Mexico Preview: Mighty America

In 1916, two Mexico City clubs, Record FC and Colon FC, decided to unite. Representatives of Colon - the Spanish version of the name Columbus, as in Christopher - noted that the merger was going through on Oct. 12, the date in 1492 that Columbus landed in the New World. They proposed the name ''America.''

With a map of the Americas on its jerseys, Club America has been striving to earn a reputation as one of the world's great clubs.

Last May, Club America won its first title since the Mexican League went to a split-season format in 1996, its first since 1989. The victory, after spending more than $300 million on players in the past decade, marked the Eagles' ninth title of the professional era, which began in 1943. (Archrival Guadalajara leads with 10 titles.)

Club America also reached the 2002 Libertadores Cup semifinals, the ''South'' American championship in which Mexican teams have been competing since 1998. In 2000, Club America fell in the Libertadores semifinals to Boca Juniors.

If Club America can win this season's Mexican title - it is a heavy favorite - it would become the first team to repeat during split-season format, which is undergoing a name change while the league has expanded to 20 teams.

What will now be called the Apertura (opening) Tournament was previously the Invierno (winter). The Verano (summer) competition will be the Clausura (closing).

The 20 teams are divided into four groups of five. All the teams meet each other once, for a total of 19 games each. The top two finishers in each group earn playoff spots. A team that finishes worse than second in its group is eligible for a two-leg playoff (recalificacion) against the lowest top-two finisher in one of the other groups if it has a better overall record than that top-two finisher. A maximum of two teams are eligible for recalificacion.

The recalificacion, quarterfinals and semifinals are decided by the aggregate score of a home-and-home series. In event of a tie, the team with the best finish in the overall regular-season standings advances. Away goals aren't used. In the two-leg final, a tie on aggregate is settled by golden-goal overtime or penalty kicks.

Besides using playoffs, the Mexican League shares another trait with U.S. sports: cities can gain or lose First Division teams depending on their owners' whims.

La Piedad, which finished atop the Verano 2002 regular-season standings, has relocated to Queretaro, which has a top-tier team for the first time since 1995.

Real San Luis gained promotion by winning the Second Division title (Primera 1A). Second Division runner-up Veracruz moved up by beating First Division straggler Leon in a playoff, which gave the Caribbean port city two teams of the same name. The ''new'' Veracruz moved to Tuxtla Gutierrez and was baptized Jaguares de Chiapas, after Mexico's southernmost state, of which Tuxtla Gutierrez is the capital. The ''old'' Veracruz, nicknamed the Red Sharks, moved from Irapuato between seasons in the 2001-02 campaign.

The biggest name among coaching newcomers is Monterrey's Daniel Passarella, captain of Argentina's 1978 World Cup-winning team and coach of its France '98 squad. Daniel Guzman, who played three games for the MLS's San Jose Clash in 1997, takes over at Guadalajara.

Chivas, which missed last season's playoffs, is one of the last Mexican clubs that hasn't gone to corporate ownership and has struggled financially.

Jorge Vergara, owner of Mexican nutritional-supplement firm Omnilife, is offering Chivas' 196 club members $250,000 each to wrest control of the club. He claims 146 have agreed to sell.

by Soccer America Executive Editor Mike Woitalla

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