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Mexico down to four as América, León, Santos, Toluca advance in playoffs

Dec 2, 2013, 12:50 AM EDT

Raul Jimenez, Carlos Salcido AP

Regular season champions Club América came into the Mexico’s Liguilla as favorites to win a second straight title, and after taking a 2-2 result out of Nuevo León last week, Miguel Herrera’s team was on track to make another semifinal. All they needed to do was hold serve today at Estadio Azteca, so when Mexican international Raul Jimenez’s diving header gave the Aguilas a lead in Sunday’s second half, everything was playing out as expected – even more so when Tigres’ defender Hugo Ayala was dismissed three minutes in the 55th minute. Up a man and a goal with just over half an hour to go, the team that cruised to the tournament’s top seed seemed destined to ease through the playoff’s quarterfinal round.

Yet three minutes after going down a man, Tigres were back in the match, a lightning counter attack down their left leaving Alan Pulido to beat Moises Muñóz from near the spot, making it 3-3. América’s better seed meant they had the tiebreaker, but with 32 minutes to play, Tigres had hope. One more counter, a set piece, or just randomness would see them past the superliders.

But just as often as we see goals like Pulido’s build momentum, we see then serve as wakeup calls. On Sunday, having been draw back into a tie with Tigres, the Aguilas  woke up and eventually killed off the bulk of the mach’s final 32 minutes. Still, 10 minutes from time, the favorites were still nearly seen out of the tournament, with Emmanuel Villa’s potential winner nailing the bottom of Muñóz’s post before staying out.

América should have put the match away long before. In the first half, they had their chances to go up through Rubens Sambueza and Jimenez and couldn’t convert. Before Villa threatened to snatch the tie from them, they could have restored their lead yet took the 3-3 scoreline into the final minutes, and beyond the chances, they are just a much better team. Few would have predicted the defending champions would come this close to a quarterfinal exit.

In the semifinals, the competition won’t be as forgiving, but just as Pulido’s goal may have served as a wakeup call, this tie may have opened the Aguilas’ eyes to what lies ahead. With only Muñóz’s woodwork saving them from an unlikely elimination, América may now realize how hard it will be to win back-to-back titles.

Elsewhere

Santos Laguna 3 (6), Querétaro 1 (3)

The Guerreros were given reason to fear last week when two late Isaac Romo goals reduced their three-goal lead to one, but although Romo would add a third in the second half in Torreon, Querétaro would never get back to even footing with second seed. Carlos Darwin Quintero, who scored twice in leg one, added late brace on Sunday, with Oribe Peralta’s opener ensuring Santos held the lead throughout Sunday’s second leg.

León 4 (7), Morelia 0 (3)

The drama Monarcas restored with two late goals in leg one had dissipated by the middle of Saturday’s second half, with three goals in a 13-minute span building on Hernan Burbano’s first half opener to give León the four-goal lead they’d carry until the final whistle.

Whereas León’s defense had been crucial throughout the team’s qualification stage, their goals allowed (14) second to only América’s, Gustavo Matosas’s team found goalscoring depth they never saw in the regular season. While Mauro Boselli’s two goals added to the 13 he found before the playoffs, Léon also got goals from Luis Montes, Elias Hernández (both last Saturday), Burbano, Matías Britos, and José Vázquez.

Set to face Santos in the semifinals, those scoring options will come in handy, should their defense prove as generous as it was in leg one against Morelia.

Toluca 3 (4), Cruz Azul 1 (1)

The lower (fifth) seed, Toluca all but sealed their victory last week, going up 3-0 in leg one. On Saturday, Christian Giménez’s 33rd minute penalty conversion brought La Machina within two, but Guillermo Vazquez’s team never got any closer. Despite finishing the season with four straight looses, Toluca eased into the semifinals, Pablo Velazquez’s 78th minute goal eliminating any doubt the Diablos Rojos would be caught late.

Now the league’s best regular season attack (33 goals ) meets the league’s best defense, though América’s defense will have to return to form if they’re to keep their hopes of repeating alive.

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