The first Liga MX playoff weekend is now in the books! While the top four in the 2023 Clausura regular season were given byes until the quarterfinal stage, the next eight-best teams battled it out in the play-in round. With four clubs now out of the picture, here are a few talking points from the latest batch of play-in games and some thoughts ahead of this week's quarterfinal matches.
Last-second invite Santos knocks out champs Pachuca
Before diving into all the latest Liga MX drama, we need to remember that No. 13 seed Santos Laguna are lucky to be involved in the playoff conversation. With a spot outside of the top 12 in the regular season, Los Guerreros were only brought into the playoffs because No. 10 seed Queretaro had finished at the bottom of the league's coefficient table (points per game average over the last three years).
Away against defending champs and No. 5 seed Pachuca on Saturday night, many weren't expecting any surprises -- but that's what happened due to a shocking amount of defensive lapses.
Thanks to errors on both ends of the field and two goals from each team in injury time, the playoff match finished 4-4 at the end of regulation, which ensured a penalty shootout. Despite surviving the first 90 minutes, the odds still appeared grim for a Santos side that had to rely on backup goalkeeper Gibran Lajud, who wasn't able to do much to halt Pachuca's four goals.
That is until he stopped two opportunities from Pachuca in the shootout, thereby handing Santos a stunning 3-2 victory through penalties.
Not bad for a goalkeeper with just two appearances since last year.
Recently stepping in for injured star goalkeeper Carlos Acevedo, Lajud might be given another chance in this week's quarterfinal series for Santos against No. 1 seed Monterrey. The odds of Santos defeating the top-ranked Liga MX team are incredibly small, but the same was said about them before their match against Pachuca.
Atlas sees off Cruz Azul; sets Tapatío clash with Chivas
Earlier on Saturday, No. 9 Atlas kicked off the play-in round with a narrow but convincing 1-0 away win over No. 8 Cruz Azul. Needing less than 90 seconds to make their mark, Atlas capitalized on a careless start to the match for Cruz Azul through a goal from Brian Lozano in the second minute.
After that, it was simply sticking to counters and allowing Cruz Azul to launch a number of shots that failed to hit the target. Sitting in a compact 4-4-2 that eventually switched to a 5-4-1 in the final minutes, Atlas manager Benjamin Mora did well to keep his side defensively organized and also dangerous with the turnovers they forced from Cruz Azul.
Just six months into his job after an atypical coaching route that took him to Malaysia from 2015 to 2022, Mora has recently put his stamp on an Atlas side that are now undefeated in their last seven Liga MX matches. The 43-year-old later praised counterpart Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti, who was named Cruz Azul boss midseason.
"The only thing I have is respect and admiration for his career, I told him in person," said Mora about Ferretti. "I didn't knock him out, Atlas knocked out Cruz Azul."
Next up for Mora and Atlas: A chance to gain even more plaudits through an enticing quarterfinal series against crosstown rivals Chivas this week. Sitting at third in the table and with a four-game winning streak, Chivas are genuine title-contenders that will be a much more stern test in the upcoming two-game series.
Leon licking wounds after San Luis stages upset
Perhaps inspired by the underdog performances on Saturday, No. 12 seed San Luis Atletico were resilient and efficient in Sunday's away match against No. 6 seed Leon.
Despite allowing a goal from the home team in the third minute, San Luis roared back with three first half goals that would eventually carry them a statement 3-1 win. Led by a goal and assist from young Brazilian up-and-comer Vitinho and goalkeeper Andres Sanchez, San Luis looked incredibly motivated after bouncing back from their early deficit.
Looking ahead, San Luis manager Andre Jardine knows things won't be as easy against No. 2 Club America in the quarterfinal stage.
"It's a great team, very well managed, having two, three impressive tournaments in a row. A very offensive team, perhaps the best offense in the league," said Jardine about Club America after Sunday's result.
As for Leon, their season isn't over just yet. Although they're no longer in the Liga MX playoffs, they still have a two-legged CONCACAF Champions League final against MLS Cup champs LAFC on May 31 and June 4.
Tigres survives as weekend's only top seed to win
Making sure that at least one of the favorites didn't stumble in the play-in round, No. 7 Tigres narrowly surpassed No. 11 Puebla through a 1-0 home victory on Sunday night. Following a tense start to the game that was scoreless in the first half, attacking midfielder Sebastian Cordova carried Tigres over the line with the eventual game-winner in the 56th minute.
Moments later, Tigres then avoided a possible catastrophe. After Puebla earned a penalty in the second half, striker Diego de Buen seemed to wait for an eternity (four minutes) at the spot while dealing with arguments and waiting for substitutions that were being made by both teams.
Coupled with some ostentatious gestures and mind games from Tigres goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman, De Buen looked overwhelmed after sending the penalty wide of the net in the 74th minute.
Victory in hand, Tigres will now face No. 4 Toluca in the quarterfinal stage. Should Los Diablos Rojos earn a penalty of their own this week against Tigres, they'll be able to count on an unexpected attacking factor: goalkeeper Tiago Volpi. In April alone, the Toluca goalkeeper scored three times from the penalty spot. Will he get a chance for his fourth goal?