Los Angeles Soccer: Eduardo Lillingston
If the Diablos Rojos fail to reach the Clausura playoffs -- and they're two points out with one weekend to go in the regular season -- it will be Sunday's 4-4 draw responsible for all the rolling heads.
Toluca, one of Mexico's most successful clubs the past decade and a half, skidded out of contention down the stretch during the fall Apertura, and now this: Surrendering a four-goal halftime lead at home in a 4-4 draw with lowly Estudiantes Tecos when a win would have vaulted the Red Devils to seventh or eighth, depending on the margin of victory.
A 47th-minute own goal, strikes in the 54th and 80th by former Chivas USA forward Eduardo Lillingston, and Juan Carlos Leaņo's 84th-minute equalizer left Toluca (5-5-6) 10th overall and fourth in Group 2, two points away from the dividing line.
It's a tight fit heading into the final nine games, with five playoff berths still available and nine teams in the race. Guadalajara (6-3-7) and Cruz Azul (7-5-4), who played to a 1-1 draw Saturday, have 25 points; one of them definitely gets through, probably both.
Twenty-three points is the median at the moment, with Atlas (6-5-5) and Monterrey (6-5-5) above the line and America (7-7-2) just below. The most fluid race is in Group 2, which will supply two and potentially three teams to the quarterfinal field; five of the six teams are alive, with one point one point separating the top three.
Atlas, the worst team in the fall, opened the second half of the Mexican Primera Division season with a stunning romp that underscores coach Benjamin Galindo's savvy eye for talent.
The Guadalajara-based club, which made several major additions to its roster during the winter break, opened the spring Clausura on Saturday with a 5-0 domination of visiting Morelia.
Gerardo Espinoza matched his Apertura goals total, scoring twice, to lead the Zorros. Former Chicago Fire defender Wilman Conde scored in his Mexican League debut, and 19-year-old Christian Diaz (in his first top-tier game in more than a year) and Daniel Osorno (with his first of the season) also tallied.
“I congratulated the guys in the locker room because [there was] not a single player who did not have a good performance. It speaks well of the commitment that exists with the team,” Galindo told reporters afterward.
“It's a good win which gives us confidence, but that's all. What we have to do is keep working with the same commitment that we had during the preseason.”
Atlas went through three coaches in a 3-10-4 fall campaign, but Galindo, a former Mexican national-teamer, went shopping in four countries to strengthen the club. Conde, Brazilian midfielder Lucio Flavio (from Botafogo) and midfielder Lucas Ayala (from UANL Tigres) contributed to the win Saturday.
BIG BOYS BEATEN: America got robbed. Monterrey got jobbed.
America, a sure title contender, saw two perfectly good goals erased on mistaken offside calls in a 2-0 home loss to Pachuca, which got goals midway through each half by Yulian Anchico and then Edgar Benitez.
Monterrey, which last month won the Apertura title, was outclassed at home by San Luis, also 2-0 -- with the Gladiadores' first goal, by Osmar Mares in the 71st minute, clearly offside. Juan Carlos Medina's sweet chip in stoppage, with the Rayados down a man, doubled the advantage.
Dema Kovalenko, whose fierce approach to defense was pivotal in the Galaxy's run to the Western Conference title game, could be parting ways with L.A.
The club declined the option on the 33-year-old Ukrainian midfielder and can bring him back at a lower salary only if he isn't taken in next week's first stage of Major League Soccer's re-entry draft.
The Galaxy also declined the option on 34-year-old forward/midfielder Jovan Kirovski, and Chivas declined options on midfielder Marcelo Saragosa and 33-year-old Romanian-born defender Alex Zotinca.
Five local-bred players -- Kansas City defender Jimmy Conrad (Temple City/Temple City HS and UCLA), Colorado midfielder Peter Vagenas (Pasadena/St. Francis HS and UCLA), Columbus defender Frankie Hejduk (UCLA) and midfielder Duncan Oughton (Cal State Fullerton) and Philadelphia goalkeeper Chris Seitz (San Luis Obipso/Thousand Oaks HS) -- are among 35 players available in the re-entry draft. All but Seitz are older than 30.
With two weeks to go in the Mexican Primera Division's Apertura season, here's where we stand in the battle for the eight playoff berths:WHO'S IN: Cruz Azul, Monterrey and Santos Laguna -- Nos. 1, 2 and 3 nearly all season -- claimed spots during last week's "doble jornada"; the Cementeros are guaranteed a top-two seed, and Monterrey is on the verge of wrapping up the other.
So last week's showdown at Estadio Tecnologico was perhaps a title-series preview, and, in a small surprise, first-place Cruz Azul (11-2-2) romped to a 4-2 victory, handing the second-place Rayados (9-1-5) only their second defeat in 33 regular-season matches over 51 weeks. Cesar Villaluz, part of Mexico's 2005 U-17 World Cup-winning side, scored twice for the victors.
So ... who's the team to beat should both reach the final? Go with Monterrey, which won last year's Apertura. Cruz Azul has lost in the past two Apertura finals and in the past two CONCACAF Champions League finals.