Momentum matters as lower seeds rule Liga MX playoffs

Weaker teams were happy to play do-or-die games with the top four seeds in the Liguilla eliminated in the quarterfinals for only the second time ever

Down they went. The two seed fell first, with the four falling shortly after. Sunday the first and then the third met their fates as well.

The top four seeds were eliminated in the first round of the Liga MX quarterfinals this weekend, only the second time in the league’s history the five, six, seven and eight seeds all advanced to the semifinals.

How did it happen? The favorites didn’t seem to have all that much in common, other than playing better than their rivals during the regular season. 

It’s worth noting that the margins this tournament were extremely narrow. The four, five and six seeds (Queretaro, Necaxa and America) all finished with 31 points, with goal difference deciding whether or not they’d host a second leg at home. That trio was just one point behind No. 3 Tigres and two back from No. 2 Leon. Think about the small margins a game can turn on. A puzzling use of VAR or a late goal in a blowout may have played into a team’s seed.

In the case of No. 8 seed Monterrey, however, this is the case of momentum at least seeming like it had a fair amount of influence on proceedings. While the Superlider, Santos Laguna, was resting its starters in the final week of the regular season, Rayados were in a do-or-die contest down to the very end. The sensation of needing a result to move on looks to have permeated through the squad, and when they needed another in the first leg they came out and smashed Santos 5-2, rendering the second leg almost moot.

“Nobody imagined it,” Monterrey manager Antonio Mohamed said after the first leg. “We hoped to win the game, but everything went as we’d planned.”

Monterrey certainly was not the most fresh team. While Santos was able to rely on a fit group, Mohamed was coping with the absence of forward Rogelio Funes Mori and late scratch Rodolfo Pizarro, who missed the first leg after a knock he was carrying flared up in warm-ups. The players who came in made the difference with both Vincent Janssen and Dorlan Pabon scoring in the win. But Monterrey was the team in the best rhythm. While Santos came in undefeated in its last five, it had two draws in that period. Rayados had to match that pace just to get into the playoffs, while America and Morelia both could afford just one loss in the last five contests of the regular season to overcome poor starts.

Those connections forged in the final month of the season led to all four teams with better regular season finishes starting Christmas vacation early, with the ‘bottom four’ are playing on. 

What does it mean for the next round? Well, Necaxa is now the unexpected top seed, moving on in the event of a tied aggregate and similar quantity of away goals and also in the driver’s seat to host the second leg of the final should the Rayos advance that far.

That said, the lesson of the quarterfinals probably should be that seeding, and the advantages that come with a better seed, are perhaps not as defined as we thought. America and Monterrey are both huge clubs with big budgets and rosters stacked with talent. Necaxa and Morelia have defined identities that allowed them to get the upper hand on their quarterfinal opponents.

Maybe it’s not a fair system, but it’s the one we have in this region. Santos and Leon were rewarded with advantages after their regular seasons were stronger than the rest of the league. They failed to make use of those advantages, and their hopes of lifting another trophy to close out a successful decade are gone.

The teams that have the momentum roll on and now meet each other. What happens when one moving object collides with another? It may lead to a surprising pair of teams in the final and an end to the Apertura that no one saw coming.