Champions League Countdown | 13 Days: Explaining the unique structure of Liga MX

The month of February has arrived, and with that comes a monumental showdown between Sporting Kansas City and Deportivo Toluca FC in the 2019 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League Round of 16. Sporting KC will host the first leg at Children’s Mercy Park on Feb. 21 before traveling to Mexico for the decisive second leg on Feb. 28. Tickets to the contest at Children’s Mercy Park are now on sale at as Sporting hosts its earliest competitive match in club history.

In the 20 days leading up to Feb. 21, will rattle off a 20-day Champions League Countdown, hitting all the relevant storylines surrounding the two-legged fixture. From history and geography lessons to number crunching, player matchups and coaching backgrounds, this daily series will set the stage for a pivotal battle in which two successful sides aim to take their first steps toward Champions League glory.

The eighth edition of our Champions League countdown, coming 13 days before these clubs lock horns in Kansas City, trails off the beaten path and examines the unique structure of a league Toluca has been part of since reaching Mexico’s top flight in 1953.

First things first: to soccer fans accustomed to the formats of Major League Soccer or the European leagues, Liga MX can be downright confusing. This isn’t an eight-month regular season followed by playoffs, nor is it a nine-month double round-robin in which the first-place finisher is crowned champion.

We take our best shot at explaining the Liga MX format, and how it relates to Toluca’s qualification for the Champions League, in the space below.

Apertura and Clausura

These are two words you hear a lot in Mexican soccer. Liga MX has two tournaments every season—the Apertura and the Clausura. The Apertura is the fall campaign, usually running from July to December, while the springtime Clausura runs January to May. Together, the Apertura and Clausura combine to make one full season. The current 2018-19 Liga MX campaign consists of the 2018 Apertura and the 2019 Clausura.

Each Apertura and Clausura have their own playoffs, called la liguilla or the championship stage. Every Apertura and Clausura sees 18 teams compete for eight playoff spots. The winner of the eight-team playoff is crowned the league champion. Consequently, two champions are crowned each season in Mexico.

How it Relates to Toluca

The 2019 Concacaf Champions League granted its four Mexican berths as follows: the 2017 Apertura champion and runner-up plus the 2018 Clausura champion and runner-up. Toluca qualified as the 2018 Clausura runner-up, losing to No. 4 seed Santos Laguna after finishing atop the Clausura regular season standings.

The 2020 Champions League will award four Mexican berths in the same way, saving spots for the 2018 Apertura and 2019 Clausura winners and runners-up. As you can see, no Champions League berths are awarded in Mexico based on regular-season performance. It’s all about how teams perform in the championship stage at the end of each Apertura or Clausura tournament.

What a Full Season Looks Like

Together, the Apertura and Clausura align with the traditional FIFA calendar from July or August to the end of May. Liga MX has 18 teams. During the Apertura (fall) campaign, clubs play 17 matches and face every opponent once. The top eight teams make the playoffs to determine the champion by mid-December. After a holiday break, the Clausura repeats this process, only the fixtures are reversed so that every club faces the other teams home and away over the course of the full season. Similar formats can be found throughout Central and South America.

What is Copa MX?

Now that we’ve glossed over the Mexican league format, it’s easier to see how their domestic cup, Copa MX, fits into the fixture list. Every Apertura and Clausura season has its own Copa MX. Think of this as the Mexican version of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in the United States or the FA Cup in England.

Like Liga MX, the Copa MX crowns two champions per year—one in the fall and one in the spring. The current format consists of three-team groups playing a total of four group stage matches. The top two finishers in each group reach the Round of 16, and from there it’s a single-elimination bracket through the final.

An important note here: due to the Concacaf Champions League taking place in the spring, Mexico’s representatives in the Champions League do not participate in the Clausura Copa MX. Toluca, for example, will not take part in the 2019 Clausura Copa MX.