Jaguares de Chiapas have received a substantial amount of international media attention the past few days, due to the appearance of Twitter handles on team jerseys last weekend against Pumas. While a cute promotional stunt, the Twitter-related attention shouldn't overshadow the real story out of Chiapas this season: Jaguares are legitimate Mexican Primera title contenders.
Just six months after finishing the Clausura 2011 season in dead-last place, Jaguares have completed a monumental turnaround. In second place heading into the final weekend of the regular season, Jaguares still have an outside shot of grabbing the top spot (a Jaguares win on Friday coupled with a Chivas loss on Saturday opens the door to the possibility). With this newfound success in the jungles of Chiapas, the question now is can Jaguares finally take the next step and win a postseason series? Since their 2002 founding, no Jaguares team has ever won a two-legged playoff series. Never in club history has the team advanced to the semifinals of the Liguilla. After almost a decade, this may finally be the season we see this painful streak come to an end.
The Jaguares history books are extremely light when it comes to accounts of the team's postseason exploits. After almost ten years in existence, probably the best thing you can say about Jaguares is that they've never been relegated. Entering the Mexican Primera for the 2002 Apertura, Jaguares finished their inaugural season with just three wins. The breakthrough for the club would come in their fourth season -- the 2004 Clausura -- when led by Salvador Cabanas they finished with the league's best record. Unfortunately, Jaguares were subsequently upset by Cruz Azul in their first ever playoff series by a 3-4 aggregate score. The 2004 postseason experience quickly became a familiar one. Over the next six years Jaguares made five more trips to the Liguilla, but never advanced past the opening round. The team's most recent appearance came a year ago in the 2010 Apertura where they were eliminated by Santos Laguna. Jaguares fans can only hope that this season -- which will be postseason appearance number seven -- proves to be the lucky one.
The current season is certainly shaping up to be a special one in Chiapas. After dropping their first two games back in July, Jaguares have lost just two more times in the fourteen games since. Last weekend's 4-0 demolishing of Pumas brought the team's goal total to 28, officially making them the top scoring team in the league. One big reason for this offensive resurgence is a healthy Jackson Martinez. The Jaguares striker made just two appearances in the Clausura, but has taken the field in all but two games this season. While Martinez leads the club with eight goals, he hasn't exactly done it alone. Key offseason acquisition Luis Gabriel Rey has scored seven times, while Edgar Andrade and Franco Arizala have added four each. The presence of Rey and Arizala alongside Martinez up top has done wonders for the Jaguares attack this season. Not only is the scoring pressure on Martinez significantly lessened, but space near the goal has opened up as opponents are forced to deal with a new-look multi-faceted attack.
And it's not just the strikers contributing to the turnaround. In the midfield, Andrade has played some of the most consistent football of his career. Jorge Rodriguez has been a solid threat down the left side, while the talented eighteen-year-old Armando Zamorano continues to pick up more minutes in the middle as the season goes on. The backline has also significantly raised their play from last season. Anchored by veterans such as Ismael Fuentes and Miguel Martinez, the Jaguares defense has helped turn last season's -15 goal differential into a +6 advantage.
Overall, the team's performance has far exceeded expectations -- even when considering the offseason acquisitions of Rey and Arizala. As expected the scoring numbers increased, but the team has made astounding improvements in almost every area. Over the past three months the players have produced at a level of consistency almost unheard of for this club. Jaguares do have one final test to end the season, though. On Friday they travel to Morelia for a difficult road match against a Monarcas side desperate to hang onto a playoff spot. Jaguares themselves don't need a win to make the postseason, but they probably will need a victory if they want to hold on to a top four spot in the standings. A top four finish would obviously be huge because it provides a guaranteed tie-breaker in the Liguilla's first round.
Either way, Jaguares still have challenges ahead. While the team has played like title contenders over much of the season, in order to be fully taken seriously they must first accomplish what no other Jaguares team has done: win a single playoff series.