D-3L (4th place)
Number of league titles: 10
As automatic quarterfinalists, No. 4 Toluca should probably be in the Tier 1 conversation. They utilize some of the most disciplined soccer through manager Ignacio Ambriz's possession-heavy style of play and are the only team that's undefeated at home. And yet, one does worry about their defensive lapses that have cost them points against a handful of non-playoff teams this season.
It's a worry for Los Diablos Rojos, but they'll at least have a week to sort that out before the quarterfinals.
Regular-season record: 9W-1D-6L (5th place)
Number of league titles: 7
What about No. 5 Pachuca? The current titleholders haven't looked as strong as they did in last season's sprint to the championship, but the good news is that replacement striker Cristian "Chicho" Arango has recently started to find his form. With big cleats to fill after former Pachuca forward Nicolas Ibañez went to Tigres, Arango -- a 2022 MLS Cup champion with LAFC -- has stepped up lately with four goals and an assist in his past four appearances.
Against No. 13 Santos Laguna, who were only invited to the Liguilla after No. 10 Queretaro were deemed ineligible due to being last in a separate coefficient table (points per game average over the last three years), Pachuca should have no problems in the play-in round.
Regular-season record: 7W-6D-3L (6th place)
Number of league titles: 8
Speaking of possible problems, No. 6 Leon will immediately run into some complications when it comes to scheduling. After surpassing No. 7 Tigres on Wednesday in the semifinal round of CONCACAF Champions League, they'll need to quickly prepare for Sunday's play-in game against No. 12 Atletico San Luis. Nonetheless, up-and-coming manager Nicolas Larcamon should be able to get the job with an alternate roster for Leon, if needed, against an Atletico San Luis squad that have just five wins in 2023.
Regular-season record: 7W-4D-5L (7th place)
Number of league titles: 7
Looking at Tigres, what they have as an advantage over other sleepers (and arguably everyone outside of Monterrey) is depth in talent. Even with a packed schedule after their midweek CCL exit, they'll be the favorites against No. 11 Puebla on Sunday. Let's not forget that Tigres also still have an aging but powerful weapon through "Mr. Liguilla" himself, 37-year-old French striker Andre-Pierre Gignac.
Regular-season record: 7W-3D-7L (8th place)
Number of league titles: 9
Still a work-in-progress under new manager Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti, No. 8 Cruz Azul limped their way into the playoffs with a single victory in their past four matches. Since his arrival in February, Ferretti has yet to fully instill his version of "Tuca-ball" that relies on more possession and gradual buildup. If Los Cementeros do find success in the playoffs, and if they can find a way past No. 9 Atlas in the play-in round this weekend, it'll likely be thanks to the attacking efforts of winger Uriel Antuna or the promising Rodrigo Huescas.
Regular-season record: 4W-9D-4L (9th place)
Number of league titles: 3
Momentum is key in the Liga MX playoffs, and regardless of Atlas' paltry total of four wins all season, three of those have emerged in their current six-game undefeated streak in league play that began in mid-March. A significant part of that revival has been put on the shoulders of Colombian forward Julian Quiñones. Within Atlas' six-game undefeated run, the clever and pacey 26-year-old has chipped in with eight goals, falling just two short of Martin's overall goal-scoring record this season.
Tier 3: The long shots
Regular-season record: 6W-2D-9L (11th place)
Number of league titles: 2
Sure, Puebla seemed to make a statement with their 5-2 pummeling of Club Tijuana in the final week of the regular season, but we can't overlook them also allowing 32 goals (third-worst in Liga MX) in the Clausura.
Regular-season record: 5W-4D-8L (12th place)
Number of league titles: none
Atletico San Luis, who lost 2-0 to Leon in March, are significantly inconsistent and often struggle with their chances in the final third.
Regular-season record: 5W-4D-8L (13th place; in place of No. 10 Queretaro)
Number of league titles: 6
And as for Los Guerreros, they're lucky to be invited to the Liguilla and have allowed even more goals (37, the second-worst in Liga MX) than Puebla.
Players to watch
What better way for Club America's Martin to follow his Clausura goal-scoring title than to emerge as the MVP during the playoffs as well? Recently taking on a role as captain after the winter departure of goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, Martin is unquestionably the leader and attacking focal point for Las Aguilas in 2023. With strong support behind him through the wings and attack, expect to see Club America forward continue to thrive in his Liguilla run that will begin in the quarterfinals.
Even with all of those goals, Martin might not be able to keep up with Toluca goalkeeper Tiago Volpi when it comes to possible fireworks in the playoffs. The Brazilian is a living highlight reel in net, and believe it or not, in the attack as well. In April alone, the goalkeeper scored three times for Toluca from the penalty spot. As seen in last season's playoffs, he has also shown that he can be a playmaker through an assist from a long-range pass during an October quarterfinal series.
Don't count out Jesus Gallardo just yet either. Once seen as a past-his-peak member of the older guard for the Mexican national team, the 28-year-old full-back has just had one of the best seasons of his career through his defensive interventions and dangerous passes into the final third. On a prominent playoff stage, Gallardo should be motivated to continue putting on a show as Monterrey's undisputed and energetic left-back.