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Mexican soccer has a fresh spin

Playoffs in the first division have taken an unpredictable turn with Pachuca and Club America out, and Santos Laguna seeded No. 1.

November 20, 2007|Jaime Cardenas | Times Staff Writer

Whether it is football or futbol, uncertainty is the norm.

The Mexican Soccer League has been just as unpredictable as college football this season.

Mexico's first division soccer clubs begin their playoffs, known as la liguilla, on Wednesday. And two of its most celebrated teams, Pachuca and Club America, will miss the postseason, while Santos Laguna -- a team that barely avoided relegation to a lower division last season -- is seeded No. 1.

At stake is the 2007-08 Apertura championship. The Mexican League is split into two tournaments, the Apertura (opening, or fall, season) and Clausura (closing, or spring, season).

The playoffs consist of three rounds of two-game series, with one game at each city with one game during the weekday and the other on the weekend. After the quarterfinals the remaining teams are reseeded.

Certainly, these playoffs in Mexico are lacking star power. None of the remaining traditional powers -- Chivas of Guadalajara, Cruz Azul and Pumas UNAM -- are favored to win. Cruz Azul and Pumas come in as the sixth- and seventh-seeded teams.

Just four months ago, Pachuca was being hailed as one of the best Mexican teams of all-time. In its trophy case Pachuca had the league title, CONCACAF Champions Cup and Copa Sudamericana -- which was a first in Mexican club history. After Pachuca's championship victory over Galaxy in the inaugural SuperLiga tournament this summer, the Tuzos bragged about being a "model franchise" on par with the elite clubs in the world.

But after a 4-1 start to the season, Pachuca ended the season with a record of 7-9-3.

Club America got off to a hot start as well, but faltered as the season went on. A midseason coaching change was not enough for the liguilla, but it did get the Eagles into the Copa Sudamericana finals.

Santos Laguna, however, motivated by its improbable turnaround season, unveiled plans to build a new, $100-million stadium and cultural center.

If the regular season showed anything it is that the unexpected should be expected in the liguilla.

The finals will start Dec. 5 or 6, with the second-leg game Dec. 8 or 9.

Here's a look at the quarterfinals.

No. 1 Santos vs. No. 8 Monarcas: Santos has the most potent offense in the liguilla, having scored 40 goals in 17 regular-season games, and Monarcas allowed more goals (25) than it scored (20). Santos lost only one time during the season -- and its 38 points are a record for a split-season tournament. Monarcas was the last team to qualify by eliminating America on Sunday in a play-in round.

No. 2 Toluca vs. No. 7 Pumas: Argentine goalkeeper Hernan Cristante is nearing the end of his illustrious career with Toluca and would love nothing more than to get one more title. Cristante, 38, led the Red Devils to titles in 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2005, and was a key to a defense that finished tied for first in goals allowed (16) this season. The Pumas are led by Esteban Solari, a big off-season acquisition, who finished third in the league in goals scored with 14.

No. 3 Atlante vs. No. 6 Cruz Azul: This series offers the best chance for an upset. The Iron Colts relocated to Cancun before the season, but enter the liguilla with a 2-2-2 record in their last six games. Cruz Azul comes in on a high note having eliminated Pachuca, by an aggregate score of 6-0, over the weekend. Jared Borgetti, who until recently had been sidelined because of a hamstring injury, scored a goal in Saturday's 4-0 victory.

No. 4 Guadalajara vs. No. 5 San Luis: This is the most evenly matched pairing. Chivas, Mexico's winningest club, is in search of league title No. 12. It is led by forward Omar Bravo, who scored a team-high eight goals, and a stingy defense that allowed only 16 goals, tying Toluca for the league best. The Gladiators, however, come in the liguilla with a six-game unbeaten streak. They are hot and are guided by the league's leading goal scorer, Alfredo Moreno, an off-season acquisition who had 18 goals.

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jaime.cardenas@latimes.com

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