Liga MX's 2018 wishlist: Tigres, Monterrey success; CONCACAF CL win
If you could wave a magic wand to influence events in Liga MX in 2018, what would you change? Here's a look at 10 realistic things Mexico's first division should be hoping for in 2018.
1. Tigres, Monterrey continue to upset usual order
The Apertura final between Tigres and Monterrey felt like an important moment in the Mexican game, bringing together the two rivals for the first time in a league final. But while the northern clubs revelled in their spotlight and what has become the best rivalry in Liga MX, it also raised the question of whether their power is now an established norm.
Moving forward, one of the main storylines in 2018 will once again be how the two clubs can unsettle the established order and whether the Clasico Regio rivalry can move from being a regional event to one that regularly captures the attention of all Mexico. The raw ingredients are certainly there.
Tigres, in particular, have an opportunity in 2018 to continue their period of dominance and consolidate themselves as the team of the decade.
2. Big four live up to "grande" status
To make 2018 in Liga MX really special, as many of the big four (Club America, Chivas, Cruz Azul and Pumas) as possible need to remain at the forefront and take the battle to the northern clubs. At present, there is doubt about the financial power of Club America; Chivas have returned to their old scandal-filled selves; Cruz Azul have a new coach in Pedro Caixinha; Pumas aren't competing at the top and look unlikely to do so moving forward.
Tigres' and Monterrey's rise needs to happen because of their modus operandi and investment, rather than due to a vacuum left by the "big four." For the vitality of Liga MX, all need to step up.
3. Players' association works smoothly
The Mexican footballers' association was launched last October, and 2018 will be a critical year in establishing just what its intentions are and how willing it is to push club owners to treat players in a fairer way.
Issues surrounding the Liga MX draft (in which players are often traded domestically without prior knowledge) and the Gentlemen's Pact (which doesn't allow freedom of movement when contracts have run out) are priorities for the association.
In March 2017, a referees' strike caused one round of matches in the Clausura to be postponed. In theory, the players hold even more power and influence and have already backed El Tri international Oswaldo Alanis in his contractual dispute with Chivas.
Changes in the way the Mexican game runs need to happen and will be for the overall good in the long term, but it'd be better for everyone if there is as little conflict as possible in the short term.
4. Liga MX dominates CONCACAF Champions League
There seems to be a sense in MLS circles that this could be the year a side from the north takes the CONCACAF Champions League title. MLS champion Toronto is certainly strong, and Seattle Sounders have been consistently good, but the Liga MX teams aren't exactly weak and have improved, too.
Tigres are desperate for a first regional title, while Club America and Chivas are under pressure to succeed in this competition. If there is a weak link, it is perhaps Club Tijuana.
With Liga MX clubs not returning to the Copa Libertadores any time soon, there is an even greater need to continue to dominate the CONCACAF region.
5. Young Mexicans find places
Whether it is the 9/9 rule (a minimum of nine homegrown players must be in each matchday squad), the return of something like the 20/11 rule (clubs have to give young Mexican players a certain amount of playing time per season) or any other concoction of the above, the bottom line is that Mexican clubs need to trust in Mexican players for the good of the national team.
The youngest Mexico-born starter in the first leg of the Liga MX 2017 Apertura final between Tigres and Monterrey was 26 years old, and only six of the 22 on the field were born in the country. For the future of the Mexico national team beyond next summer's World Cup, finding more space within the first division for domestic talent is vital.
6. Ambitious projects work out
There are some clubs giving time and opportunities to younger Mexican players and trying to circumnavigate the big-spending Tigres and Monterrey by producing teams made up in part by young, homegrown products. Santos Laguna, Pachuca and Chivas are leading the way in that regard, and each has a very good youth system, while Atlas, Pumas and Queretaro are doing something roughly along the same lines.
However, it'll be a huge challenge and major achievement if they can compete at the top of the league.
7. Continued and increased support for Liga MX Femenil
The first Liga MX Femenil season went beyond expectations, with more than 30,000 fans witnessing Chivas win the inaugural Apertura tournament. But the hard work is only just beginning.
The potential of Liga MX Femenil is there for all to see, but a sustained effort will be required, especially now that the newness of the debut season is in the past.
8. Improved links with MLS
Is the Liga MX/MLS cup competition ever going to happen? Is a Liga MX vs. MLS All-Star game realistic? Given the overlaps in the markets between the two leagues, Mexico's exclusion from the Copa Libertadores and the fact that the CCL now lasts only from February until April (for Liga MX and MLS clubs), it seems to be a no-brainer for the two sides to try to come up with something to provide more cross-border competition between the two leagues.
9. Players impact World Cup
There is arguably no greater event to showcase the talent of a league's players than a World Cup. Liga MX is likely to have players in the Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Japan, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Peru squads in Russia this summer.
For a league that isn't considered one of the top 10 leagues in the world, the number of internationals might be surprise for some, but if they can make an impact in Russia, then the world might start to take notice.
10. One of Veracruz or Puebla get relegated
As cities, Veracruz and Puebla deserve first-division football. But the way both are run as football clubs adds very little value to Liga MX as a whole. The constant changes in the squad and coaches make it difficult to get excited about either.
Heading into the 2018 Clausura, Veracruz is adrift at the bottom of the relegation table, eight points behind Queretaro and 13 from Puebla. If Tiburones Rojos were to go down, not many outside the city of Veracruz would mourn their demise.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.