This weekend’s matches in Mexico were supposed to bring a bit more clarity to the playoff picture. With Pumas UNAM, UANL Tigres, and Monarcas Morelia already qualified for Liguilla play, it was expected that a few more teams would punch their tickets to the postseason. Instead, after a full round of games things ended up even more unsettled. After the top three in the standings, the next eight teams are now separated by just four points. With only two matches to play in the regular season, much remains undecided. Here we take a look back at some of the biggest stories from Round 15 of the Clausura season, and their impact on the playoff picture.
On Saturday night, Chivas had a great chance to lock up a playoff spot with a win at home. As one of the hottest teams in the league in recent weeks, Chivas looked to be a good bet to take care of business against visiting Santos Laguna. Things didn’t quite go according to plan, though. A rejuvenated Santos attack that has shown new signs of life in recent weeks exerted loads of pressure on the Chivas defense. Led on Saturday by Christian Benitez, Daniel Luduena, and Rodrigo "Pony" Ruiz (in for the suspended Darwin Quintero), Santos looked impressive. Even in the face of this pressure, the Chivas backline and goalkeeper Luis Michel performed admirably as they have all season, and the game remained scoreless late into the second half.
In the 73rd minute, Jamie Toledo was whistled for a foul in the box on Omar Arellano. The foul was questionable at best, but it gave Chivas a chance to take the lead. Hector Reynoso stepped to the spot, stutter-stepped, and sent the ball through the net, seemingly to give Chivas the 1-0 advantage. The referee called it back, though, as it was ruled Cubo Torres entered the box before Reynoso made contact. The second try from Reynoso was this time blocked by Santos goalkeeper Miguel Becerra. But again it was called back, this time because Becerra was ruled to have moved off his line. On his third try, Reynoso got a bit too cute and tried to send a lob down the middle. The shot missed off the crossbar, and incredibly the game remained scoreless.
Reynoso’s miss opened the door for Santos defender Felipe Baloy's late game heroics. In stoppage time, a Santos corner was knocked around before Reynoso headed it out of the box. Baloy caught the attempted clearance in the air and one-timed a rocket of a shot into the net, literally seconds from the final whistle. The goal, which Baloy later called the best of his career, left Chivas stunned and helped keep Santos in contention for a playoff berth. It would be an amazing turnaround, but with two winnable games left (home vs. San Luis, and away vs. Tecos), Santos suddenly look like a good bet to make a return trip to the Liguilla.
Puebla Shut Down Blue Machine
Similar to Chivas, a win by Cruz Azul on Saturday would have guaranteed a trip to the postseason. But on the road in Puebla, la Maquina also failed to get the job done. Clearly missing the presence of the injured Gerardo Torrado and Hugo Droguett, Cruz Azul were not able to take command of the game. Instead, it was Puebla striker Feliz Borja who opened the scoring in the 27th minute, celebrating his goal by putting on a blue and white luchador mask emblazoned with his "Canguro" nickname. Just before halftime Puebla added a second score off a corner kick, with Walter Jimenez blasting in a shot from the top of the box. The 2-0 scoreline at the break would prove to be the final margin.
Cruz Azul were severely limited by the loss of both Torrado and Droguett. Without Droguett on the wing, Cruz Azul had very little going forward on the left side. As expected, the team also missed Torrado’s steady presence in the midfield. With work still to be done, and both players likely out at least two more weeks, Cruz Azul will need to find a way to regroup in a hurry.
Red Devils Survive San Luis
On Saturday night, Toluca survived both terrible weather and a tough road opponent to pull out a late 2-1 victory over San Luis. With much of the match played in a driving rainstorm, it looked as though both teams were headed for a scoreless draw. But in the final ten minutes, things broke wide open.
In the 82nd minute, a 20-yard free kick from Manuel de la Torre gave Toluca the lead. Just a few minutes later the home team did one better. San Luis midfielder Sergio Ponce blasted an even longer free kick, this one from nearly 30 yards, to even the score. Toluca had one last gasp left, though, and in stoppage time the Red Devils grabbed the lead back on a header from Raul Nava coming off a pass from Sinha. The result carried a huge bearing over the Group 2 standings, as both teams came into the game tied for third place. With the win, Toluca move to within three points of Atlante, and remain in contention for the Group 2 top spot. San Luis, on the other hand, drop from third place to fifth, with Liguilla qualification now highly unlikely.
Still Work to do in Monterrey
Humberto Suazo returning to the starting lineup for Monterrey was a bright spot, but Saturday’s home outing against Morelia was otherwise a disappointing one. While Suazo began the game on the field, several other Monterrey regulars started on the bench, including Ricardo Osorio, Walter Ayovi, Luis Perez, Aldo de Nigris, Osvaldo Martinez, and Sergio Santana. Even with the limited lineup, Monterrey were able to grab a first half lead behind a goal from Neri Cardozo.
In the second period, Monterrey went more defensive to protect the lead. Suazo eventually came off, and Dario Carreno was left alone up top. With little action going forward late in the match, Monterrey still looked like they would come away with the 1-0 win. In stoppage time, though, a foul was called on Walter Ayovi at the edge of the box giving Morelia a penalty shot. The referee’s call was a horrendous one, but nonetheless Luis Gabriel Rey converted to give Monarcas the 1-1 draw.
The end result was a huge disappointment for Monterrey, who are left with some serious qualification work to do over the final two game of the season. It’s a task compounded by playing in the CONCACAF Champions League final over the next two weeks as well. A win would have brought Monterrey into a tie with Chivas for second place in Group 1. Instead Monterrey must navigate a tightrope over the final two weeks, now looking for results in four matches in a span of eleven days.
Aguilas Strike Back
Playing in Guadalajara for the second weekend in a row, America managed a very different outcome on Sunday. Facing Estudiantes Tecos in Estadio Jalisco, America came back from an early deficit to earn a decisive 3-1 victory in the same city where they lost last weekend’s Clasico.
Tecos were able to take an early lead after a back pass from America defender Aquivaldo Mosquera was handled by Memo Ochoa. A perfectly executed free kick from about eight yards out gave Tecos a 1-0 lead which they took into halftime. After the break, as the late Sunday afternoon stadium shadows grew long over the field, America finally struck back. A header from Diego Reyes just minutes into the second period evened things up. It was the first Mexican Primera goal scored by the 18-year-old America midfielder. By the end of the match it was all America, with Angel Reyna adding two scores for the final 3-1 margin. The two goals scored give Reyna sole possession of first place in the league scoring race (with eleven goals on the season). More importantly, the win moves America just one point behind Atlante in Group 2, and gives the team some positive momentum heading into a huge Copa Libertadores match against Nacional in Uruguay on Wednesday night.
Round 15 Scoreboard
Jaguares 0 - 1 Tigres
Puebla 2 - 0 Cruz Azul
Chivas 0 - 1 Santos
Monterrey 1 - 1 Morelia
Pachuca 1 - 2 Atlas
Atlante 1 - 1 Necaxa
San Luis 1 - 2 Toluca
Pumas 3 - 0 Queretaro
Estudiantes 1 - 3 America