Just over two years ago, Toluca was the pride of the Mexican Primera. A shootout victory over Santos Laguna in the 2010 Bicentenario championship earned the club its tenth league title, tying them with Club America as the second most successful team in history. The trophy they lifted that afternoon back in May 2010 was also their seventh title since 1998. Little did the fans in Toluca know, but this would be the last time they celebrated for quite some time.
Since winning the title in the Bicentenario season, Toluca has not been back to the playoffs. In fact, they haven’t even come close. In the four seasons since their last championship, Toluca has not finished any better than tenth in the league standings. A revolving door at manger certainly hasn’t helped things. Toluca has seen three different head coaches in the three seasons since Jose Manuel de la Torre left the club to manage Mexico's National Team. This season there will be another change on the bench, but this time things should be different.
In what looks to be an excellent hire for the club, coaching veteran Enrique Meza returns to Toluca to take command. Meza obviously brings decades of coaching experience in Mexico to the table, and should be able to deliver some much-needed stability to the club. Meza has been successful at numerous teams in Mexico over the years, including Toluca, where he famously led the Red Devils to three titles between 1998 and 2000.
This time around there won’t be any immediate pressure to win trophies. Instead, Meza will look to simply return Toluca to relevancy in Mexico, but with an eye more towards the long term. A trip back to the Liguilla would be the obvious first step in that process, but that may take more than one season to accomplish.
One reason why big improvements may be difficult this season is the loss of striker Ivan Alonso. After offseason medical tests revealed some serious heart issues – which can potentially be further effected by altitude – Alonso decided not to return to Toluca. At this point it looks like the Uruguayan striker may retire from the game completely, but either way he definitely wont be in uniform for the Red Devils this season.
It’s hard to overstate the loss of Alonso to this Toluca team. Over the last two seasons he won the league scoring title twice, while accounting for 25 of the team’s 43 total goals. To replace this huge loss up front, Toluca brings in Paraguayan striker Edgar Benitez, who has several years of previous experience in Mexico playing for Pachuca. Toluca management also brings in two talented Brazilian midfielders, Wilson Tiago and Lucas Silva. Look for all three of these players to feature prominently for the Red Devils in the upcoming season. Additional support comes in the form of veteran forward Juan Carlos Cacho, and midfielders Edy Brambila and Carlos Gerardo Rodriguez.
On the defensive end, the core of the backline returns. Diego Novaretti and Edgar Duenas will take their usual spots at central defender, with talented goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera backing them up. The team does add veteran defender Marvin Cabrera, who looks to help improve on last season’s disappointing total of 27 goals conceded.
With the hiring of Meza, and the other offseason moves, Toluca has definitely taken several steps back in the right direction. The experience and stability Meza brings should help clear the clouds of uncertainty that have followed the Red Devils since their 2010 championship. If fans are patient – and they should be since this is effectively a rebuilding season on many levels – they will likely be rewarded with something more to celebrate in the near future.
Shoes to Fill
Ivan Alonso -- The offseason loss of Toluca’s star striker leaves the biggest single personnel void of any team in the league. Last season, Alonso scored fourteen goals for the Red Devils. No other player on the team had more than two. The biggest issue heading into the Apertura will be finding a consistent scorer -- or scorers -- to help fill this gaping hole up top.
Edgar Benitez -- The Paraguayan striker returns to Mexican football after a spell in his home country with Cerro Porteño. Benitez joined his new team late into the preseason, but should still be able to make an impact by Toluca’s opener. Enrique Meza actually coached Benitez for a season at Pachuca back in 2009, so is very familiar with the player. Benitez obviously had some big years at Pachuca, and Toluca fans desperately hope to see another big time performance from the striker this season in the red jersey.
Mark Your Calendar
Week 15 vs. Cruz Azul -- Enrique Meza leads Toluca back to Estadio Azul to face his former team in late October. The veteran manager would love to earn a result and gain a bit of revenge against the club that let him go at the end of last season.
Bottom half of table -- Meza is a great hire for this club, and will help correct the downward spiral following the departure of Chepo de la Torre. Toluca will eventually be back in regular Liguilla contention, but fans may have to wait at least one season. The loss of Alonso is a big void to overcome, and even with the new acquisitions it will be tough to improve much on last season’s finish.
This is the twelfth in our series of Liga MX team previews ahead of the Apertura 2012 season. See our earlier previews of San Luis, Club Atlas, Queretaro, Club Leon, Puebla, Atlante, Jaguares Chiapas, Club Tijuana, Pachuca, Pumas UNAM, and Chivas Guadalajara.