Whether you realized it earlier in the season after Djaniny’s second hat trick of the year, whether you’re realizing it now, or whether you haven’t even realized it yet is irrelevant. Santos Laguna is for real.
Other clubs have been getting the attention, whether it was Pumas’ hot start or América’s unbeaten run or even Xolos shutout streak. But Santos flew under the radar, even as the points accumulated and the club ascended the table. The only recognition afforded the club was mostly accolades for Djaniny, who by the end of Week 9 had tied the previous season’s leading goalscorers.
With Djaniny missing the last two weeks however, it would have been all too easy to have seen the side from Torreón drop points. Instead they went out and beat Monterrey at home in a match that the 3-2 scoreline belied Santos’ dominance. They then followed that win up with a gritty 1-0 win in Puebla against La Franja this past weekend, handing Puebla their first loss at Estadio Cuauhtémoc all season.
The defense has also been solid, allowing just eleven goals - good for a tie for fifth-best in the league. Goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco has been playing some of his best soccer as has Néstor Araujo, who continues to feature for El Tri. While he will miss time due to having surgery to repair a damaged lateral meniscus suffered against Croatia, the prognosis is otherwise good. Araujo did not tear any ligaments, and could possibly be available for the Liguilla.
The excuses to why they will fail are used up. The reasons they will succeed are much more plentiful, and at this stage of the game they hold much more water.
With five games left, Santos has 26 points. They’re two points up on second place Club América and nine points over Tijuana, which currently holds the eighth and final spot in the Liguilla race. fivethirtyeight.com gives Santos a greater than 99% chance of making the Liguilla and a 17% chance of winning the title. Only Tigres has a greater chance of hoisting the trophy in June (20%).
Santos has a couple of huge advantages over clubs like América and Tigres. They’ll be getting the best player in the league in 2018 back shortly, as Djaniny will return after the international break. Even after his two week hiatus, he still has four more goals than his closest competitor André-Pierre Gignac. Their 22 team goals is best in the league, while their 11 goals conceded is tied for fifth-best.
In their remaining five matches, Santos will also face off against four teams who are currently outside of the playoff picture: Atlas, Querétaro FC, Pachuca, and Pumas. The fifth will be perhaps a preview of the Liga MX Liguilla final - a match against Miguel “Piojo” Herrera and Club América at Estadio Azteca.
This perhaps emphasizes another advantage Santos has, in that there is no expectation for them to pull this off. Of course they believe they can win the League, but there isn’t the external pressure that América or Tigres face on them. Americanistas demand their team win the league, and even as Piojo hits the one year mark back in Mexico City the season will be considered a failure by many if they don’t win the league. The questions around Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti’s side bowing out of the Concacaf Champions League to Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC only increase the pressure on them to repeat as champions.
Santos hasn’t been perfect, and their road ahead is full of dangers both known and unknown. But as the Liguilla picture steadily comes into focus, it’s hard to see a club more poised to succeed than Santos.