Now that we’ve covered how club teams in the United States and Canada qualify for CONCACAF Champions League play, let’s take a look at how Mexican clubs qualify for CCL. Mexico is awarded four berths in Champions League, and they’re all awarded to teams competing in Liga MX, the Mexican first division. To understand how a team in Liga MX qualifies for CCL, you first have to understand the format of the league itself, which is a bit different than MLS.
The Liga MX season is actually divided into two distinct phases, with two championships. The Torneo Apertura (opening tournament) runs from July through December. Each of the 18 Liga MX clubs plays 17 matches. After the 17-game season, the top eight teams advance to "La Liguilla," a bracketed playoff system similar in nature to the MLS playoffs, where a champion is crowned.
After a winter break, Clausura (closing) play begins in January. The Clausura runs through early May, after which the same "Liguilla" style playoff system is used to determine another champion.
In a way, the format of Liga MX is drawn from several other areas of the world, a veritable "posole" of competition styles. It shares its multi-season format with many Central and South American leagues, who also run two distinct tournaments within their seasons. Much like a European league, the Liga MX starts play in the summertime – and the "Liguilla," first incorporated in 1970, could certainly have been drawn from the playoff system used in most major American sports.
As in many other leagues around the world, Liga MX also makes use of a promotion and relegation system. Each year, one team in the Mexican second division (the Ascenso MX) can climb the ladder to Liga MX play, while a particularly poor-performing Liga MX club is relegated to the Ascenso. Promotion from the Ascenso comes by way of a playoff held between the winners of that divisions Apertura and Clausura (if the same team wins both seasons, it’s promoted automatically) while relegation is determined by calculating a team’s points-per-game average – the team with the lowest PPG is relegated. There’s also quite a bit of fine print, but those are the basics.
So, how do teams emerge from Liga MX play with a CONCACAF Champions League berth? Quite simply, the champion and runner-up from both the Apertura and Clausura qualify for CCL play. The Apertura and Clausura champions are drawn into "Pot A" of Champions League play, while the runners-up of the two segments are drawn into "Pot B." Don’t worry, we’ll discuss "pots" and other technicalities of Champions League formatting in the near future.
Should there be any overlap – let’s say the same team wins both the Apertura and Clausura in a given year – the team with the next best record in league play fills that vacated spot.
You don’t have to look further than this year’s edition of Champions League for an example of such overlap. Tigres UANL qualified for CCL play as champions of the 2011 Apertura, while Santos Laguna qualified by winning the Clausura that followed. Monterrey found their way into CCL as the Clausura runner-up.
That left the fourth and final Liga MX CCL berth, awarded to the Apertura runner-up. This year, that happened to be Santos Laguna, who’d already qualified as Clausura champions. And that’s how Guadalajara found its way into Champions League, as the third place finisher in 2011 Apertura play.
Since CCL’s redesign in 2008, Liga MX teams have won all four Champions League titles. Atlante and Pachuca have each hoisted the cup once, while Monterrey has won the past two editions of the tournament. They’ve looked dominant in this year’s tournament as well, breezing through the Group Stage and making short work of Guatemalan side Xelajú in the Quarterfinals. Only MLS’ LA Galaxy stands between "Los Rayados" and a date in the CCL finals.