Los Angeles Soccer: Arturo Alvarado
Club America's title hopes might have disappeared on a piece of magic by Christian Benitez -- and black magic from referee Jaime Herrera.
The fourth-seeded Aguilas failed to get two penalty calls, then gave up a goal at the finish, absorbing a 2-1 defeat Thursday to visiting Santos Laguna in a semifinal first leg in Mexico's Primera Division playoffs.
Second-seeded Monterrey's defensive stance was rewarded with a 0-0 draw at Pumas UNAM in the other Mexico City encounter, and the Rayados will need no more than a tie in Sunday's home leg to advance to the championship series. Higher seeds move on if the aggregate score is even.
America will need a two-goal victory in Torreon after Benitez broke a tie in the 89th minute, beating three defenders and then firing home a cross-box shot, his league-best 15th goal of the campaign. Carlos Quintero gave No. 3 seed Santos a 10th-minute lead, and Angel Reyna pulled the Aguilas even in the 19th.
"The result serves us," Benitez told Televisa, the giant TV network that owns America. "Now we play at home. We have an advantage, and we must seize it."
That advantage was built largely on Herrera's inadequacies. He allowed play to continue after Felipe Baloy took down America forward Matias Vuoso in the Santos box, then allowed Fernando Arce to get away with hitting Vicente Sanchez in the face, also in the box.
Monterrey kept nine men (plus goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco) behind the ball for most of its match against No. 8 seed Pumas, which stunned top-seeded Cruz Azul in the quarterfinals. Neri Cardozo nearly gave the Rayados a lead in the 21st minute, but his shot struck the left post.
LIGA DE ASCENSO: Club Tijuana and Irapuato moved closer to the title showdown in Mexico's second-tier division.
The Xoloitzcuintles notched their 11th shutout in 18 games in a scoreless draw at Albinegros de Orizaba, hardly a surprising result. Tijuana has surrendered just seven goals during the Apertura, and Albinegros has posted five successive clean sheets, extending its shutout streak to 535 minutes.
Tijuana, which needs only a draw in Sunday afternoon's second leg at Estadio Caliente, has a decided advantage at home. The Xolos are 7-0-2 in T.J., conceding just twice.
Irapuato dominated Veracruz in its home leg, using goals by Ariel Gonzalez in the sixth minute and Jose Luis Lopez in the 60th for a 2-0 victory. Cuauhtemoc Blanco nearly made it 3-0, but his 43rd-minute header from Arturo Alvarado's cross crashed off the crossbar.
- PRIMERA DIVISION
SEMIFINALS, FIRST LEG
America 1 (A. Reyna 19), Santos Laguna 2 (Quintero 10, C. Benitez 89)
Pumas UNAM 0, Monterrey 0
America at Santos Laguna, 4 p.m.
Pumas UNAM at Monterrey, 6 p.m.
- LIGA DE ASCENSO
SEMIFINALS, FIRST LEG
Albinegros de Orizaba 0, Club Tijuana 0
Irapuato 2 (A. Gonzalez 6, J. Lopez 60), Veracruz 0
Albinegros de Orizaba at Club Tijuana, 1 p.m.
Irapuato at Veracruz, 5 p.m.