Understanding the mechanics of Liga MX: Clausura and Apertura seasons and the playoff system
Very few domestic leagues offer the chance for the 13th placed side in the regular season become champion...welcome to Liga MX.
Before we begin, getting one’s head around the mechanics of Liga MX can be somewhat challenging and occasionally bewildering when considering that a team finishing 13th in an 18 team league can be crowned champions.
As left-field as it sounds, this 2023 Liga MX Clausura season is a perfect case in point as Santos Laguna who ended the regular season in 13th place, secured a postseason position thanks to the team who ended in 10th (Queretaro FC) being ineligible to participate due to their coefficient established over four short seasons (but that’s a matter for another day).
The side from La Comarca Lagunera stunned current champions Pachuca to secure a place in the quarterfinals where they face Rayados and are potentially just six games away from winning the Liga MX 2023 Clausura title.
What are the Apertura-Clausura seasons?
As of the 1996-97 season, Liga MX is contested over two annual tournaments which see two champions crowned per season. The season opens with the Apertura tournament (opening tournament) and this runs from July to December with the Clausura tournament (closing) and this runs from January through to May. 18 teams are currently involved in the Liga MX top flight with this system in place since the mid 90s.
The winners of each tournament go head-to-head in a final called the Campeón de Campeones in July. Over the course of the two competitions the home team is changed so that every team plays home and away against every other team.
What is the ‘repechaje’ ?
These ‘short’ regular seasons see all teams play 17 games which see the top 12 sides advance to the postseason with the top four fast tracked to the quarter final stage with 5th playing 12th, 6th vs 11th, 7th vs 10th and 8th and 9th going head to head in a one-off round of games known as el ‘repechaje’.
These are single round games with the winner advancing to the quarter final stage. Should a ‘repechaje’ tie end in a draw, then the game goes straight to penalties to determine the victor.
This current repechaje system was re-introduced as a result of the financial impact the Covid-19 crisis with clubs calling for the governing body to assure greater opportunities for all participating teams to keep their respective seasons alive and hence maximize revenue streams. It is expected that this system will be discontinued by Liga MX after the next short season.
Liga MX playoffs
The four repechaje winners advance and join with the top four teams in a quarter-final play off. These games are played in a traditional home/away knock-out procedure that will always see the highest team in the regular season enjoy home advantage in the return leg.
Should games at the quarter and semi-final stages be tied on aggregate, then the higher placed side in the regular season progresses and for the 2023 Clausura, Rayados, America, Chivas and Toluca enjoy this benefit as highest placed regular season sides.
Things change slightly when we get to the final stage as league position only determines which team plays at home in the second leg. Should the aggregate score at the end of the second leg see both finalists tied, then extra time is played with two halves of 15 minutes. Should the scoreline still be drawn, then penalty kicks are used to determine the winner.
A case in point was the historic Atlas FC Apertura 2021 when the Guadalajara side won the title for the first time in 70 years. Their first leg away to Club Leon ended in a 3-2 loss for Atlas but a 1-0 second leg home win forced the tie to extra time. With no resolution after a further half an hour of action, the Foxes ultimately ran out winners with a 4-3 win on penalty kicks to the delight of the fans at the Estadio Jalisco.
Is there Liga MX relegation/promotion?
At present there is no relegation for the bottom placed sides to go down to the second tier Ascenso MX with ongoing debate ensuing amongst the governing body to overthrow this measure and re-introduce promotion-relegation as an incentive to the second tier clubs.
In their last AGM, Liga MX and the Mexican FA stated that reintroducing promotion and relegation was a priority for the near future but as things stand many Ascenso MX sides lack the financial muscle to secure a Liga MX license.
At present, poorly performing Liga MX teams are currently fined as a result of finishing in the bottom three with Mazatlan hit with a fine of approximately $2 million for their wretched performance in the 2023 Clausura season.
It’s fair to say that the current structure of the Mexican league is not without its detractors. At present the season is played in two mini-seasons (Apertura and Clausura) with no relegation currently in place and 12 of the 18 teams advancing to the postseason stage. Many feel that too many teams are rewarded for mediocre campaigns with others claiming that having so many teams involved maintains excitement and tension right down to the wire.