Gringo Report: Mexico's second division isn't second rate

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – Mexico's second division, the Ascenso MX, seems a long way from the glitz, glamor and fame of the Liga MX. This season though, the league has begun to make a mark and gain grudging respect from Mexican soccer fans.

The two most recently promoted teams – Club Tijuana and Club León – sit in first and third, respectively, in the Liga MX. And though Tijuana are reaping the rewards from spending big, León have managed the feat using largely the same playing squad as they did last season in the second division.

The recently restored Copa MX has provided a further platform for the Ascenso MX teams to shine, with the lower-division teams winning all four quarterfinal matchups against Liga MX sides.

For players, the second division can be a means of getting substantial playing time with the hope of catching the eye of one of those bigger clubs. But for Mérida's American duo Sonny Guadarrama (above, center) and Isaac Acuña, the aim is slightly different.

Both have already caught the eye of those bigger clubs and played in the first division – Acuña is on loan from giants Club América, while Guadarrama is still contracted to Mérida's sister club, Atlante.

“Truthfully, there's not much difference [in the leagues],” 23-year-old Acuña told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday. “But the first division is always going to be the first division.”

For 25-year-old Guadarrama, both leagues have their merits, but the amount of money that flows in and out the coffers of the first-division clubs enables them to buy some players that teams in the Ascenso would struggle to afford.

The Texan has shone since his summer loan to Mérida, close to the Yucatán peninsula's Caribbean coast. Following a couple of seasons with little playing time, his success is an example of the wisdom behind dropping down a division in order to get a player's career back on track.

“Mérida gave me an opportunity to play games, which is what I needed, and to play in my position in a more offensive role,” Guadarrama told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Cancún on Tuesday. “I'm just grateful to Mérida.”

Playmaker Guadarrama has repaid the Venados handsomely, scoring four league goals, including two winners, which have helped propel the team into eighth place, just inside the playoff playoff places.

The former Santos Laguna and Morelia player's reward has come sooner than expected. He has been temporarily promoted to training in Cancún with Atlante and is set for minutes this weekend against Michael Orozco Fiscal's San Luis. Whether he returns to Mérida or stays at Atlante could depend on how he fares against San Luis.

For Acuña, who also prefers the playmaker role behind a main striker, the season has been slightly more stop-start. An ankle injury curtailed a positive beginning to the season and a problem with his knee means he will miss Saturday's game against Veracruz. He's still featured in 10 games, though, scoring once.

While both players acknowledge there isn't a huge gulf in class between the two leagues, they want to return to the first division permanently and impress, with the dream of representing the US national team in the back of their minds.

“I think I'd have better chances [to get called up] because I know there's a lot of good players and a lot of good offensive players right now in the US,” said Guadarrama. “It's competitive, but wherever I'm at, I'll try my best to get looked at.”

Acuña, who previously represented Mexico's Under-22s in early 2011, has been the closest. The Calexico, Calif., native says he had been told by Bob Bradley's staff that he had earned a call-up for the friendly in Philadelphia in August of last year. He even had his airline ticket booked and itinerary set before Bradley was fired.

He did eventually get a look from Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff when was called into Caleb Porter's Under-23 national team camp this past January, but didn't make the final qualification squad.

For now though, Acuña wants to finish the season strongly, see what Club América say about his future when his loan ends in December and move onto another Mexican club or MLS if las Águilas don't have a place for him for next season.

“I don't think it's likely that [US Soccer] is following me in the Liga de Ascenso,” he said. “That's why I want to play again in the first division, so that they can watch me.”

Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at tom.marshall.mex@gmail.com.