Nov 26, 2012, 7:06 PM EDT
Club Tijuana made life difficult on themselves, bringing a 2-0 deficit to León back to Estadio Caliente ahead of Sunday’s final leg of their Liga MX semifinal. Thankfully for the league’s Cinderella story — a fairy tale that’s evolved over the last two years — it only took 68 minutes for Fidel Martínez and Dubier Riascos to put them back on course. When substitute Ricard Ruiz put the tie out of reach with a late goal, Tijuana was in their first Primera Division final.
The weight of the occasion wasn’t lost on Xolos.
“It’s really a great feeling for the group,” striker Alfredo Moreno said after the game. “We wanted it. We wanted to be in the final, and it showed in the game. We’re very happy.”
“[T]hey played a superior match from beginning to end,” head coach Antonio Mohamed said of his players. “[It] was 3-0, but it would have been five or six.”
The only misgiving for fans of the league was seeing the league’s northern-most club, in only their third tournament since being promoted last summer, had to go through another recently elevated squad to make the final. León, the five-time league champions who had spent 10 years in the second division moving up this summer, saw their Cinderella story end within sight of the border.
That they, along with Tijuana, spent the season at the top of the table made the Apertura as an indictment of Mexico’s promotion-relegation policies. Each summer, only one team is promoted into the 18-team first division, and since the Ascenso uses a spring playoff to decide the new Liga MX club, there’s no guaranteed that the best team will move up. Club León had to go through five failed playoffs before winning their return to the Primera, and the team that won this season’s second division Apertura (Necaxa, by seven points), was eliminated Cuauhtémoc Blanco’s Dorado in that Liguilla’s semifinals.
Had Tijuana met León in the Primera’s final, it would have been vindication for all the second division clubs struggling to make it through Mexico’s bottleneck. Instead Toluca, the qualification stage champions, made it though, holding off a ferocious América comeback on Sunday to win 3-2, reaffirmed the surprise nature of this season’s opening tournament.
In recent seasons, the Apertura has been the more difficult to Mexico’s two tournaments, and in that sense, it’s also been more predictable. Teams at full strength coming off of a summer’s rebuilding came concentrate on the domestic competition. Come the Clausura, teams will devote attentions to CONCACAF’s Champions League and Copa Libertadores, often merely trying to survive the qualification stage with the hopes of being able to concentrate on the Liguilla. Monterrey, two-time defending confederation champions, have won two of the last three Aperturas but, as they’ve driven toward their CONCACAF titles, have been unable to win a Clausura.
That Toluca, who had not been a factor since Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre was in charge, finished first was a surprise, albeit one fans had 17 rounds to get used to. Under Chepo, Toluca won two titles from 2008-2010 before losing their coach to Mexican national team. De la Torre’s successors — Sergio Lugo, Héctor Eugui, and Wilson Graniolatti — had failed to return Toluca to the postseason, let alone significance. Though the Diablos Rojos have won 10 league titles, few thought they’d get their chance at a record-tying 11th this soon.
It took another of Liga MX’s most renown coaches, Enrique Meza, to get the Red Devils back on track. In two previous spells with Toluca, Meza won three of his four career titles. More recently, Meza spent six tournaments at Cruz Azul but failed to make a final, something he achieved in his first tournament back in Toluca.
“I do not play, I just run the team,” Meza said, asked if his experience will be an advantage against Tijuana after his team eliminated América.
His team, however, retains 10 players who won at least one title under de la Torre. Sinha, the team’s captain, has been with the club since Meza’s first tenure in Toluca. And let’s not forget those 10 titles. While both finalists qualify as surprises, one team has certainly been here before. Tijuana still carries the aura of upstarts.
Come Sunday, that upstarts’ aura could be gone. Then, Xolos will be at Toluca, having hosted the Red Devils in Thursday’s first leg at Estadio Caliente. If they show the same focus that brought them back from two down to León, Mexico will have a new, first-time Champion. If not, Toluca will tie Chivas for the most titles in Mexican history.
May 6, 2015, 5:30 PM EDT
Messi’s magic leads the way as we were treated to a gem of a game at the Nou Camp. Here’s what we learned.
May 6, 2015, 5:05 PM EDT
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Lionel Messi, the world’s best player, scored a truly unbelievable goal.
May 6, 2015, 4:45 PM EDT
Manuel Neuer was Herculean in the first half, but Lionel Messi was magical during the second 45. Barca have one foot in the final.
May 6, 2015, 3:59 PM EDT
Real lead for a third-straight year, but Bayern Munich, United are the big climbers.
May 6, 2015, 2:59 PM EDT
Chaos in Spain as soccer is officially suspended.
May 6, 2015, 2:19 PM EDT
Listen to the latest pod, right here:
May 6, 2015, 1:54 PM EDT
Robert Lewandowski will play despite facial injuries, but a host of other Bayern players are out as Pep Guardiola returns to the Nou Camp.
May 6, 2015, 12:53 PM EDT
Two training ground injuries to both Philadelphia goalkeepers in a matter of seconds has Rais Mbolhi the only man currently under contract who is fit to start.
May 6, 2015, 12:20 PM EDT
They’ll have their defender back, but they can’t have the match back, and that may be the most painful.
May 6, 2015, 11:40 AM EDT
The Galaxy have signed a young American midfielder to give them a spark.
May 6, 2015, 10:48 AM EDT
He could bring balance back to the Juventus midfield for the second leg.
May 6, 2015, 9:49 AM EDT
Oh dear. Ohhhhhh dear. We all know how this one ends. All over YouTube.
May 6, 2015, 9:26 AM EDT
“Dressed in black as always” Diego Simeone says all he wants to do is manage the teams he played for.
May 6, 2015, 8:22 AM EDT
Young Mateo got the surprise of a lifetime on what he though was another routine call with a doctor.
May 6, 2015, 7:50 AM EDT
Birmingham City confirmed Packwood’s early release from his contract to “possibly” join the Revolution, whatever that means.
May 5, 2015, 11:25 PM EDT
If you’d like your supporters group to be featured on future episodes of ‘I Was There’ simply send pictures/video to @NBCSportsSoccer or on NBC Sports Soccer on Facebook using the #IWasThere hashtag.
May 5, 2015, 10:46 PM EDT
Adam Jahn scored with his head while David Bingham made a big penalty stop to lead San Jose to all three points.
May 5, 2015, 9:43 PM EDT
Pep Guardiola faces his former club when Bayern Munich travels to Camp Nou to take on Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal matchup.
May 5, 2015, 8:58 PM EDT
The struggling Tottenham striker seems to have more problems than just scoring goals.
May 5, 2015, 7:45 PM EDT
The Real Madrid boss is confident his side can overcome the 2-1 deficit following a first leg defeat in Italy.
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