We're officially past the midway point of Liga MX's 2023 Apertura regular season!
As we now head into the final weeks before the start of the playoffs late next month, three teams have earned a clear advantage in the Mexican top flight table: Club America, Tigres and Atletico San Luis. All claiming at least 19 points from their first 10 matches of the season, the three sides are currently leading the race to qualify for a quarterfinal playoff spot in the top six of the table.
With midweek games just around the corner, let's analyze what's gone right for the top three, as well as a quick look at a few others that'll be fighting for playoff spots in November.
Club America and coach Andre Jardine are flying high after early hiccups
Things weren't exactly looking great for new Club America manager Jardine in mid-August. Days after suffering a disappointing round of 16 exit in the summer's Leagues Cup tournament -- and following an uneventful 1W-1L start to the Liga MX season -- Jardine and his roster were reportedly given a surprise visit during training by Club America's owner, who expressed concern over the state of the Mexico City giants.
Since that mid-August visit? Club America have yet to lose.
¡Jonathan Rodríguez pone el primero para las Águilas! 🦅💥 pic.twitter.com/A3iYFdW2l7— Club América (@ClubAmerica) October 1, 2023
Needing more time to implement his ideas and patch up the holes left by a continued supply of injuries, Jardine has now pushed Club America to a nine-game undefeated streak and spot at first in the table after defeating crosstown rivals Pumas 1-0 last Saturday. Even without their No. 10 Diego Valdes who wasn't fully fit, Las Aguilas were able to shut out their opponents and secure a game-winner from Jonathan "Cabecita" Rodriguez in the second half.
Once the final whistle was blown, Jardine made history by becoming just the third manager for Club America to claim wins over their three rivals (Pumas, Chivas and Cruz Azul) in a single season.
"Winning a clasico always has a special flavor," said the coach after Saturday's 1-0 result. "[But] winning all three in the first tournament with America is undoubtedly very special."
Fine-tuning his approach through 13 different starting XIs in the 14 games that he's been in charge, we've seen Club America morph into Jardine's mold. Wasteful crosses have decreased, direct speed with movement towards the net has increased, fewer turnovers have emerged per game, and in recent weeks, we've seen steady improvements with the team's xG (expected goals) tally.
Converting those shots is something Club America must still work on, but there's reason to feel optimistic about Jardine's improvements. And if those continue to be made, is a 14th Liga MX trophy next for Mexico's most successful club?
Title-holders Tigres are once again looking like champions
Like Club America, the Leagues Cup tournament didn't go as planned for Tigres in their own round of 16 exit, but that hasn't stopped them from hoovering up other titles.
Shortly after clinching last season's 2023 Clausura trophy, Tigres have gained momentum after claiming the summer's Campeon de Campeones championship against Pachuca and last week's Campeones Cup title against LAFC. Silverware in hand, Tigres then returned to Liga MX play and moved up to second in the table through a 3-2 away win last Saturday against Mazatlan.
With a promising 6W-2D-2L record in league play, analyzing what's gone right for Tigres is fairly simple: They have a massive abundance of talent and depth.
As seen in the weekend's victory, even when an iconic goalscorer like Andre-Pierre Gignac isn't finding the back of the net or available in the XI, Tigres still have a deep pool of threatening attacking players that have contributed to their joint league-leading tally of 21 goals in 10 games.
Often criticized for being a veteran-heavy setup that rely on aging stars, Tigres have also become younger in recent months with the 2023 additions of high potential U23 options like Diego Lainez, Marcelo Flores and Eugenio Pizzuto. Young reinforcements in tow and with increasing morale after their latest trophies, the big-spending Nuevo Leon team will now seek to claim their sixth Liga MX championship in just the last 10 years.
However, before an expected run in the playoffs, they'll first have an intriguing test in their final two games of the regular season against current league-leaders Club America and Atletico San Luis, the Cinderella story of the Apertura.
Will Atletico San Luis derail after an unexpectedly brilliant start?
On paper and during most seasons, nobody would tend to associate high ambitions with Atletico San Luis. With the fourth-lowest roster market value (per Transfermarkt) in Liga MX -- as opposed to Club America and Tigres that sit in the top four of the league's roster market value -- expectations tend to regularly be quite low for San Luis.
And yet, past the midway point of the season, Atletico San Luis find themselves with a spot at third in the table thanks to their 6W-1D-3L record. In fact, from weeks six through nine, the San Luis Potosi-based club were sitting in first place.
Often seen in Mexico as an overlooked asset by Atletico Madrid, who own a large stake in the club, how did the former second division team get here?
First and foremost, credit must be given to manager Gustavo Leal for getting the most out of impact players like attacking midfielder Dieter Villalpando, full-back Juan Manuel Sanabria and winger Vitinho. While Sanabria and Villalpando have been vital with their key passes and chance creation going forward, as well as the occasional goal from Villalpando, Vitinho has been especially important in the closing stages of matches with three goals and an assist off the bench since August.
A huge amount of credit must also be given to the midfield duo Rodrigo Dourado and Javier Guemez in the heart of the XI. Arguably one of the best partnerships in the league, the two have become invaluable with their distribution and interventions in the middle of the pitch.
All tied together with additional support through a league-leading percentage of duels and tackles won, and you get a team that's suddenly punching above their weight.
But can it last? Last Friday, Atletico San Luis suffered their second loss in their last three matches after falling 2-1 to Cruz Azul. Time will tell if this is simply a short bump in the road or a sign of them regressing back to their low expectations.
Elsewhere in the table: Chivas' fall from the top, Club Tijuana resurgence, possible dark horses
Outside of the front three, the race to a quarterfinal-worthy playoff spot in the top six or a play-in spot in the top 10 remains completely open.
Chivas, once occupying the top spot from weeks two through five, have now turned into the disappointment of the season after failing to claim a win in their last six matches. Manager Veljko Paunovic, who could soon be on the hot seat, has since gained an unexpected source of motivation for a comeback after watching Mexican boxer Canelo Alvarez fight last weekend.
"Yesterday I was very inspired watching the fight. This is a Mexican who goes, fights, who knows what he's doing," said Paunovic after battling back to a 1-1 away draw with Toluca on Sunday. "That inspiration helps us as a group, to see how we face the rest of the tournament."
Looking at possible dark horses, ninth place Club Tijuana, led by former Mexico coach Miguel "Piojo" Herrera, are currently on the rise after demolishing FC Juarez 5-1 last Friday and claiming three wins in their last four games. Fellow top 10 teams like Atlas, Pumas, Toluca, Monterrey and FC Juarez are also in the mix as dark horses, although they all failed to gain ground without victories last weekend. From those outside of the playoff zone, keep an eye on 16th place Necaxa as they are showing signs of a late revival through a four-game undefeated run.
With just a seven-point difference between 18th and 4th in the table, there's still plenty of room for significant movement in the final weeks of the regular season.