Liga MX season preview: As coronavirus worries loom large, can Cruz Azul finally break title drought?

Will Liga MX and MLS merge to form a joint league? (1:16)

As Liga MX suspends promotion and relegation for the next 5 years, Gab Marcotti explains what this could mean. (1:16)

A little over four months since the Liga MX's 2020 Clausura was postponed and later canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the "2020 Guard1anes" season -- named in homage to healthcare workers -- was supposed to start up on Thursday between Atletico San Luis and FC Juarez behind closed doors.

- Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+
- Marshall: What's behind Liga MX's decision on pro/rel?
- Why MLB may be the blueprint of a Liga MX-MLS merger

However, the league postponed that opening match late Wednesday because of a spate of positive coronavirus tests. Now the first match of the season will take place on Friday night between Necaxa and Tigres. In addition, Mazatlan FC's league debut against Puebla will now take place on Monday.

Aside from the delay, what else has changed since the last time we saw Liga MX in action?

Since the spring days of Cruz Azul flying high and reigning champion Monterrey being mysteriously rooted to the bottom of the table, some of the league's big headlines have been:

  • An ongoing battle between Mexico's soccer authorities and the players' union over free agency;

Got all that? So here is what to expect from Mexico's top-flight division when the ball gets rolling again.

Jump to: Will coronavirus disrupt season? | New format to water down playoffs? | Can Cruz Azul stay on track?| High hopes for new club Mazatlan?| Which clubs are contenders? | What to make of Chivas, America? | Who are the players to watch?

Will coronavirus cases continually disrupt the season?

As mentioned above, it already has. The season opener scheduled for Thursday between San Luis and Juarez is scheduled now for Monday (pending further test results at Juarez). And there have been a slew of positive results around the league causing nervousness about the coming weeks and months.

Liga MX released a 31-page document on its protocol to return amid the pandemic. It's elaborate and detailed, but it hasn't dissipated concerns.

Seven of the FC Juarez party scheduled to travel to San Luis tested positive; Necaxa announced on Monday it has five positive cases in camp (one player and four members of staff); Atlas have had five cases, with manager Rafa Puente admitting his team for the opener against Tijuana will be different than he'd hoped; Chivas a total of four; three at Monterrey and one at Tigres. And those are just over recent days.

There have been positive cases at Mazatlan, Cruz Azul, Toluca and Santos Laguna, as well as seven refereeing officials, in recent weeks and months.

The protocol is designed to protect the players as much as possible and anyone showing a positive test must isolate for 14 days. They will only be cleared to play again once a negative result comes back.

But the worry is that there is no bubble in Liga MX: the players will be traveling up and down the country in coming weeks, and the situation with the virus in Mexico isn't particularly reassuring, with 6,859 confirmed cases and 915 reported deaths announced on Tuesday alone.

How will changes to the playoffs and pro/rel affect things?

The new playoff system will see the top four sides advance to the quarterfinals, while the No. 5 through No. 12 teams are seeded in a single elimination round. The new format will keep more clubs (and fans) interested through the later stages of the regular season, too. There will be battles to get into the top four and avoid the play-in round, to make sure a club is in fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth -- securing a home game in the one-match playoff -- and then a scramble to make the top 12.

An era of austerity has gripped the Mexican game since the coronavirus outbreak, and this new system is designed to generate as much interest (and therefore income, especially from TV) as possible. The downside? That even mediocre teams, winning perhaps five of 17 regular season games, have a shot of making the postseason. The change certainly fuels the idea in Mexico that almost any team can win the title, and again deviates Liga MX away from the model that has seen a small group of elite clubs dominate the top European leagues.

And as for the pro/rel suspension: It wasn't working anyway, with Chiapas the last team to get relegated back in 2017. The fear is that there is no incentive for clubs to spend to avoid relegation, although the counter-argument is that clubs might be more willing to plan longer-term knowing there is no threat of them losing their Liga MX status, even if the bottom three finishers in the relegation table will pay a fine.

Can Cruz Azul, Leon stay hot following the stoppage?

There's no reason why not. Cruz Azul lifted the Copa por Mexico after defeating Chivas in the final and, while it was clearly a preseason tournament, La Maquina looked good. The signing of Ignacio Rivero from Xolos adds depth in midfield and potential on the right flank.

Cruz Azul boasts a mature squad, and coach Robert Siboldi has options, although the sooner center-back Pablo Aguilar can come back from injury, the better. Finally, Uruguayan playmaker Jonathan Rodriguez is a player that European clubs are monitoring for a potential winter transfer. It might finally be the season that the Mexico City club snap their two-decade long title drought and retire the infamous word that's associated with it.

As for Leon, the CONCACAF Champions League loss to LAFC was a huge blow ahead of the break, but the club sowed up a new deal for Costa Rica international Joel Campbell and replaced the losses of Ismael Sosa and Leo Ramos (who hasn't yet officially left) with Emmanuel Gigliotti. Leon and its attacking style under Ignacio "Nacho" Ambriz is set to entertain once again.

What can we expect from new club Mazatlan?

If the preseason is anything to go by, Mazatlan will cause a big fuss off the field with its bold messaging -- it's definitely trying to be an upstart -- but will struggle on it.

Pablo Puede impressed in Morelia's final two seasons, but has set sail for a promising project at Xolos, while new Mazatlan manager Paco Palencia will likely need time to get the team playing how he wants. Certainly, the preseason highlighted Mazatlan's struggles in front of goal and in playing out from the back.

It is a shame that the franchise will be starting life in Liga MX without people in its brand-new stadium. The Sinaloa region's tourist destination on the Pacific Coast will certainly bring a fresh flavor to Mexico's first division.

Which clubs will be in the title mix?

My top eight contenders (in order) are: Tigres, Monterrey, Club America, Cruz Azul, Leon, Chivas, Santos Laguna and Tijuana.

The addition of playmaker Leo Fernandez at Tigres bodes really well, while rival Monterrey welcomes back Aviles Hurtado from injury and has signed Chile international Sebastian Vegas to replace Leonel Vangioni, as well as Hugo Gonzalez in goal.

Monterrey may have finished last in the abandoned Clausura, but they are still the defending champions and arguably have the best squad in the league. Santos have looked good under Guillermo Almada, although the long-term injury to their best attacking player Brian Lozano is a huge blow.

Of the possible underdogs, Tijuana has added the talented Pablo Guede as coach and bolstered its squad with young Mexican Marcel Ruiz and goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco, while Atletico San Luis has also been one of the busier clubs in the transfer market with Pablo Barrera and Mauro Quiroga adding proven experience to their forward line.

It would be a surprise if Puebla, Queretaro or Mazatlan made the top 12, while Toluca and Atlas may also struggle. Necaxa has made a habit of coming into seasons with low expectations only to fight for the playoffs and once again the success of the "buy low, sell high" transfer strategy will make for fascinating viewing.

Are Chivas and America are set to challenge?

Mexico's two most popular clubs always enter each season with high expectations to add to their impressive trophy case (Club America have 13 league titles, one more than Chivas).

Luis Fernando Tena hasn't totally won over everyone so far as Chivas coach, but the club has a deep squad and could be fighting for a top four finish. Watching the development of youngsters Gilberto Sepulveda, Fernando Beltran and Jose Juan Macias will be interesting this season, although losing Macias to a European club in this window would be a significant blow.

As for America, Miguel Herrera has to find answers in central midfield and to recover from the loss of winger Renato Ibarra (on loan to Atlas). That said, Herrera has proven more than capable of adapting in recent seasons and Las Aguilas remain strong. If Herrera can get estranged Colombian Roger Martinez clicking, the team's chances of success naturally increase.

Exciting players to look out for?

Leo Fernandez at Tigres looked last season like he could play at the very top while on loan at Toluca, while these may well be the last games in Liga MX for Macias and America's Francisco Cordova before they move to Europe. It's also quite a big season for Monterrey's Carlos Rodriguez. The 23-year-old has got the potential to be running Mexico's midfield at the next two World Cups, but needs to keep developing and attracting attention from across the pond.

And if you didn't already, take time this season to appreciate 34-year-old Luis "Chapito" Montes. The Leon central midfielder's career may be slowly starting to wind down, but there are few players in North America that ooze class and exert as much influence over a team as Montes.

USMNT fans will want to check in on Sebastian Saucedo, who showed good form at Pumas last season and looks set to be a regular.