America is peaking at the best possible time. Toluca is crumbling when it counts. The impact on the Mexican Primera Division's Apertura campaign is massive.
The Aguilas clinched a berth in the eight-team playoff Liguilla with a 1-0 victory at Atlante, courtesy of Matias Vuoso's eighth goal of the season, and head into their final regular-season outing -- against Mexico City rival Pumas UNAM -- with three-game winning and six-game unbeaten streaks.
They've pulled through last month's attacking drought, in which they were shut out by first-place Cruz Azul, second-place Monterrey and archrival Guadalajara, scoring seven times in their past three games -- and that should be eight.
Pavel Pardo converted a stoppage-time penalty kick against Atlante, but referee Paul Delgadillo ordered a retake for encroachment, and Potros goalkeeper Moises Muñoz saved Pardo's second attempt.
America, which is atop Group 2 and fourth overall, behind Santos Laguna on goal difference (plus-8 to plus-7), appears to have shored up its defensive problems, and the relationship among Vuoso, playmaker Daniel Montenegro and former Toluca star Vicente Sanchez has solidified just when it most matters.
“We're there, and we were able to get there,” America coach Manuel Lapuente said after Saturday night's victory, according to Reforma. “We're playing well … we've finished the league well, although we have a game against Pumas to play, and we cannot lose at home. We're going to put a lot of effort into that game. This isn't over until it's over, and we're going to fight to climb one spot higher.”
Toluca, which won the spring Clausura, has won just once in its past seven games, and if coach Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre wasn't leaving at season's end to take charge of Mexico's national team, management might be asking him to leave anyway.
The lastest miscue: A 4-2 defeat at lowly Estudiantes Tecos, in which Toluca surrendered 1-0 and 2-1 leads as Mauro Cejas scored a hat trick and their Guadalajara-based host scored twice in the final 10 minutes.
Defense is a problem, de la Torre acknowledged afterward, but so is the the attack. The Diablos Rojos have scored just five goals in those seven games -- they've netted just 17 in 16 games, better than only five clubs, none of them in the playoff picture -- and fallen from fourth overall to 10th, two spots and one point out of playoff zone. They could be out by kickoff of a must-win match Sunday against Atlante.
“We're dependent on others,” de la Torre told media after the loss to Estudiantes. “First we have to do our homework and then wait for results.”
PACHUCA'S TURN: Toluca's misstep provided opportunity for Pachuca -- the club of three amigos: American forward Herculez Gomez and midfielders Jose Francisco Torres and Marco Antonio Vidal -- and the Tuzos, after grave hesitation, too advantage.
A 2-1 victory over Queretaro's Gallos Blancos, primarily through forward Dario Cvitanich and goalkeeper Miguel Calero, sent Pachuca (6-6-4) into the playoff zone: eighth place, even on points and goal difference with ninth-place Pumas UNAM (6-6-4) but ahead on goals scored (25-22).
The Tuzos (Gophers) likely need a victory Friday night at struggling Necaxa, then must wait to see how the rest of the league plays out Saturday and Sunday. Winning isn't enough; if Jaguares and UANL Tigres, the clubs just ahead, also win and Pumas beats America by more goals than Pachuca does, the Tuzos are out.
They didn't look like postseason contenders the first two months of the season. An impressive 3-0 romp over America in the opener was followed by a 0-4-3 stretch against the top sides, but as the schedule has eased up, the Tuzos have found their game.
They're 5-2-1 since Sept. 25 -- 5-0-1 against teams outside the top eight, 0-2 against clubs in the playoff zone -- and have climbed from 17th overall (among 18 clubs) to eighth. Wins the last two weekends vaulted them from 13th to ninth to eighth.
Cvitanich scored the first goal, his eighth of the Apertura, with a ninth-minute header Saturday, and after Gallos Blancos pulled even through Adrian Romero 16 minutes, Edgar Benitez was fouled in the box by Raul Rico eight minutes into the second half and needed only to convert from the spot to put Pachuca ahead again. He charged the ball and blasted it off the crossbar and into the stands.
Victory arrived on an own goal by Jorge Cardenas after Queretaro goalkeeper Carlos Bossio misplayed a Cvitanich shot in the 60th minute.
PAIRING UP: Cruz Azul has clinched the No. 1 seed and Monterey has No. 2 sewn up, and Santos Laguna, America and San Luis are grappling for third and fourth seeds. Those five clubs are in the playoffs, with seven clubs fighting for the last three spots, some more effectively than others.
One of the available berths will go to Jaguares (6-4-6) or Pumas (6-6-4) -- the Chiapas club is two points ahead in the battle for Group 3's second playoff spot, has a better last-game matchup (at Gallos Blancos) and only needs a draw to clinch, unless Pumas does something unthinkable -- say, a 9-0 rout -- against America.
Tigres (6-5-5) will claim one of the at-large berths with a win at last-place Atlas, leaving the final berth for, in order of likelihood, Pachuca (6-6-4), Toluca, Morelia (5-6-5), Pumas and Guadalajara (3-3-10).
Chivas' bid to play every team in the league to a draw is admirable, but it hasn't worked out in terms of the Liguilla. They held Cruz Azul goalless last week, their fourth successive tie -- the previous three against America, Toluca and Santos -- and 10th in 16 games (five of them 0-0, including three of the last four). Now they'll look to stay even with Monterrey.
“If we do not qualify for the Liguilla, then this season would be a failure,” Guadalajara owner Jorge Vergara told reporters after the Cruz Azul game. “However, I believe we are putting together a good group of youngsters. … Taking into consideration and evaluating what happened in the World Cup, with the players that were taken away from us [especially star forward Javier “Chicharito Hernandez, who departed for Manchester United], the frustrations over [losing in the final of] Copa Libertadores, the number of injuries we've had during games and not having been able to play the players we've wanted to, I believe we're in a positive situation.
“I believe we have young and very interesting players. [Omar] Arellano, who needs just a little bit more. Jesus Sanchez, Michel Vazquez. We have a youngster named Erick Torres, who will debut soon -- he's a goalscorer with the [club's] under-17s. So we have the manner in which to find goals.”
Monterrey has lost two of three after an 8-0-5 start, and it has nothing to play for but momentum, so a Guadalajara win isn't out of the question. But with just 19 points, Chivas would need to win and see Pachuca and Pumas lose, and Toluca and Morelia lose or tie.
If the current standings hold, the first-round matchups would be Cruz Azul-Pachuca, Monterrey-Tigres, Santos-Jaguares and America-San Luis.
ETC.: San Luis clinched its berth with a 1-1 draw against Santos Laguna as Diego de la Torre quickly answered Christian Benitez's Apertura-leading 14th goal early in the second half. … Jackson Martinez lifted Jaguares past Atlas, a pivotal victory following two scoreless draws. … Yasser Corona scored and assisted goals in Puebla's surprise 2-0 win over Monterrey. … Dante Lopez's sixth goal completed Pumas' 2-0 win over Necaxa. … Francisco Javier Dorame lifted Morelia to a 1-0 upset at Tigres.
LIGA DE ASCENSO: Indios de Ciudad Juarez (8-3-5) ended visiting Club Tijuana's unbeaten run, climbed to second place -- six points behind the Xolos (10-1-5) -- and clinched a playoff spot. Juan Roman Curbelo scored in the 1-0 decision. Alacranes de Durango (8-4-4) also claimed a postseason berth, swapping spots with Lobos BUAP (8-6-2) -- Alacranes to third, Lobos to fifth -- with a 1-0 victory on Raymundo Torres' early strike. …
Seven teams are in the running for four available playoff berths in the regular season's final weekend, but Altamira (5-5-6) and Guerreros (5-5-6) are alive only mathematically. Albinegros (7-6-3) is clutching the the seventh and final berth after winning, 1-0, at Veracruz on Juan Manuel Cavallo's ninth goal of the Apertura; the result dropped Veracruz (7-3-6), which closes Sunday at Tijuana, from second to fourth.
The final berth could could come down to Saturday's showdown between Leon (7-6-3) and Irapuato (8-6-2). Leon is eighth, behind Albinegros on goal difference (plus-6 to plus-5), after late goals by Blas Perez and Jared Borgetti beat Pumas Morelos to extend the Esmeraldas' winning streak to four games and unbeaten streak to nine. Cuauhtemoc Blanco's Irapuato is sixth after its second straight one-goal victory.
AMERICANS IN ACTION: Sacramento's Miguel Angel Ponce was, as always, at left back for Guadalajara, and Torres continues in midfield for Pachuca -- both got a full 90. Gomez came off the bench in the 77th minute for Pachuca and Edgar Castillo in the 90th for San Luis. San Diego's Joe Corona started and went 50 minutes for Club Tijuana.
Past week's games (home teams listed first)
Estudiantes Tecos 4 (Cejas 51, 63, 86, D. Cisneros 81), Toluca 2 (N. Calderon 48, og G. Cabrera 53)
San Luis 1 (D. de la Torre 58), Santos Laguna 1 (C. Benitez 54)
Jaguares de Chiapas 2 (Razo 13, J. Martinez 74), Atlas 1 (F. Fuentes 59)
Pachuca 2 (Cvitanich 9, og J. Cardenas 60), Gallos Blancos de Queretaro 1 (A. Romero 25)
UANL Tigres 0, Morelia 1 (Dorame 72)
Guadalajara 0, Cruz Azul 0
Atlante 0, America 1 (Vuoso 65)
Pumas UNAM 2 (I. Castro 76, D. Lopez 91+), Necaxa 0
Puebla 2 (F. Ayala 28, Y. Corona 91+), Monterrey 0
Group 1: x-Monterrey 32 points, x-Santos 27, UANL Tigres 23, Guadalajara 19, Necaxa 16, Estudiantes Tecos 15
Group 2: x-America 27 points, x-San Luis 26, Pachuca 22, Toluca 21, Atlante 15, Atlas 12
Group 3: x-Cruz Azul 36 points, Jaguares 24, Pumas UNAM 22, Morelia 20, Puebla 18, Gallos Blancos 18
Overall (top 8): 1. x-Cruz Azul 36 (+19 goal difference), 2. x-Monterrey 32 (+10), 3. x-Santos 27 (+8), 4. x-America 25 (+6), 5. San Luis 26 (+3), 6. Jaguares 24 (+7), 7. UANL Tigres 23 (+8), 8. Pachuca 22 (-2). Playoffs: If season ended now, the top eight would qualify
Relegation percentage: 1. Necaxa (16 games/16 points) 1.0000; 2. Gallos Blancos (50/57) 1.1400; 3. Atlas (84/97) 1.1548; 4. Atlante (84/98) 1.1667; 5. Jaguares (84/101) 1.2024
x -- clinched playoff berth
This week's games (all times Pacific)
Pachuca at Necaxa, 6:10 p.m.
San Luis at Cruz Azul, 3 p.m.
Jaguares at Gallos Blancos, 3 p.m.
Guadalajara at Monterrey, 3 p.m.
Estudiantes Tecos at Santos Laguna, 5 p.m.
UANL Tigres at Atlas, 6:45 p.m.
Puebla at Morelia, 10 a.m.
Atlante at Toluca, 10 a.m.
Pumas UNAM at America, 2:30 p.m.
Schedule subject to change
1. Christian Benitez (Santos) 14
2. Humberto Suazo (Monterrey) 10
3. Johan Fano (Atlante) 9
4. Itamar Batista (UANL Tigres) 8
Sergio Blanco (Gallos Blancos) 8
Dario Cvitanich (Pachuca) 8
Christian Gimenez (Cruz Azul) 8
Matias Vuoso (America) 8
9. Mauro Cejas (Estudiantes Tecos) 7
Gabriel Pereyra (Pubela) 7
LIGA DE ASCENSO
Past week's results (home teams listed first)
Lobos BUAP 0, Alacranes de Durango 1 (R. Torres 16)
Pumas Morelos 0, Leon 2 (B. Perez 81, Borgetti 85)
Veracruz 0, Albinegros de Orizaba 1 (Cavallo 87)
Irapuato 3 (O. Gomez 25, 68, A. Gonzalez 76), Altamira 2 (Castillejos 60, R. Rocha 69)
Indios de Ciudad Juarez 1 (Curbelo 69), Club Tijuana 0
UAT Correcaminos 0, Merida FC 2 (og Stringel 58, Casartelli 89)
Atlante Neza 1 (og L. Ramirez 35), Guerreros FC 2 (O. Martinez 8, M. Valladares 54)
Cruz Azul Hidalgo 4 (Nurse 17, J. Garcia 30, Martini 79, G. Velasco 85), Dorados de Sinaloa 2 (F. Flores 42, D. Mejia 55)
La Piedad 4 (Murguia 15, 57, M. Parra 18, 43), U de G Leones Negros 0
Standings: 1. xy-Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente 35 points, 2. Indios de Ciudad Juarez 29, 3. x-Alacranes de Durango 28, 4. Veracruz 27, 5. Lobos BUAP 26, 6. Irapuato 26, 7. Albinegros de Orizaba 24, 8. Leon 24, 9. Altamira 21, 10. Guerreros FC 21, 11. Pumas Morelos 20, 12. Dorados de Sinaloa 20, 13. Cruz Azul Hidalgo 19, 14. La Piedad 18, 15. U de G Leones Negros 16, 16. Merida FC 13, 17. UAT Correcaminos 12, 18. Atlante Neza 9
y -- clinched semifinal berth; x -- clinched playoff berth
This week's games (all times Pacific)
Atlante Neza at Altamira, 5 p.m.
Indios de Ciudad Juarez at Leones Negros, 6:45 p.m.
La Piedad at Guerreros, 2 p.m.
Lobos BUAP at Albinegros de Orizaba, 4 p.m.
Correcaminos at Alacranes de Durango, 5 p.m.
Cruz Azul Hidalgo at Merida, 5:05 p.m.
Pumas Morelos at Dorados de Sinaloa, 6 p.m.
Irapuato at Leon, 6 p.m.
Veracruz at Club Tijuana, 1 p.m.
Schedule subject to change
1. Eder Pacheco (Alacranes) 13
2. Juan Manuel Sara (Lobos BUAP) 10
3. Eduardo Lillingston (Indios) 9
Juan Manuel Cavallo (Albinegros) 9
Felipe Flores (Dorados) 8
Rafael Murguia (La Piedad) 8
Roberto Nurse (Cruz Azul Hidalgo) 8
Miguel Zepeda (Leones Negros) 8
9. Jared Borgetti (Leon) 7
Hector Gimenez (Guerreros) 7
Nelson Sebastian Maz (Veracruz) 7
Mauricio Romero (Veracruz) 7