No single horse leads the tense Liga MX race

Óscar Jiménez saw it coming but knew he was too late to do anything about it. He had wandered off his line in the sixth minute, and Osvaldo Martínez spotted him drifting. The Paraguayan put his head down, struck the ball and beat the Chiapas goalkeeper from just inside the halfway line. Golazo for América.

Jiménez likely thought his afternoon couldn’t get any worse. But another Paraguyan, Miguel Samudio, put one past him in the 32nd minute. Dario Benedetto in the 42nd. Oribe Peralta in the 55th. Peralta again in the 73rd. When the final whistle blew, the 26-year-old Jaguares shot-stopper had let in five goals -more than any other match in his professional career. His team had scored none.

The short-season format can make Liga MX feel more like a sprint than a marathon. Really, it’s somewhere in between, akin to a horse race, in which both speed and stamina are required. Teams which dart out of the gate can tire while some that trip will find their footing in time to make a late dash toward the postseason and the title.

Now the jockeys are beginning to maneuver. Reigning champion América had stumbled out of the gate with a loss to Tijuana and draws with lowly Puebla and Morelia putting them in the middle of the pack. Reins firmly in hand, Gustavo Matosas challenged his team to press on. And Saturday’s goleada, the word used for high-scoring blowouts, saw América surge forward and firmly establish their footing as contenders.

That it did so without the winter’s biggest signing, the suspended Carlos Quintero, could be an uncomfortable footnote. Matosas fielded an incredibly attacking lineup, and things (obviously) functioned well with Paul Aguilar pushed forward. There will be a stiffer test Sunday when América heads across Mexico City to take on Pumas, but Americanistas will get antsy if the team begins losing ground when Quintero returns.

The result was a good one for Matosas’ men, there’s no doubt about that, but they’re still chasing. After beating Queretaro, Cruz Azul is ahead of the pack by a nose at the turn. The defense finally cracked, however, allowing a goal for the first time in the Clausura. It would’ve allowed a second were it not for a top-notch stop from Jesús Corona on Ronaldinho, who seems only to be able to take set pieces at this point. Though it took two penalties to secure a 2-1 win, la Maquina controlled the majority of the match and looks like it has the stamina to go the distance.

So too does Tijuana, which now leads the league with a baker’s dozen of goals after a 3-0 defeat of Pumas. Leading scorer Dayro Moreno missed the match with the flu, but his fellow South Americans filled in admirably. The first goal saw Gabriel Hauche snap through the Pumas’ backline, pulling back for Alfredo Moreno to slot in. Venezuelan midfielder Juan Arango, up to this point nearly a non-factor for Xolos, showed exactly why he’s still in the starting XI, sending his free kick over the wall and past frozen goalkeeper Alfredo Saldivar into the net. He then followed up the goal with a successful penalty.

If that trio looks to have staying power out front, who may have shot out of the gate too quickly? It seems strange to say about a team that is still undefeated, but Veracruz limping to a scoreless draw against Chivas had the Tiburones Rojos looking more Right Shark than Left. The Sunday night contest was the final of the weekend, and the loveless struggle felt appropriate for February 15. The rejection came, too, when Chivas was robbed of what looked like a valid goal by an officiating decision. Veracruz, with just two goals in their last four games (all draws), was unable to hit the target.

That won’t be enough to keep pace with the contenders, especially if América and Tijuana can maintain their scoring form and Cruz Azul continues to be stern in defense.