I was just really happy to be involved.
When the FMF announced that for the Guard1anes 2020 tournament there would be an expansion of the playoff field from eight to twelve teams, I remember thinking that it’d be really cool to see my beloved Puebla FC in the Liguilla again.
Sure, a 12 team playoff in an 18 team league is a laughable thing when you really think about it. That’s 66% of the league, making it mathematically harder to miss the cutoff than to qualify into the expanded format. Even so, Puebla had a tough time making it. After a surprising start that saw them pick up seven out of nine possible points, the team tumbled down the table fast.
With two games to go they had to win out and have some luck go their way to overtake FC Juarez for the last spot in the Liguilla repechaje. Luckily, their last two matches were against Atlas FC and Atletico San Luis, two of the worst teams in the tournament. They squeaked by with 1-0 wins over both of them, and thanks to Juarez drawing America in the last game, Puebla barely made it through.
By virtue of being the twelfth seed they got to travel to Monterrey and face the fifth seeded Rayados, a team that had already beat them 3-1 in the regular season and that boasted one of the most expensive and talented squads in the league.
So like I said, I was just happy that they got to still matter after the seventeenth match day of the season. Something that rarely happens, as the Fox Sports announcers were more than happy to let you know during the pre-match coverage. It was a running theme throughout to compare and contrast and make a ton of David versus Goliath analogies. While the camera crew did aerial shots of the sumptuous, state of the art BBVA Stadium in Monterrey, the announcers ran down a litany of numbers to really drive in the point of the inadequacy of the visiting team.
Did you know Puebla FC has only made six Liguillas in the last 40 (!!!) tournaments? And they are now playing a team that recently played in the Club World Cup? A team with a squad worth four times as much as poor, lowly Puebla? How amusing this game is going to be, I tell you.
And listen, I get it. I’ve been a fan of this team for my entire life and I can count on one hand the joyous moments they have provided in 20-plus years of rooting for them. They have two top flight trophies to their name in the last 30 years. One Copa MX victory in 2015, a tournament that was at best politely ignored and is now decidedly irrelevant, and a Supercopa MX in that same year besting Morelia FC in a one off game in Toyota Stadium, well known football hotbed located in Frisco, Texas.
(I might be making up that Supercopa MX win, I might not. But you, dear reader, are not quite sure if I am and that’s kind of my point.)
Puebla FC is a living, breathing testament to mediocrity. Roadkill in the path of the Liga MX giants that drive the eyeballs and revenue of a league that is decidedly one of haves and have nots. I have written at length about why Puebla FC doesn’t matter in the large scheme of things, but for once we did matter, even if it was in a one game play-in, uphill battle against a heavily favored team. This one time, you were going to have to put us in prime time and like it, damn it.
(There’s a larger point to be made about Liga MX being obscenely tilted towards the big clubs and the massive economic disparities that exist in a league that ostensibly calls itself top flight. Disparities that only seem to grow bigger thanks to a system that is designed to keep them that way and how this disparity is a reflection of a larger inequality issue that exists in every facet of Mexican life. But that’s another, longer, haughtier and more complicated article.)
Before departing for 8 PM Mass – because pandemic or not it was a Sunday and the Lord is tightfisted about attendance – my brother and father hoped to come home and still find the game tied. Bear in mind the game was scheduled for a 9:10 kickoff, Mass in the neighborhood church tends to run longer due to the priest tendencies to ramble a little. But even so, at worst, they should have been home only 15 minutes after the start of the match. Despite our fandom, expectations were low in the Romero household.
The actual game developed very much in the way you would expect it to. Rayados almost immediately seized control of the proceedings and battered Puebla with wave after wave of attacks. The only scoring chances that La Franja managed to muster were with half-baked counter attacks and the odd dead ball situation. Still, Puebla held tough and it seemed like they would go into halftime with the score level.
However, a couple of minutes before the halftime whistle a decidedly soft, but technically correct penalty was awarded to Rayados. A 1-0 score line is far from a done deal, but I’d be lying if I didn’t think that the goal scored by Rayados captain Nicolas Sanchez was going to be enough to see the home team through.
At best, the scenario for a Puebla win involved white knuckle defense, a clean sheet and a lucky goal. So, after another PK call against them early in the second half that was quickly converted – this time by former Tottenham Hotspur striker Vincent Jannsen – the urge to switch channels and catch the end of Sunday Night Football was strong.
Even the announcers - who throughout the game continued to be deeply condescending with the short lived Puebla efforts to sustain an attack – acknowledged how unlikely a comeback was.
“Look, you’re down 2-0, away and you are a team like Puebla. There’s not a ton to do other than to try”
Which, sure fair, but still, ouch.
However, something started to happen. All those little breaks that a team like Puebla never catches started to happen. They found the opening goal on a free kick laser by Osvaldo Martinez that nestled into the upper corner – thanks to a friendly deflection from the wall, but still – only six minutes after he was subbed in. And when the PK happy ref awarded Rayados what could have been a finishing third penalty shot, the call was reversed on a VAR review.
It wasn’t like Puebla was all over the home goal, but they were attacking and were finally holding the ball and generating chances. Most importantly Rayados was not getting closer to a third goal and looked ready for the game to be over and to take their rightful place in the quarterfinals. Just a few minutes before the final whistle the unlikeliest thing happened. Javier Salas attempted to loft a pass through into the box to Puebla’s center forward Santiago Ormeño, a guy who climbed to fame by leading Puebla into the Liguilla of the… eLiga, the FIFA videogame tournament that happened earlier in the year, as he tried to control the ball Cesar Montes pulled him to the ground and gifted the underdog Puebla a golden opportunity to tie the game in the dying minutes.
Historically speaking, this does not go well for us, we have a long tortured tradition of not only losing, but losing in rather excruciating manner. Coming close to eke out a draw only to miss the penalty kick would be painfully on brand for the team, but like I said, those little breaks started to go our way.
Ormeño took the shot and unleashed a tepid strike to the right of Rayados keeper Hugo Gonzalez. It wasn’t particularly hard hit and it wasn’t particularly well placed and the keeper guessed right on the shot, I mean that’s a recipe for disaster any day of the week and twice on Sunday. But miraculously the ball slipped under Gonzales who over jumped the shot as it trickled into the net to tie the game up. The announcer wasted no time in describing the comeback as something that looked “extremely complicated” and “almost impossible”, he also described it as a true feat. And for once, I fully agreed.
Still not quite comprehending what was happening, the 90 minutes elapsed and Puebla, my beloved Puebla, had a legit shot at shocking the Liga MX hierarchy.
If you wanted any other proof that this night was wholly atypical, you only had to watch that penalty shootout. The aforementioned Salas shot and missed to start the round and put Puebla at an early disadvantage. Monterrey only needed to go chalk and make it to the Liguilla quarterfinals, but the usually steady Sanchez – who had already scored the first goal of the night for the hosts – missed high to level the series.
Immediately after, Puebla’s keeper Nicolas Vikonis stepped up to the spot and executed an unstoppable rope of a shot to his left. Vikonis is an exceptional keeper, one in a long storied story of great Puebla keepers the one position they seem to always have quality on, but for him or any keeper for that matter to score in a shootout was even more proof that reality was now a very well-engineered game of FIFA.
Sebastian Vegas missed in the fourth round for Rayados as Vikonis kept cementing his place in Puebla lore with a great save. Finally, a high quality strike from George Corral put Puebla ahead for good, eliciting a euphoric celebration from the visiting team.
After showing shots of the team celebrating and rejoicing in their unlikely upset, the Fox Sports feed quickly transitioned to an opinion show where a bunch of talking heads immediately started discussing the most relevant outcome of the game… how the result now forced Chivas Guadalajara and America to face each other on the quarterfinals and how we should judge the massive failure that was the Rayados loss.
Not even in victory do we get the headlines.
Indeed, the cover of the biggest national circulation sports paper – Record- barely mentions how Puebla performed a “miracle” while dedicating the entire page to how Chivas and America will face up.
I get it, unless the league fundamentally changes how they conduct business or a random billionaire decides to buy Puebla and inject enough money in the team to make them a consistent contender, we will never have the spotlight on us. And one massive upset does not and will not change that reality.
On deck we get the league leaders, Leon, who have been an absolute steamroller the entire season as they amassed 40 points (!!!) on 12 wins and only one defeat and who have – of course – already beaten Puebla this year.
With that being said, we are still here, we still matter for at the very least another week and you are going to have to keep putting us on prime time and damn well like it. We know better than to discount this team now, they might not have the flashiest names but they play solid, team football and have shown a fight and grit that will not make them an easy out.
I was very happy just to be involved, we already are now, let’s see how far we can take this.