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Mexican Primera Previews, Apertura 2011, Team By Team: Toluca

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Veteran midfielder Sinha hopes to bring Toluca back to the playoffs this season after a year-long drought.
Veteran midfielder Sinha hopes to bring Toluca back to the playoffs this season after a year-long drought.

The biggest offseason move at Toluca didn't involve players on the field, but rather the man on the sideline. In May, club management decided to relieve manager Sergio Lugo of his duties after just one season and replace him with Hector Hugo Eugui. Lugo had taken over the team last winter following Jose Manuel de la Torre's move to the Mexico national team bench. After a disappointing Clausura, with just five wins and a finish in the bottom-half of the standings, Eugui was brought on board to turn things around. Eugui has previously managed several teams in the Mexican Primera, most recently Puebla during the second half of last season.

Toluca won the Bicentenario season title just over a year ago, but the Red Devils went on to miss out on the playoffs entirely in the two seasons since. With the fans growing increasingly impatient, Eugui must find a way to guide the team back to the Liguilla. Club management was minimally involved in the offseason transfer market, so Eugui won't be able to count on much help from new personnel. Toluca's only new acquisitions are goalkeeper Jorge Villalpando and veteran Uruguayan striker Ivan Alonso. Villalpando was of course exiled by Jaguares after attacking manager Jose Guadalupe Cruz for removing him from a match. Alonso is an unknown in Mexico, having spent most of his long career in Spain.

One point of emphasis for Toluca this season has to be finding some consistency on defense. The backline started last season on pace to be one of the most dominant defensive units ever, but completely fell apart six weeks into the season. The Red Devils conceded just one total goal over the first six games of the Clausura season. It was an incredible start to the year, but just as astounding was the sudden turnaround, when the backline proceeded to let in thirteen goals in just the next three games.

The collapse of the defense changed the course of Toluca's season, eventually dropping them out of playoff contention. The struggles were all the more surprising considering the amount of experience on the backline. With veterans like Edgar Duenas and Diego Novaretti anchoring the center of the defense, you don’t expect to see things fall apart so quickly. This season the pressure is on both Duenas and Novaretti to perform, but the outside backs such as Manuel de la Torre, Osvaldo Gonzalez, and Francisco Gamboa must also play at a more consistent high level.

Things were better at the other end of the field, where Toluca's offense featured its usual well-balanced scoring attack. Jaime Ayovi and Emmanuel Cerda both had five goals, Nestor Calderon and Sinha added four each, while the defender Novaretti knocked in three. The big problem this season is that the top two scorers have both moved on. Ayovi is now with Pachuca and Cerda has joined Tigres, leaving somewhat of a hole at the top of Toluca's formation. The veteran playmaker Sinha still has the ability to be an influential creative force in the attacking third, but he needs a consistent striker to distribute the ball to. Will new acquisition Ivan Alonso take on this role? We'll certainly have a lot more answers as the season goes on.

As it stands, Toluca will begin the Apertura season led by a core of veterans, including talented midfielders like Sinha, Carlos Esquivel, and Martin Romagnoli. Support will also come from a select few younger players, such as Nestor Calderon and Antonio Rios. Despite the gaping hole up top, there’s still a lot of talent on this roster. If Toluca can regain their footing on defense, and find a consistent scorer (or scorers), they have a great shot at grabbing a Liguilla spot for the first time since their title season.

Key Player

Sinha -- Yes, he's now 35-years-old, but the Toluca captain is still the engine driving the team's attack. Logic dictates that at some point his body will have to start breaking down, but Sinha keeps coming through for the Red Devils year after year. Any success that Toluca has this season will come courtesy of the team's veteran leader.

Lingering Question Mark

Homefield advantage -- What happened to Toluca's legendary homefield advantage during the 2011 Clausura? Traditionally one of the toughest places for opposing teams to play, the Estadio Nemesio Diez magic seemingly disappeared last season. In a place where road results were once incredibly rare, the visiting team earned three wins and four draws in nine matches. And not only did Toluca win just two games at home, they were also outscored by a 15-18 margin on their own turf. One big component of this year's turnaround process will be finding a way to win games on their home ground.

Prediction

Fringes of Liguilla -- It has to be expected that the Toluca backline performs at least somewhat better this season. Even with the departure of strikers Jaime Ayovi and Emmanuel Cerda, Toluca will still be able to grind out results if the defensive unit can hold up its end of the bargain. A few less goals conceded, along with a few extra wins at home, and Toluca should be able to crack the top eight in the standings, and grab one of the last few Liguilla qualification spots.

This is the sixteenth in our series of Mexican Primera team previews. Check out the earlier previews of Club Tijuana XolosQueretaro FCJaguares de ChiapasEstudiantes TecosClub AtlasPuebla FCAtlante FC,San LuisUANL Tigres, Chivas Guadalajara, Pachuca, Santos Laguna, Club America, Pumas UNAM, and Monarcas Morelia.