Los Angeles Soccer: Toluca
Cruz Azul, seeking its first Mexican title since 1997 and only its second since 1980, dominated Morelia, 2-0, Thursday night as Argentines Christian Gimenez and Emanuel Villa, La Maquina Celeste's top attackers, scored first-half goals.
Guadalajara rallied for a 1-1 draw with visiting Pumas UNAM as Omar Arellano netted an 89th-minute equalizer.
Sunday's second legs will determine next week's finalists.
Club Tijuana and Irapuato drew, 1-1, in the first leg of the second-tier Liga de Ascenso's final.
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 Leaño'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.
Three of the eight playoff berths have been taken, and the fight for the final five is heating up as the Mexican Primera Division heads into its penultimate weekend of the regular season, with a dozen teams still in contention, but only eight of them really in the race.
- In: Pumas UNAM (9-1-5), UANL Tigres (8-2-5) and Morelia (8-3-4)
- On the verge: Guadalajara (6-3-6), Cruz Azul (7-5-3) and Atlante (7-6-2)
- Above the wire: Monterrey (6-5-4) and America (7-7-1)
- Just outside looking in: Toluca (5-5-5), Atlas (5-5-5) and Santos Laguna (6-7-2), all two points out of the final spot
- Alive, but not for long: Puebla (5-8-2), Pachuca (4-7-4) and Estudiantes Tecos (4-7-4)
- Out: Gallos Blancos (4-8-3), Necaxa (3-7-5) and Jaguares (3-10-2)
Pumas, Tigres and Morelia claimed their spots during last week's “doble jornada.” Pumas, on top of the overall table most of the Clausura campaign, can clinch the No. 1 seed -- rarely a winner in Mexico's playoffs -- with a win Friday night at Necaxa and Tigres' failure to win Sunday at Morelia in one of the two major showdowns this weekend.
The other big matchup pits Guadalajara, looking like a real contender the past month, against Cruz Azul in Mexico City. Chivas is fourth and Cruz Azul fifth, both with 24 points, and neither is likely to miss the postseason.
But the Cementeros are skidding. They've lost three of four, with losses to Santos, Morelia and Puebla, after challenging for the top spot most of the season. The 3-0 rout of Monterrey, which is falling at a quicker pace, might prove to be Cruz Azul's savior.
Monterrey is winless in its last four league games, its focus blurred by its CONCACAF Champions League title-series run and its game slowed by injuries to key players. A longtime shoulder ailment has prevented star Chilean forward Humberto Suazo from contributing the way he needs to, and forward Aldo de Nigris and midfielder Luis Perez, both Mexican national-teamers, will be out for three to four weeks with thigh injuries.
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.
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.
The expected sides emerged from the Mexican Primera Division semifinals Sunday, and the two-leg title series will begin in Torreon on Thursday night. The second leg will be played next Sunday in Monterrey.
America rallied three times in the second half on goals by Vicente Sanchez, Matias Vuoso and Enrique Esqueda, but it wasn't nearly enough -- the Aguilas needed to win by two goals to reach the final. Carlos Darwin Quintero made the task much more difficult, firing Santos ahead in the second minute. he scored a second in the 61st, and Christian Benitez netted his 16th of the campaign in the 75th.
Second-seeded Monterrey, which beat Santos, 2-1, Oct. 23 in Torreon, would have advanced with another 0-0 draw against Pumas. But Humberto Suazo took advantage of a defensive miscue in the 88th minute, and Neri Cardozo doubled the advantage two minutes into stoppage.
Pachuca's in, Toluca and Guadalajara are out, and Pumas UNAM scored a big victory to claim the final berth in the Mexican Primera Division's playoffs.
Pachuca, with three Americans, struck early to beat Necaxa, 2-1, on Friday night, then waited 24 hours -- through five games -- to celebrate, clinching a top-eight spot when Atlas rallied to tie UANL Tigres on Saturday night.
It was a wild final regular-season weekend in the Apertura, featuring four late comebacks -- two of them playing decisive roles in the playoff race -- and Guadalajara's finest moment of the campaign, which was far too little for one of Mexico's two most popular clubs.
A quick rundown:
WHO'S IN: Jaguares (6-4-7), Pachuca (7-6-4) and Pumas (7-6-4) won the three available berths, all finishing one point ahead of Tigres (6-5-6), which saw its playoff hopes die on two penalty kicks.
Jaguares clinched with a 1-1 draw at Gallos Blancos, with Jorge Rodriguez's 81st minute equalizer providing the Chiapas club the required goal. Queretaro had gone ahead just two minutes earlier on a tremendous Sergio Oreteman drive to the upper-left corner.
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.
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.”
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.
CONCACAF's Champions League draw Monday pitted Real Salt Lake and the Columbus Crew in one of the quarterfinal pairings and assured an all-Mexico semifinal -- but, for once, not an all-Mexico final.
Monterrey (Mexico) vs. Toluca (Mexico)
Santos Laguna (Mexico) vs. Cruz Azul (Mexico)
Real Salt Lake (MLS) vs. Columbus Crew (MLS)
Olimpia (Honduras) vs. Saprissa (Costa Rica)
The Crew, along with Toluca, Cruz Azul and Saprissa, will be home for the quarterfinal first leg Feb. 22-24. The second leg in the home-and-home, aggregate series will be played March 1-3, with semifinals slated for March 15-17 and April 5-7 and the title matchup April 19-21 and 26-28.
Mexican clubs have won every semifinal since the current format was introduced for the 2008-09 season -- Atlante beat Cruz Azul in the 2009 final and Pachuca beat Cruz Azul in this year's title game -- and also won the final three championships under the former format, two of them in all-Mexico finals.
Two MLS clubs have reached the quarterfinals but gone no further since the CCL was introduced. The Houston Dynamo lost to Atlante in the 2009 quarterfinals, and Columbus fell to Toluca in this year's knockout opener.
Five MLS clubs were in the current tournament. The Galaxy was eliminated in the preliminary round, and the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC failed to advance from the group stage.
Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre will make his debut as Mexico's national team coach Feb. 9 in Atlanta against Hungary, the country's soccer federation has announced. Two more games are tentative: March 26 against Paraguay and March 29 against Argentina.
De la Torre is seeing out the Apertura campaign with Toluca, which is seventh overall with a 5-3-6 record and three regular-season games to play. The top eight teams advance to the playoffs.