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Underdog Champions: 2013-14 Leon

No one expected a young, inexperienced squad to win two consecutive titles

Pachuca v León - Clausura 2014 Liga MX Photo by Miguel Tovar/LatinContent via Getty Images

Panzas Verdes de Leon won promotion back to Liga MX in 2012 and were back in the top tier of Mexican Football after 10 straight years of trying and coming up short in Second Division. They had a fairy tale return season to First Division in the Apertura 2012, finishing 3rd in the league table and reaching the semifinals. They displayed potent and very dynamic football, scoring more goals than any other team in the league that season (34). The following season (Clausura 2013), went more the way you’d expect for a recently promoted team. Gustavo Matosas could not get his group back on track despite the addition of veteran defender Rafa Marquez and finished 15th overall with only 16 points.

For the Apertura 2013 season, Leon took it to heart to be contenders once again and proved it by bringing in three key additions: Mauro Boselli, Franco Arizala, and Elías Hernández, along with their already solid Second Division base of players (“Gullit” Peña, “Nacho” González, Eisner Loboa, and “Gallito” Vázquez). They were back in a serious way with a much more improved defense and the same dynamic offensive team they had the previous year. They only lost three games that season and placed 3rd once again. They breezed through the first two rounds, defeating Morelia 7-3 on aggregate in the QF and Santos 5-3 on aggregate.

Up next in the Final was 1st place overall Club America. We can’t forget that America had a dominant season, winning 11 games and losing only two. They were also the current league champs, coming off that miraculous title vs. Cruz Azul just six months prior. Everyone expected America to put an end to Leon’s amazing season, as they supposedly had the upper hand in both experience and talent. Even after Leon took the first leg 2-0, most people expected the second leg in the Azteca to be their downfall. They performed like seasoned veterans, scoring on their open chances and putting the series out of reach thanks to a cannon from Mauro Boselli at the 12th minute of that game. Leon defeated a heavily favored America to claim their 6th title in franchise history in an “upset” fashion.

Even though they were the underdogs the previous season, the Clausura 2014 was the true underdog title season for Leon. Just as the previous Clausura season, they struggled throughout, getting off to a slow start thanks to their all-in approach on the Copa Libertadores, using their alternate squad for league matches. Once they were eliminated in the Round of 16 from the South-American Cup, they refocused their attention back to Liga MX. With two games to go, Leon found themselves sitting 14th in the league table, forced to win both games and depend on other results to make the playoffs. The miracle did occur for them. The race was so close that they won the 8th and final playoff spot over Chiapas and Rayados only on goal difference.

Matosas and company faced the overall leader Cruz Azul in the Quarter-Finals. Let’s not forget Leon was coming off a taxing four months where, apart from the 17 league games, they played an extra 8 grueling Copa Libertadores matches. They were physically drained. There was no way anybody expected Leon to get past La Maquina. In fact, they barely did, with a 3-3 aggregate score and the tiebreaker in their favor thanks to visiting goals. Up next in the semis came 2nd placed Toluca, who had an exceptional season as well. La Fiera held down the Diablo Rojos with two 1-0 final scores to move on to the Final against big brother Pachuca.

If their season journey wasn’t enough to make Leon an underdog, this matchup certainly was. While Pachuca hadn’t won a title since 2007, Leon had just hoisted the trophy five months earlier. Judging by the way things are handled in soccer, many thought it was big brother’s turn to be champs. That’s how it looked in the first leg. Leon lost their lead and dropped their home game 2-3, forcing them to win on the road to take the title. With the score 0-0 in the 66th minute of the second leg, Mauro Boselli sent a header past the diving keeper Oscar Pérez which would send the game into extra time. Finally, a corner kick in the 111th minute headed in by “Nacho” González secured the second consecutive title for Matosas and León.

Talk about an unexpected champion. Even though they had a talent-filled team and the entire league recognized their potential, in neither season was Leon the favorite to win the title. With a monster America in the first title, and their worn-out squad in the second title run, placing 14th with two games to go in the season run and facing the season’s best teams in the playoffs, no one expected Leon to get as far as they ultimately did.