Los Angeles Soccer: Isaac Acuña
Mexico's Clausura, the second-half championship, kicks off in the Primera Division on Friday night, with Club Tijuana visiting Morelia.
The Xolos went unbeaten in their last eight games in the fall Clausura and hope that prods them up the table in the spring tournament -- they're looking to survive, since one club will be relegated to the second-tier Liga de Ascenso come May.
Here are seven things to follow in Mexico this spring:
Mexico's Primera Division kicks off the first of its twin 2011-12 seasons Friday night, and fans in this region have a new dog to cheer for. Literally.
The Xoloitzcuintles of Club Tijuana, who take their name and mascot from semi-mythical Aztec hounds that, more or less, have descended into Mexican short-hairs, bring the best league south of the border right to the border -- and soon, perhaps, into San Diego.
The Xolos were the best team in the second-tier Liga de Ascenso last season and won promotion to the Primera in May, and Mexico's third-largest city isn't the only winner. The opportunity for soccer fans in Southern California to see the region's best league -- and storied clubs such as America, Guadalajara and reigning champion Pumas UNAM, in real competition -- is unprecedented, although tickets will be scarce.
Tijuana's Apertura opener Saturday night against Morelia, another club with a large So Cal following, is sold out. There are plans, not the least formalized, to bring games against Guadalajara and America -- the two biggest clubs in Mexico -- to Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, but that appears at least a year off, provided the Xolos survive their first year in the Primera. We've seen so many times the promoted club relegated after just one Apertura/Clausura cycle, including Necaxa last season.
There are several Southern Californians in the league, too, including Los Alamitos' Jonathan Bornstein (the former Chivas USA captain) at UANL Tigres, L.A.-born Herculez Gomez (the former Galaxy star) at Estudiantes Tecos, Orange's Michael Orozco Fiscal at San Luis, Calexico's Isaac Acuña at America and rising Tijuana winger Joe Corona, from National City.
A newcomer to the league is fading U.S. national-teamer DaMarcus Beasley, at Puebla.
The big change this year: No divisions. The two-season approach, with the fall Apertura and spring Clausura, remain, but now a single table will be used, with the top eight teams advancing to the postseason.
As always, every game, every team, will be televised in the L.A. area by Univision (KMEX/Channel 34), TeleFutura (KFTR/Channel 46), Telemundo (KVEA/Channel 52), Azteca America (KAZA/Channel 54), Galavision and, not quite as often, on ESPN Deportes and Fox Deportes. Select Liga de Ascenso games, usually involving Veracruz, also will be aired.
Here's a quick look at the Primera Division as the Apertura kicks off:
- 7 BETS TO WIN THE APERTURA
CARSON -- Edgar Castillo was on the field for Club America on Wednesday night at Home Depot Center, his second start in as many preseason games for the Mexico City giant -- another chance to prove he belongs.
The New Mexico native, who first signed with the Aguilas 2½ years ago but has mostly been on loan since, to UANL Tigres, San Luis and Puebla, appears to be in the Aguilas' plans, perhaps at left back, his natural position.
He spent some time there and a little in midfield as America rallied for a 2-1 win over Primera Division rival Atlas, with another American -- Calexico's Isaac Acuña -- scoring the 63rd-minute equalizer. Vicente Sanchez netted the winner in the 88th.
“My hopes are high ...,” Castillo, 24, said afterward. “I've been all over. Now I get to come back to America, and I'm telling you, I'm very happy to be back. They've given me a second chance to come back, and I've got to do things right to be a starter.”
He looked solid as the Aguilas dictated play much of the night in a spirited encounter that drew 16,241 to HDC, just as he looked good in last week's 1-0 victory over the Portland Timbers up north.
Honduran forward George Welcome came off the bench to give Atlas a 50th-minute lead, scoring on a twisting header from Francisco Torres' free kick. Acuña headed home a cross from Oscar Rojas to pull America even, and Sanchez fired across the goal and inside the right post from Rosinei's feed for the winner.
Mexico's Primera Division, like most leagues around the globe (but not Major League Soccer), is taking this weekend off for FIFA's international fixture dates.
El Tricolores, with 13 of 23 players from Mexico's top league and the rest from MLS (Rafa Marquez) and Europe (another dozen, including Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Giovani Dos Santos, are in California for games Saturday against Paraguay in Oakland and Tuesday night against Venezuela in San Diego.
(And Mexico has announced the fourth date on their annual U.S. tour: May 28 vs. Ecuador in Seattle.)
We're 11 weeks into the 17-game Clausura (spring) regular season, and here's some of what's transpired so far:
BEST TEAM: Unbeaten Pumas UNAM (7-0-4) has done it with defense, naturally. The Cats have conceded just eight goals and shut out six foes, including five of the last seven, behind goalkeeper Alejandro Palacios, central defenders Dario Veron, Efrain Velarde and Marco Antonio Palacios, and central midfielder Israel Castro. All five have played every minute.
Others in the hunt: Morelia (6-2-3) is a surprise at No. 2 in the overall table, outfiring foes, 22-9, since a 5-0 loss to Atlas in the opener. … UANL Tigres (5-1-5) have lost just once while surrendering five goals -- just one in the past seven games -- but attacking liabilities are a concern. … Never look past Cruz Azul (6-2-3), which has been very good; America (5-6-1), hit and miss; or Monterrey (6-4-1), inconsistent but improving. … Atlas (4-4-3) is fading after that fast start, but Atlante (5-5-1) is on the rise, with nine goals in its last two games.
BEST PLAYER: We're tempted to go with with Emanuel Villa, who has been scoring important goals of great quality, but we prefer his Cruz Azul teammate Christian Gimenez, the most dynamic playmaker in the Primera Division. … Other candidates: Angel Reyna is in terrific form for America. … Neri Cardozo is evolving into a real star with Monterrey. … Rafael Marquez Lugo is eclipsing his namesake with a superb campaign at Morelia. … Juan Carlos Cacho was spectacular for Pumas before he was injured in a national team camp. … Nobody is better than Atlante's Francisco “Kikin” Fonseca at the moment.
Monterrey is the odds-on favorite after eclipsing Cruz Azul, 2-1, in Wednesday night's semifinal first leg at its Estadio Tecnologico. Neri Cardozo and Sergio Santos scored the goals as the Rayados improved to 8-0-1 in the tournament.
They'll head to Mexico City for the April 6 second leg needing no more than a draw to reach the final. A 1-0 loss, however, would eliminate them on away goals.
Real Salt Lake, the first MLS team to reach the semifinals under the new format, won its home leg against Saprissa and takes a 2-0 lead into the April 5 decider in Costa Rica.
Mexican clubs have claimed 27 of 48 CONCACAF club championships -- Cruz Azul has five, but it's lost in the past two finals -- 10 of the past 14 and have a five-year winning streak going. Four of the past five finals have been all-Mexico affairs, including both “League”-era title series. Atlante won 2009 and Pachuca last year captured its third trophy in four years.
ACUNA MATATA: Calexico's Isaac Acuña scored again, his third goal in five appearances, to help Gallos Blancos de Queretaro (3-5-2) to a crucial 2-1 victory over visiting Puebla.
Look who's becoming a star. Calexico's Isaac Acuña, who had played all of four minutes of Mexican Primera Division futbol before Feb. 12, scored for the second successive week as Gallos Blancos de Queretaro battled to hold off Necaxa in the relegation fight.
Acuña, 21, took his time this week, not tallying until the seventh minute in a 1-1 draw Saturday with mighty Cruz Azul. He scored just three minutes into Gallos Blancos' 2-0 victory at Santos a week earlier. He debuted for the club, and made just his second top-flight appearance, the week before that.
Queretaro overcame two red cards to snare a point in a testy battle. There were four yellow cards in the first five minutes, and Raul Ferro was dismissed before a dozen minutes were up, which led to Acuña's departure in the 31st minute for tactical reasons.
The relegation battle appeared done when Gallos Blancos beat Necaxa on Jan. 29, but it has reignited as the streaking Rayos have posted three successive wins -- 1-0 over Santos Laguna last week -- and gone unbeaten in four games since Sergio Bueno took over after the loss to Queretaro.
“We must be aware of the situation, that we are still at the bottom of the percentage table and we need points ...,” Necaxa midfielder Paulo Cesar Chavez told reporters this week. “The reality is we're the last in the percentage table, and it is urgent. We need to get out of there.”
Gallos Blancos lost twice after beating Necaxa, and Acuña's productivity has helped keep the club from the bottom spot in the relegation table, a points-per-game standings over three full (fall/spring) seasons.
How close is it? If Necaxa wins at Cruz Azul and Gallos Blancos loses at Monterrey on Saturday, the Rayos will no longer be in the basement. The lowest team at the end of the season heads to Liga de Ascenso.
GAME OF THE WEEK: America beat Toluca, 4-3, in a dynamite encounter that featured four goals in the first eight minutes of the second half -- two apiece, the last a gorgeous strike by America's Daniel Montenegro for a 3-2 advantage.
PLAYOFF REALITIES: Pumas UNAM (5-0-3) and UANL Tigres (5-1-2) put some distance on the field with lopsided home victories, and, barring collapse, are headed to the postseason.
So is Cruz Azul (4-2-2) and, increasingly it seems, Morelia (4-1-3). Everyone else? We'll see.
Acuña, 21, scored in his first start in Mexico's top league to lead Gallos Blancos de Queretaro (2-4-1), who started the week at the bottom of the Clausura standings, to a stunning 2-0 triumph at Santos Laguna (3-3-1).
Acuña scored in the third minute -- he took a pass from Eder Borelli as he slipped past the backline, dribbled past goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez and knocked the ball into the open net -- and fed Carlos Bueno for the second goal just before halftime.
“His behavior went against the values that the club stands for and promotes, which is why the decision was taken to end our working relationship with immediate effect,” the club said in an announcement on its Web site. Said club president Alejandro Irarragorri: “This is a deeply hurtful decision, but we must be consistent with our values and responsibility as a model team. Ruben reacted negatively to pressure from the fans, and that's something we can't cover up.”
Fellow Argentine Diego Cocca, 38, was hired to replace Romano. Cocca, a former right back who counts Atlas, Veracruz and Gallos Blancos among the nearly dozen clubs for which he toiled, previously has managed three Argentine clubs, most recently La Plata's Gimnasia y Esgrima.
Acuña, who is with Queretaro on loan from America, played 35 minutes in a 5-0 loss Feb. 12 to Toluca. He made his debut last April 10, playing five minutes for America in a victory over Jaguares.
SINCE 5-0: The most alarming result of the Clausura occurred in week one, when Atlas, the worst team in the fall Apertura, throttled a decent (or so we thought) Morelia side, 5-0. After three games, Atlas had matched its fall win total and sat atop the overall table.
Jonathan Bornstein has brought UANL Tigres some needed luck. Give Danilinho and Hector Mancilla some credit, too.
The club from suburban Monterrey, known more for its disappointments than its triumphs, are atop the Primera Division's Clausura standings after Danilinho set up one goal and scored another in a 2-0 victory Saturday over visiting Cruz Azul.
Up next: Clasico Regiomontano rival Monterrey, which won the Apertura crown in December and has prevailed in three of its last four games.
Bornstein, who joined Tigres after five seasons with Chivas USA, made his fourth start (going 45 minutes) for UANL (4-1-1), which is 4-0-0 with the UCLA/Los Alamitos High School product in the lineup and winless when he's left on the bench.
Danilinho, a Brazilian midfielder who arrived from Jaguares, and Mancilla, a Chilean forward acquired from Toluca, have been huge additions, and their partnership proved too much for Cruz Azul (3-2-1), which fell from third to fifth overall with the loss.
Mancilla scored the first goal, a one-touch finish in the 69th minute after Danilinho burst past two defenders to the right byline and sent in a cross. The Brazilian added the second deep into stoppage, setting up his shot with a superb first touch.
Monterrey (3-3-0, in ninth overall) also won, routing Jaguares, 4-1, as Chilean World Cup star Humberto Suazo had a hat trick -- giving him 19 goals for the fall/spring campaign -- and Dario Carreño set up two goals, one my Aldo de Nigris.
FALL FROM FIRST: Pumas UNAM's time atop the overall standings was short. The Mexico City club dropped to third overall after an error by goalkeeper Alejandro Palacios and missed penalty kick by former Chivas USA forward Francisco Palencia allowed Guadalajara to escape with a 1-1 draw.