An imperfect arrangement: The problems with promotion and relegation in Mexico’s top flight

Mexico's league offers a mechanism MLS does not, but its implementation of pro/rel leaves much to be desired.

A little under four years ago, Queretaro bought its way out of relegation.

Following a poor run at the end of Liga MX’s 2013 Clausura, Los Gallos Blancos found themselves at the bottom of the league’s relegation standings, sending the team down to Mexico’s second division, the Ascenso MX.

That is, the team was slated to go down until ownership broke out the checkbook.

Instead of dropping down to the second division, Queretaro purchased another Liga MX club, Jaguares de Chiapas. As if nothing had happened, the newly purchased organization made the move to Queretaro, adopted the supposed relegated team’s name, and then took part in Liga MX in the ensuing 2013 Apertura. Since then, Los Gallos Blancos have yet to seriously flirt with relegation.

Although the decision by Queretaro to buy a new club was fairly atypical, the eyebrow-raising ploy is emblematic of the league’s highly questionable relegation system. Instead of obtaining a spot back in Liga MX via promotion, the most practical decision from ownership was to literally purchase another team.

The fact that the league allowed this to happen is, in itself, a strong case to reassess Liga MX’s policies. However, before we scrutinize the structure of pro/rel south of the border, let’s dive into how it all works.

Liga MX’s pro/rel explained

The first thing to know is that the soccer year is split up into two different tournaments: The Apertura and Clausura. The Apertura kicks off in July and runs through December; the Clausura finishes off the season with a January through May schedule.

At the end of every Clausura, one Liga MX team is demoted while an Ascenso MX (division two) team is granted promotion. Relegation to the second division is based on a points-per-game average earned over the past three years in the first division. The squad with the worst average goes down.

What about recently-promoted clubs? Their points-per-game average is taken from their first Liga MX year. For those who survive two seasons, the average is then taken from the previous two years.

For those seeking promotion, a Liga MX spot is gained from one of two different methods. The first is through a victory in the Ascenso MX promotion final, which is a two-game clash between the champions of that league’s Apertura and Clausura tournaments. The second, a more direct but tougher path, is by winning both of those tournaments.

In theory, this should provide more competition and a fresh supply of teams. In practice, it has proven to be much more complicated.

An unfair structure for promoted clubs

The current relegation plan presents a problem: Promoted sides have fewer games to work with than their more established Liga MX peers. A major club like Chivas or America can afford to have one or two bad seasons. Those poor results can be offset by other, better seasons that are part of their three-year average.

A new team doesn’t have that room for mistakes. A team could rack up a strong points-per-game average with crucial wins, but any success is difficult for new clubs in their first two tournaments. Most tend to collect losses that have a massive negative impact on their places in the relegation table.

Take for example, Leones Negros’ Liga MX run from a few years ago.

After gaining promotion to the first division in 2014, the Guadalajara side was quickly dropped after one difficult year. With only eight wins and 35 points in34 matches, Leones Negros’ Liga MX stint was short-lived.

Yet, as bad as the newly-promoted team was, the struggles seen on the pitch couldn’t compare to that of Morelia. During Leones Negros’ time in the first division, Morelia finished in dead last in both the Apertura and Clausura. Los Canarios were by far the worst squad in Mexico’s top flight; however, thanks to the three-year points-per-game ratio for relegation, Morelia was able to coast through the Apertura and Clausura without any worries.

In spite of the club’s terrible year, results in previous tournaments were able to keep Los Canarios afloat. Leones Negros, on the other hand, didn’t have a single match to waste, and despite being better than Morelia in the season the clubs shared in Liga MX, the Guadalajara club went down.

Grueling battle for a top flight return

Another example worth noting is Leon. After a drop to the Ascenso MX in 2002, Los Panzas Verdes spent 10 years attempting to claw their way back up.

It’s not as if the team was disappointing or losing countless matches, either. During that period, Leon appeared in seven league finals, which then led to the squad’s four Ascenso MX titles. That said, the team faltered during its first three promotion finals, and with only one Liga MX spot reserved every year, Leon found itself with several second-division accolades but no first-division return. It wasn’t until 2012 when Los Panzas Verdes were not only able to gain a fourth league title but also a place in Liga MX after defeating Correcaminos in the promotion final.

Leon’s journey is one that involves a bit of bad luck, but it’s also one that emphasizes the difficulties of fighting for a spot in the first division. With an immense amount of work to put in the Ascenso MX, and unfavorable odds once the team clinches a place in Liga MX, it’s no wonder why Queretaro decided to buy its way out of relegation in 2013.

As seen with Leon, winning a tournament is not enough to secure a promotion. Unless a club wins both seasons, a promotion final is the only way to the first division. It’s an unfair practice to those who are able to succeed in the second division. A team like Morelia -- one that was able to sleepwalk through a full year of top-flight soccer -- must be extremely frustrating for Ascenso MX clubs to watch.

What this means for Liga MX

It’s obvious that there are problems within Mexico’s promotion and relegation. The current system heavily favors the more established clubs and gives them plenty of space to make mistakes before entering the relegation race. Ascenso teams lucky enough to earn the lone Liga MX spot every year are instantly hit with a disadvantage through the points-per-game average used for relegation.

Adding at least one more spot for promotion to Liga MX would be a step forward. So would reconsidering the length of the points-per-game average. A solution which only looks at the past year’s results would be simple to implement. It would also prevent many teams from dragging their feet, whereas now they have the freedom to do so.

Looking forward, if changes aren’t made, things could become even more troublesome for clubs in the second division. Liga MX has gained more attention in recent months, but it would be a stretch to say that any of that is spilling over to the Ascenso MX. If Liga MX is able to make the right decisions with outreach and growth, there is a massive potential for money to pour into the league. This could then mean more powerhouses like Tigres, who arguably have the most talented roster in the Western Hemisphere.

At the moment, staying up in the first division is already challenging for promoted sides. With an influx of cash and talent to Liga MX, surviving after promotion could prove even more arduous for those are coming up from Ascenso MX.

If there’s a chance that the divide between the two top flights will continue to grow, and if the current relegation setup does little to provide fair opportunities to the second division, what will be the point of pro/rel in Mexico’s future?

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