Mexican Primera Division

Fidel Martinez, Alfredo Moreno, Fernando Arce

Did you pay attention to Mexico last night?

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It was a late start for you large-numbered East Coasters, but our man Noah gave fair warning. Come Thursday night, Mexico’s first title of the season would start to be decided, with one of two unlikely surprise stories set to claim a historic title.

For Toluca, winning their two-legged tie against Club Tijuana would give the team an 11th Primera Division title, tying Chivas’s record.

For Tijuana (Xolos, Club TJ – whatever you want to call them), history’s already been made, the club competing in their first Primera final. Win it, however, and a team that was in the second division a year-and-a-half ago will claim a surprise first title.

Last night, Tijuana held serve at Estadio Caliente, if controversially. After Tijuana’s Fidel Martinez and Toluca’s Edgar Benítez traded first half goals within two minutes of each other, Pablo Aguilar scored TJ’s winner from an offside position. Xolos went on to win, 2-1.

Otherwise, it was an impressive attacking performance from Tijuana, though with only a one-goal lead, Toluca has to be favored to take home the title.

But remember Sunday. Then, América – the tournament’s four-seed – got two early goals at Toluca, giving los Diablos Rojos a scare on their way to the final. Tijuana’s certainly capable of doing the same.

A TJ title could have major implications for Liga MX beyond Xolos’ first title. Moving the title nearly 1200 miles away from the league’s next-closest team would present a major shift in Mexican soccer power, especially since its destination would be a border town long thought to be a city based on as much promise as present.  With Club Tijuana already generating excitement north of the border (where San Diegans can walk to the game after parking at the San Ysidro crossing), a championship could make major waves.

First things first – the second leg. The teams meet at the Nemesio Diez Sunday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Shipped from Abroad, Mexico: An old lion leading Liga MX

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We’re two weeks into Liga MX – what we used to know as the Mexican Primera Division – but rebranding’s failed to produce a new look to the standings. At the top of the league, Tigres, Toluca, and Santos have perfect records through two rounds. At the bottom, San Luis, Querétaro and Jaguares are still looking for their first points (San Luis and Querétaro will spend the season battling relegation). It’s all par for the course.

That’s what makes León’s start stand out. Promoted to the first division for the first time in 10 years (taking Estudiantes Tecos’ place), Liga MX’s newest club is off to a perfect start.

Five-time first division champions, Leon should be a familiar name to U.S. soccer fans who remember Marcelo Balboa’s season in Guanajuato (Eric Wynalda also had a brief spell with the club). A one time contender on the CONCACAF scene, León lived a Buffalo Bills-esque existence in the second division, five times losing the league’s promotion playoff before finally returning to the first division this spring.

The Esmeraldas’ brought in their new era last week with a 2-0 win at Querétaro, earning three points while playing most of the match down a man. Against a fellow-relegation battler, the win was practically a six-pointer, even if it was viewed as a modest success.

On Friday, all modesty was put aside as León blasted Club Tijuana at their Nou Camp. Twenty-two year old defensive midfielder Carlos Pena, brought in from Pachuca this summer, scored a surprise brace, while Hernan Burbano converted his second penalty kick of the year. Add a goal from Luis Montes (another player brought in from Pachuca) and León had 4-0 victory over last year’s promotion darlings.

As with Tijuana last season, León’s promotion carries unique hopes. For Xolos, it was the promise of a new market next to the U.S.-Mexico border, one that could help diversity a league that had settled into a few regional sects. Guantajuato doesn’t offer geogrpahic diversity, but with León’s history, the top division can welcome the return of a storied team. Only five clubs (Chivas, Toluca, America, Cruz Azul, Pumas) have more titles than León.

That’s why León’s position atop the league, while shocking, also has a familiar feel. Having scored six goals while allowing none, it’s a deserved perch.

Next up, León welcomes second division Dorado in the revitalized Mexico Cup (Copa MX). On Sunday, though, they get their wake up call. The Esmeraldas travel to Toluca.

At the bottom

The two biggest disappointments, though two rounds? Chivas and Pachuca, though one of those two deserve a caveat.

Chivas is without a point through two rounds, but you can hardly blame them. The two teams they faced are a combined 4-0-0 to start the season.

Guadalajara opened with a 2-1 loss at Toluca while Carlos Quintero’s stoppage time goal took full points from Estadio Omnilife for Santos Laguna. Post-game, goalkeeper Luis Michel bemoaned the club’s lack of experience. Reports failed to note his level of irony.

Pachuca at least has a point, but more was expected from the Tuzos after legendary striker Hugo Sanchez took over. Sanchez won two league titles while coaching Pumas from 2000-2005 but hasn’t coached in the Mexican league since 2006.

Pachuca, a perennial power under Enrique Meza, has been a team adrift since their old boss left for Cruz Azul (and has since moved on to Toluca). Since, the Tuzos have failed to reach another final, finished no better than sixth in any qualification, and twice missing the Liguilla.

Sanchez was supposed to restore something – call it pride, direction, status, what have you. The opening schedule played into his hands: at Atlanta, Atlas, at Querétaro, Tijuana. Half-way through that paved path, the Tuzos have one point and are coming off an embarrassing 3-0 home loss to Atlas, a game that saw two players (including Jose Torres) sent off.

It wasn’t so long ago that Pachuca was a perennial power, but in the world of two-tournament seasons, that was another lifetime. For all the struggles of the last three years, Pachuca seems more adrift than ever.

Thankfully, it’s only two games, and with eight teams qualifying for the Liguilla, there’s still plenty of time to turn things around.

Friday’s results
Morelia 1-0 Monterrey
León 4-0 Tijuana

Saturday’s results
América 4-2 Jaguares
Tigres 2-1 Atlante
Pachuca 0-3 Atlas
San Luis 1-2 Cruz Azul

Sunday’s results
Pumas 3-0 Querétaro
Puebla 1-3 Toluca
Chivas 0-1 Santos Laguna

Races

Hold on. It’s only two weeks in. Let’s let the league settle, first.

Elsewhere in Mexico

  • Miguel Sabah was Sabah-y on Friday against Monterrey (scoring Morelia’s only goal), but the Rayado loss was eye-opening. The reigning CONCACAF champions have failed to score in 180 minutes, and despite being a pre-tournament favorite have one point through two matches. Did Santos break them in last tournament’s final?
  • Bad news for the rest of Mexico: Chucho’s still Chucho. América’s Christian Benítez scored his first two goals of the tournament in América’s weekend win.
  • And speaking of doubles, Martin Bravo scored twice for Pumas, bringing his season total to a league-leading three. Should we do the annoying “he’s on pace for”? Or can you do the times-nine multiplication without me?
  • Mariano Pavone scored his first goal for Cruz Azul, who got their first win under Guillermo Vazquez. The former Independiente, Real Betis, River Plate and Lanus man was brought in to replace the explosive but inconsistent Emanuel Villa (now with Pumas). So far, so good.

Highlights: Mexico’s finals are set, and they have a familiar feel

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We’ll have more on this later today, but before you get too deep into your Monday, it’s time to get you up-to-date on Mexico’s playoffs, with the Primera Division having ID’d the two clubs that will compete for the Clausura’s title.

The process played out on Sunday night, starting at the Technologico in Monterrey, where the CONCACAF champions welcomed a Club América side that was held to a scoreless draw mid-week at Estadio Azteca.

That scoreline held for less than eight minutes.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbYm7z1-6k8]

Jose Bastanta and Aldo De Negris put Monterrey on the verge of their third title in six tournaments, eliminating America 2-0 (agg.).

If Monterrey’s going to pull off their league-CONCACAF double, they’re going to have to slow down the region’s deepest attack – a team that did their own Manchester City/Montpellier impression.

We pick it up at 1-1, with Apertura champions Tigres (in yellow) pouncing early:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3X-PNWtsho]

With Tigres’ stingy playoff defense staked to a two-goal lead by Hector Mancilla, UANL looked destined for a second straight final. Amazingly, Tigres cracked at the finish line, allowing 86th and 89th minute goals to Oribe Peralta. Tied 3-3, the top-seeded Guerreros got through on the first tiebreaker: being the lower seed.

Like Monterrey, Santos are no strangers to the final. They’ve made three of the last four, but on the verge of becoming Mexico’s answer to the Buffalo Bills, the Guerreros have lost each time.

The second of those losses was to Monterrey in the 2010 Apertura. Mix in this year’s CONCACAF Champions League final and this will be the third time in two years the Rayados and Guerreros will play 180 minutes with silverware at stake.

Despite the redundancy, nobody’s looking at this as a Chelsea-Liverpool situation. These are clearly Mexico’s two best teams. Monterrey are confederation champions and possess the most talented (and, of late, the most decorated) team in the region. While the Guerreros lack Monterrey’s balance, they feature unmatched attacking talent – firepower that can take apart anybody (ask Tigres).

Expect the Rayados to be slight favorites. Their pedigree and Champions League’s results have earned that, but with Santos stinging from two consecutive tournament final losses, expect the Guerreros to be ready to toss a huge chip from their shoulder and into the fray.

Offshore drilling, Mexico: at Tigres 4 (5), Monarcas 1 (1)

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Man of the Match: Going up again his former club, Elias Hernández dominated the right flank, forcing a change from Monarcas coach Tomas Boy after 30 minutes. Within seconds after Adrian Aldrete was brought off, new left back Carlos Guzman was getting torched. You’d expect Boy to have a plan for a man he coached for three years, but on Sunday, Morelia was never able to slow down Hernández.

Tigres entered today’s second leg up 1-0 after their mid-week win in Morelia.

Packaged for takeaway:

  • After 45 minutes, it looked like the defending champions were going to ride their 1-0 lead into the semifinals. They’d taken a stranglehold of the match, keeping a Morelia team that started without forward Rafael Marquez Lugo from connecting with talismanic striker Miguel Sabah.
  • The floodgates opened in the 64th minute when defender Hugo Ayala, inexplicably chilling just outside the six-yard box, hammered home a knockdown from forward Héctor Mancilla (which, I learned today, sounds like man-SHEE-shah in a Uruguayan/Argentine accent).
  • Ten minutes later, a wall terribly positioned by Morelia goalkeeper Federico Vilar (along with the `keeper’s mistaken instinct to jump behind said wall) gave Tigres midfield Lucas Lobos the left post from 19 yards. Two minutes later, miscommunication between defender Mauricio Romero and Vilar gifted Edno Cunha a gift goal. Tigres went up 4-1, capping three nightmarish minutes for Vilar.
  • Sabah pulled one back (only the second time in the last eight playoff games Tigres has been scored on), but with a spot kick in the 91st minute, Hernández got a deserved goal, ending a five goal second half and a quarterfinal that will look slightly more lopsided than it actually played.
  • If you happened to be a Santos player watching from Torreon, the second half was scary. Not only did it remind you of the Apertura’s final (when Tigres second three times in the final 40 minutes to win, 4-1), but it showed a semifinal opponent that may have regained their champions’ form.
  • But unlike that final, Tigres will go into the semifinal the lower seed, having to play the second leg on the road. We’ve seen they can post goals when the opposition has to chase them, but in a position where they’ll need to outscore Santos, it’s unclear they can rely on suffocating their opponents.
  • With Damian Alvarez and Hernández, Tigres have an avenue toward goals. While Mancilla is going to have his hands full with Santos defenders Felipe Baloy and Aaron Galindo, Alvarez and Hernández are likely to be able to concentrate on breaking down full backs Jorge Estrada and Osmar Mores. Tigres’ defense will have to figure out how to handle Santos’s attack-heavy approach, but there is a good chance Tigres can grab the first goal and again force their opponents to come after them.

Offshore drilling, Mexico: at Santos Laguna 2 (6), Jaguares de Chiapas 1 (4)

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Man of the Match: For the last hour of the match, Juan Pablo Rodríguez asserted control of a quarterfinal that had been anarchic. While that anarchy was entertaining for fans (giving us nine goals in just 106 minutes), it wasn’t in the best interest of Santos. After an nearly Santos goal made it 5-4, the 32-year-old central midfielder dictated the pace of the game, often spraying the ball around from a deep position, keeping Jaguares chasing the match.

Santos entered today’s second leg up 4-3 after winning in Chiapas mid-week.

Packaged for takeaway:

  • So much for the superlíder curse. The hex on the qualification stage’s winner has been exorcised by Santos, who become the first top seed since the 2009 Apertura to move past the first round.
  • After seven minutes, it didn’t look so promising, with Jaguares finding a quick equalizer. A series of crosses through the area collapsed the Santos defense, allowing Jaguares to play back to midfielder Armando Zamorano for a relatively easy score from near the edge of the area. Santos goalkeeper Oswaldo Sánchez appeared partially screened by his deep-lying defenders.
  • Nine minutes later, Santos would restore their advantage, with Carlos Darwin Quintero playing wide to Jorge Estrada then running to the front of goal to receive the defenders’ return pass for an easy tap it.
  • But it wasn’t until near-20 minutes later that Santos affirmed control of the match. To that point, it had been an open if cagey affair, but in the 34th minute, Santos started exhibiting a comfort standing on the ball, kicking it around and stringing together passess rather than sprinting directly on goal. They were willing to control the game without making it into a track meet.
  • And a large part of the credit for that does to Rodríguez, who put in the work to made sure his attackers at that next level had an outlet before they were closed down, whether that be Quintero, Daniel Ludueña or Christian Suárez.
  • The control paid off in the 38th minute when Oribe Peralta, taking a pass from the left, cut back toward the penalty spot, leaving Ismael Fuentes on the ground in the right of the area. Turning on his right leg, the Mexican international blasted the insurance tally past Edgar Hernández, providing for the final score.
  • Felipe Baloy deserves a nod, too. It was as if a switch was flipped, late in the first half. On consecutive Jaguares attacks, he dispossessed Jackson Martínez and Luis Gabriel Rey, muscling Chiapes’s big two off the ball. The message was clear: Jaguares, your fun is over. And they didn’t score gain.
  • As was reiterated numbers times on the broadcast, this is expected to be Martínez’s last match with Jaguares. The Colombian striker is expected to move this summer, presumable to Liverpool.
  • Jaguares came out in the second having changed from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3, though the change only made things worse. In theory, is made sense to add another attacker so Baloy and Aaron Galindo couldn’t neutralize Martínez and Rey; however, with one less midfielder, a disconnect developed between attack and defense. Even when Jaguares were able to get into attack by playing long for Martínez, their attackers had no support.
  • Though it took them near 120 minutes to assert control of the quarterfinal, Santos looked like the number one seed by the 180th minute. When Baloy asserted himself, he gave us a vision of how Santos can claim this title.
  • Their next opponent? Tigres, in a rematch of the Apertura’s final matchup.

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