"Hate me more," is the unofficial motto of Club America, which regularly polls in Mexico as the second-most popular club - behind beloved Chivas de Guadalajara - but easily wins the title of most despised. It's a club that's disliked for having none of the endearing qualities of an underdog. Club America is wealthy, talented, and successful. It's ruthless in cutting loose coaches or players who fail to deliver. The current coach, Miguel Herrera, came in in 2011 as the fourth man to take the helm that year.
Santos Laguna played well for long stretches of their opening leg of the Liga MX Liguilla semifinal versus Cruz Azul. All they have to show for it is a 3-0 loss. It's not as if Santos couldn't score. They did manage a goal - an own-goal - late in the game. A sportswriter colleague who occasionally covers soccer told me recently about his main frustration with the game. He said he understood from other sports that the best team doesn't always win - even great teams have off days, and good players can get injured, or lose heart or focus.
Ah, the Liguilla playoffs! There's a reason more and more leagues --even in England, in the case of certain tiebreak scenarios-- are transitioning to this format. It's exciting. It's simply not as thrilling to crown a league champion when there are still weeks of games left to play. There's an element of danger in a playoff system that leaves even big and wealthy teams at risk, fighting and grasping for the win until the final whistle. Plus, there's something very primal about being the last team standing after the playoff melee, bloody, but unbowed.
The Carlos Vela rumor is now in overdrive, as various sources are reporting from mostly conveniently anonymous informants that the Real Sociedad striker is on his way back to the Mexican national team. He could play both in upcoming World Cup qualifiers and the Confederations Cup. Of course, this is what common sense surmised was in the works after El Tri coach Jose Manuel de la Torre, known as "Chepo", was present recently in Spain to both watch and meet with the estranged forward. It was pretty clear then that amends had been made and a deal had been struck.
"Win or go home" doesn't really apply when the elimination process takes place over two games. One game can be lost, yet the losing team still advance if the other match favors them by a sufficient number of goals. They can also triumph if the rules and regulations are on their side. In the Liga MX Liguilla, Cruz Azul stomped out a clear advantage with a 4-2 victory over Morelia in the first leg. Yet the Monarchs were not defeated even with the loss, because they had managed to notch two goals on their opponents at home.
After tying a game that they needed to win, regular-season winners Tigres are out of the Liga MX Liguilla and Monterrey march on. When Tigres scored first in the match, on a nifty Damien Alvarez pass to Danilo Veron for the header, there was both relief and hope in the stadium that the bad run versus their derby rivals was over. But then Tigres scored again, and that hope died. The problem was that Tigres scored an own-goal. The defensive error by Israel Jimenez, a regular player for the Mexican national team as well, was doubly costly because of the away-goal rule.
It's always fun to take a look at numbers and history, and ESPN Stats and Information is great for that. Yet rivalry matches have an extra intensity that messes with cold, statistical analysis. Thus, it didn't matter in Wednesday's first leg of their Liga MX Liguilla quarterfinal that Monterrey barely made the playoffs while Tigres qualified in first place. The key was Monterrey has had Tigres’ number in the vast majority of their recent clashes. It was the same scenario again in a 1-0 victory thanks to Humberto Suazo's goal.
Mexico coach Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre travelled to Europe to specifically see Carlos Vela. Coming hot on the heels of Vela's public declaration to play for the Mexican national team again, it was as close a signal of detente between the two parties as has ever been during the Real Sociedad striker's international absence. It may have also helped that in an interview, Vela mentioned that he specifically did not have a problem with de la Torre, who could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given how often Vela turned down offers to play for El Tricolor under his management.
Fans of El Tri would love to welcome back to the Mexican National Team striker Carlos Vela, now playing with Real Sociedad in Spain's La Liga. In an interview with Spanish daily AS published this past weekend, Vela hinted that this might happen sooner than later. Specifically, he indicated that he would be willing to return to the National Team, if the circumstances were right. He also denied reports of any friction with Mexican National Team coach Jose Manuel 'Chepo' de la Torre. However, Vela’s quote of "Never say never," in the lengthy Q & A may not give much hope that he is focused on returning quickly to Mexico’s National Team.
Now that the curtain has fallen on a dramatic final weekend of games, the playoffs in Liga MX are set. The eight participating teams will battle via a knockout format to decide the champion of the Clausura 2013. UANL Tigres finished first in the league, besting their closest competition, Club America, in a mano-a-mano duel between the clubs. Of course, though the tight defense of Tigres kept Club America’s Ecuadorean striker, Christian "Chucho" Benitez off the scoreboard in that match, he still won the Golden Boot for the regular season, notching a full dozen goals.
As Sepp Herberger famously said: "The game lasts for 90 minutes." Having watched Los Rayados come from behind in their semi-final matchup last month, the Los Angeles Galaxy could have told Santos Laguna that as well. One team that didn't need to be reminded that every minute matters was Monterrey. The monarchs of experience and guile, the never-say-die champions who refused to be daunted whether behind by one goal or two, fought back to win an exhilarating CONCACAF Champions League final in front of their faithful fans.
Though Liga MX may follow the style of most American leagues by deciding a final champion based on a playoff system, it also emulates European promotion and relegation. At the end of each Clausura, which is the closing leg of the two championships in a season, one team leaves the competition of 18 clubs to go down to the Ascenso MX level. This year, the mathematical formula that determines relegation (a points-per-game ratio over two seasons) has put Queretaro in that danger zone. The club is all-but-certainly fated to fall, but the knowledge of that outcome has not dimmed the fighting spirit of the players.