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Mexican Primera Previews, Apertura 2011, Team By Team: UNAM Pumas

BRIDGEVIEW IL - JULY 17: Mario Antonio Palacios #3 of Pumas UNAM battles with Jorge Gastelum #8 of Monarcas Morelia during a SuperLiga 2010 match at Toyota Park on July 17 2010 in Bridgeview Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
BRIDGEVIEW IL - JULY 17: Mario Antonio Palacios #3 of Pumas UNAM battles with Jorge Gastelum #8 of Monarcas Morelia during a SuperLiga 2010 match at Toyota Park on July 17 2010 in Bridgeview Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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We've seen it a million time. A great team lead by veterans on their last legs, supplemented with some up and coming youngsters finally wins a championship. In the next couple of years, the veterans leave the team, more youngsters come up, and the team has less success while they go through a rebuilding process. UNAM Pumas are currently going through this scenario. This happens in every single sport very frequently, and is far from rare, but there is something rare about the way Pumas are going about their rebuilding.

This isn't a gradual change, it's a blow-up. Yes, Dario Veron and Paco Palencia are still around, but the midfield is gone. Gutted. Both Israel Castro and Leandro Augusto, let go for absolutely nothing. Incredibly, they've done this just six months after telling UANL Tigres that $2 million was not enough for the services of Augusto. Six first team players have left Pumas and not a single one has been purchased. It is basically impossible to put together a starting XI with only players who were on a senior roster last season. By my count, no team in the league has less players with top flight professional experience. Not even the Club Tijuana Xolos.

The players that remain are high quality and Pumas have arguably the most impressive youth squad in Mexico, but will that youth squad actually be able to provide 5-8 new first team players for this season? That's what is needed after the departures of Augusto, Castro, Jehu Chiapas, Fernando Morales, Oscar Rojas, Dante Lopez and Ismael Iniguez.

Of course, Pumas have lost bigger players before. Efrain Juarez and Pablo Barrera departed for the United Kingdom just one year ago, but the team was able to win the title just two tournaments later in the 2011 Clausura without bringing in any new players. Javier Cortes was the man who directly replaced Barrera, coming straight from the bench to stardom, even earning some national team caps in the process. 

A similar player seems to be waiting in the wings in the center of midfield for Pumas. Last year, when Augusto suffered an injury that kept him out for an extended period of time, David Cabrera stepped up and performed very well alongside Castro. Now, Castro is a Cruz Azul player and Cabrera will have to be the leader in the middle. If his rise is anything like that of Cortes, the drop-off will be minimal. Still, Pumas will need to hope someone else claims the other central midfield place. Though it's early in his career, 17-year-old Kevin Escamilla might have a shot at some playing time.    

In goal and defense, the team has seen few changes, despite the departure of spot-starter Chiapas. Alejandro Palacios -aka Pikolin II - was arguably the key man in Pumas' title run in his first full season as the No. 1. In front of him are Dario Veron, his brother Marco Antonio Palacios - Pikolin I - and new team captain Efrain Velarde. 24-year-old Luis Fuentes is also improving and should be more of a key player this season.

Up front, old man Paco Palencia is still going strong and running around with the energy of a two-year-old. He won't have Dante Lopez with him anymore, but Martin Bravo returns, and at just 24-years-old, he will probably stick around through this youth revolution. They will be supplemented by youth players who we haven't yet got a chance to see playing first team football.

Apologies that this preview is a bit shorter than the others, but my knowledge and the knowledge of the other writers of the players in the Pumas youth team are limited. We can tell you all about just about anyone who has gotten regular first team football in the Mexican Primera over the last five years or so, but when it comes to the youth squads of different teams, our knowledge is limited. All we know is that Pumas are very confident in their youth players and that their recent history of producing stars is excellent.

Key Player

Efrain Velarde - The captain is a key both in defending and in supporting the attack. His work rate and fitness are second to none.

Potential Breakout Player

David Cabrera - With Castro and Augusto out of the way, it's Cabrera's time to not only establish himself as the glue in the center of the Pumas midfield, but as a potential national team player.

Prediction

Mid-table, fringe Liguilla contenders - Yes, these are the reigning champions and yes, they have some fantastic players, but the depth isn't there. They could very well make Liguilla, but with less than a dozen outfield players with extensive first team experience, they're far from a lock.

This is the fourteenth in our series of Mexican Primera team previews. Check out the earlier previews of Club Tijuana XolosQueretaro FCJaguares de ChiapasEstudiantes TecosClub AtlasPuebla FCAtlante FCSan LuisUANL TigresChivas GuadalajaraPachucaSantos Laguna, and Club America.