Following a thrilling wildcard round of the Liga MX playoffs, the current race for the 2021 Apertura title has eight teams remaining: Club America, Atlas, Leon, Tigres, Santos, Puebla, Monterrey and Pumas.
Semifinal spots are now up for grabs. Kicking off on Wednesday and wrapping up by Sunday, Liga MX fans will get to feast on some turkey week soccer with four quarterfinal match-ups that will be sure to dish out plenty of the traditional late drama and fireworks.
Before we begin, a quick side note regarding a recent rule change -- away goals are no longer a tie-breaker. If both teams are tied at the end of their two-game quarterfinal series, higher seeding (based off of the regular season table) will dictate which club goes through to the next round.
(First leg: Wednesday, Nov. 24th 8:00pm ET. Second leg: Saturday, Nov. 27th at 8:00pm ET)
Sticking with the Thanksgiving theme here, America vs. Pumas is the main course of the Liga MX quarterfinals. This series not only features crosstown rivals from Mexico City, but also two of the "big four" in the country's top flight of soccer.
All that said, America will be the easy favorites. With former Real Madrid manager Santiago Solari leading the charge, Las Aguilas soared to the top of the regular season standings with their pragmatic and organized approach. No team in Liga MX allowed fewer goals than America in the Apertura.
But what about Pumas? Regardless of the fact that they narrowly snuck into the wildcard round and are now the lowest ranked team left in the playoffs, they have momentum. They're undoubtedly picking up their pace with five wins in their last seven games.
Prediction: America. Sorry Pumas fans, it just seems highly unlikely that the underdogs could last through a 180+ minute battle with America. Pumas have several defensive issues that have yet to be resolved and are fortunate to still be in the playoff conversation. Solari can sometimes be a little too cautious with America and leave his foot off the gas when needed in tight results, but he has proven time and time again this year that he can frustrate opposing attacks.
First leg: Wednesday, Nov. 24th, 10:05pm ET. Second leg: Saturday, Nov. 27th,10:05pm ET)
Almost quietly and without much commotion, Atlas gradually made their way up to second in the league table. How did they get there? Under the guidance of manager Diego Cocca, they prioritized a solid defense and a direct style of play with progressive and long passes. Up top, out-and-out striker Julio Furch and creative winger Julian Quiñones have been a handful to defend with their combined total of 11 goals and six assists.
As for Monterrey, their latest 4-1 away win over champions Cruz Azul was an obvious sign of what they're capable of when they're at their best. They arguably have the strongest roster in Liga MX and have a long list of threatening attacking options in their XI and on the bench.
And yet, Los Rayados haven't exactly put up dangerous goal-scoring numbers that should match the ambitions of their skillful frontline. Before the wildcard round, they only scored 19 times in 17 games.
Prediction: Atlas. A reliable backline can carry you far in the Liga MX playoffs. Keeping in mind that Atlas also have the benefit of being the higher seed (in case of a tiebreaker), they should be able to get the job done against an inconsistent Monterrey. We should also note that Atlas goalkeeper Camilo Vargas has been impressive this season and one of the league standouts in his position.
First leg: Thursday, Nov. 25th, 8:00pm ET. Second leg: Sunday, Nov. 28th, 9:00pm ET)
Goal difference was the only thing keeping Leon from a place in the top two of the league table. Attack-minded and eager to dominate possession, Leon were impressive in a busy season that also had them securing the 2021 Leagues Cup title. Nonetheless, perhaps what's most scary about the roster and squad is a sense that they aren't firing on all cylinders just yet. If key players like Angel Mena or Jean Meneses pick up their form, they might become unstoppable.
However, Puebla might be happy to give up possession and control of the ball. Their game is a counter-attacking and physical one. Young manager Nicolas Larcamon has no qualms with his players diving into tackles and fouls that could slow down what Leon are throwing at them. In the air, they make things challenging and are capable of winning most of their duels.
Prediction: Leon. Although this should be a fun series that will allow each side to utilize their own style, it will remain difficult for Puebla to keep Leon quiet. Playoff experience won't be a worry either for a majority of the Leon squad that made a run towards the 2020 Apertura championship. Looking at Puebla, they're living on borrowed time after they luckily sneaked past Chivas on penalties in the wildcard round.
First leg: Thursday, Nov. 25th,10:00pm ET. Second leg: Sunday, Nov. 28th, 7:00pm ET)
Widely recognized as the best Liga MX team of the 2010s, lofty expectations have become the standard for Tigres in recent years. They have a star-studded roster led by club legend Andre-Pierre Gignac, a championship-winning manager under Miguel "Piojo" Herrera, and a passionate fanbase that will support them home and away.
An upset might be in the works though and Santos shouldn't be taken lightly.
Through constant pressing and an endless array of shots created, they're always willing to go toe-to-toe with any team in the league. This can at times leave them vulnerable in defense, but goalkeeper Carlos Acevedo has been superb with his reflexes that have denied several goals.
Prediction: Santos. Admittedly, this might be a risky pick. Tigres have the advantage of higher seeding and world-class caliber players like Gignac that could make something out of nothing. Still, Santos do have a decent chance here. Santos haven't lost to Tigres in their two previous meetings this year and can count on a game-changer like Acevedo in net. Hosting the first leg and making a strong impression on Thursday could turn the tide.