Last year was generally a success for Mexican clubs in the Copa Libertadores, South America's version of the Champions League. While Morelia was bounced in the first stage and Atlas finished last in its group, Tigres fell just short of becoming the first Mexican team to win the competition.
Tigres' defeat to River Plate in the final served to show that Liga MX's elite teams are on par with the top teams in Argentina, Brazil and the rest of the continent. Puebla attempts to join the competition proper with the first leg of its play-in tie Wednesday. But it will be difficult for any of the three Mexican sides in 2016's edition to reach the same heights.
With some of the best teams in Liga MX last campaign, including Tigres and America, still competing in the CONCACAF Champions League, Mexico doesn't have its strongest clubs in the competition. That's nothing new, but Tigres were a bit of an anomaly last year, with the timing working out so a team that finished first in the Liga MX regular season was in the throes of the tournament.
Puebla's chances of making it past Racing Club of Argentina aren't great. The Mexican side has won one of its four matches in the new year. And while Racing isn't into its regular season, it has stayed fresh with friendly matches and certainly has more depth than Puebla.
Even making the Libertadores is a bit strange for Puebla, a team that snapped a 12-tournament playoff drought last tournament – this in a league where the top eight teams go on to the postseason. But Puebla won the Clausura edition of the Copa MX, a tournament most teams pay little mind to. Then, it beat Morelia, a team that hadn't even won a trophy since the 2014 Supercopa but was a stand-in after Santos and Tigres both were obligated to participate in other tournaments.
That victory in a match that took place in the United States as part of a doubleheader of exhibitions gave Puebla this spot. Most fans were there to see "Champion of Champions" exhibition match that followed. The move to give the Supercopa winner a Libertadores berth is designed to get teams to put more significance on the cup. The result instead is weaker teams like La Franja representing Mexico despite being far from the league's best.
That's not to say Puebla is a joke of a soccer team. It has struggled to get off the ground this year, but a number of loans made before the winter, including bringing Uruguayan Alvaro Navarro in from Defensor Sporting, helped Puebla get better, and Matias Alustiza remains a dangerous scorer. But it's tough to see Puebla getting past a team that includes Diego Milito and Gustavo Boa as attacking threats.
The other two teams bearing Mexico's banner are the best finishers in the Apertura not already qualified for this edition of the CONCACAF Champions League. Those sides, Toluca and Pumas, have a much better chance at replicating Tigres' exciting run, and not only because they have automatic passage to the group stage.
Toluca's South American imports are playing an increasing role in the team, though contributions from Peru's Christian Cueva and Argentina's Enrique Triviero weren't enough to see off Puebla on Sunday. Those players, plus the Red Devils' Paraguayan unit are familiar with what it takes to win on the road in South America.
Pumas are struggling to find the balance they showed in the recently concluded Apertura, with just one win in the first four matches of the Liga MX season. Still, the experience Guillermo Vazquez has in his team coupled with the form they proved capable of just months ago make it seem like they might have the best shot. Not only that, but Pumas ducked a group with a team from powers Argentina and Brazil this time around.
All in all, though, it looks like it could be a difficult tournament for Mexican clubs. They can't all be years like 2015.
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