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Underdog Chronicles: A Running Diary of Puebla FC’s Season

Puebla FC capped off one of the best and most surprising season’s in their history by finishing third overall in the Liga MX table. A long suffering fan comes to grips with how the season developed.

Santos Laguna v Puebla - Torneo Guard1anes 2021 Liga MX Photo by Manuel Guadarrama/Getty Images

Jan. 16, 2021 – Liga MX Matchday 2

It’s been a quasi-long distance relationship for a few months, really.

Due to remote work, empty office buildings and social distancing, the opportunities to be with my girlfriend have been drastically reduced since the pandemic started. Coupled with the fact we now find ourselves living with our parents — me, due to an expiring apartment lease that made little sense to renew given our uncertain return to onsite work; and her, due to the economic realities of the wage structure of recent college grads in her area of expertise — all of whom are over 50 years old and therefore smack dab in a higher risk group. Let’s just say we take what we can get.

On this particular Saturday, what we can get is a metric ton of fried, unhealthy food and the NFL playoffs while we assemble a pack of two LEGO racing cars, a newfound hobby of ours. I’m a decidedly team-centric fan of the NFL which essentially means that once my favorites are out — the incredibly mediocre Denver Broncos — the season is by all intents and purposes over as far as I’m concerned.

She likes it all, regardless of who’s playing, and wanted to see both games which would result in a scheduling conflict between the second playoff game of the evening — Buffalo Bills vs. Baltimore Ravens — and Puebla FC vs. Cruz Azul at Estadio Azteca. I get it, I’m nothing if not reasonable, it’s the playoffs, we haven’t seen each other in a minute, she wins. However, there’s a window during the halftime of the playoff game where I can catch a peek of the game for 15 minutes.

Puebla is coming off a Cinderella season in which they knocked out Monterrey FC in the Repechaje as the 12th seed and, despite being outclassed by eventual champs Leon FC in the quarterfinals, they won their home game in the two legged tie and at least bowed out gracefully.

After a draw in their opening game against Chivas Guadalajara under new incoming coach Nicolas Larcamon and the return of most of the core of last year’s team, there’s a chance that they could have an OK season.

I put the game on just in time to see the start of the match. Cruz Azul controls the early proceedings of the game — led by Juan Reynoso, Puebla’s former coach — but with a lightning fast counterattack, Christian Tabó finds himself in front of goal and scores to give the visiting team an early lead.

We switch back to the NFL as I periodically check social media to get updates, waiting for the tweet that announces Cruz Azul drawing the game level. It never comes. I switched back to the game for the last few minutes and as Puebla sealed the victory, and the announcers commented that it wasn’t a lucky performance, they outplayed Cruz Azul all game long.

“This is a legit win,” they say with mild surprise in their voice.

Feb. 6, 2021 — Liga MX Matchday 5

Now, see, this is the quintessential Puebla FC match.

I’ve seen this specific game too many times to recount, a valiant effort in which they arguably deserved more than they got but ended up with a loss against one of Liga MX top teams.

In their second visit to Estadio Azteca in the season, Club America came out the winner by a 1-0 scoreline, capping a three-game winless streak for La Franja. Despite the very normal result, there is something different about this team. Flashes of what they could become. The unheralded and unknown Larcamon is setting the team significantly different than how former manager Juan Reynoso did last tournament.

While Reynoso had moderate success as the Puebla coach, you’d be hard pressed to define his teams as enjoyable to watch. Watching the team under him was an exercise on gritted teeth and white knuckles. More about holding on than anything else for 90 minutes. Larcamon, on the other hand, is attempting a free-flowing, position-less football focused on transitions and an offensive mindset. With two very good wide players in Omar Fernandez and the aforementioned Tabo as well as a pure number 9 striker in Santiago Ormeño there is something definitely brewing as far as playing style goes.

The team is still working through the kinks — they have scored all of two goals in the first five match days with no goals in this three-match winless streak — still there is slow, but sure progress going on after every game. Despite the less than ideal results so far and only five points in five games the team is significantly more enjoyable to watch at the very least.

If we are going to lose to Club America, yet again, I can at least say it was a fun loss.

Feb. 12, 2021 – Liga MX Matchday 6

Let’s talk about Santiago Ormeño.

First off, I ran into him on a bus after the Cruz Azul game. We were both coming back from Mexico City to Puebla in a popular chain of buses that specialize in that very route. The selling point for this company is that the seats are slightly bigger than your average bus and the terminal they arrive in is brand new and well kept, instead of the nightmare that is the bus central in Puebla.

My best guess is that after the game on Saturday the team was given a day off on Sunday to stay in Mexico City and reconvene on Monday. He’s a taller dude than you expect him to be, was still wearing his team issued track suit and had a brand new PS5 in a bag. When we arrived back in Puebla I did the cool fan thing to do which was to wish him luck for the rest of the season and carried on. The main takeaway here is that yours truly moves between cities the same way professional footballers do.

With that out of the way, things seem to be clicking for the team and for Ormeño himself as he got himself a hat-trick in Puebla’s 4-0 thrashing of Juarez FC.

Ormeño is a nice avatar for the team as a whole. At 27 years old during his breakout season, you’d hardly confuse him for a hotshot prospect, as he bounced from the Club America and UNAM Pumas academies to the second division Pioneros de Cancun where he jumped to the now defunct Lobos BUAP to finally catch on with Puebla. Even with Puebla, the guy was initially loaned to the Peruvian league where he played sparingly for six months and came back to the team in early 2020.

He played all of 57 minutes in the 2020 Clausura before COVID shut down the league for good. To make up some sort of revenue from the cancelled games, Liga MX debuted the eLiga: a videogame competition where actual players of the Liga MX teams would face up. The eLiga was patched together and mostly an unremarkable attempt to fill air time on national television, but it was Ormeño’s chance to shine. An avid gamer, the reserve striker blazed the league early on, to the bemusement of many and essentially became a walking, talking, breathing meme. To his credit, Ormeño played very much into it and despite being an afterthought on the pitch up until that moment of his career — and not actually winning the eLiga title — in the end he came out as the closest thing to a household name you can be, given the circumstances.

It would have been fun enough on its own if Ormeño’s story ended there, but to everyone’s shock he came out firing in the following Apertura, scoring seven goals in 16 matches in Reynoso’s Puebla team and establishing himself as a key player.

I cannot stress this enough, whatever happens this season moving forward the one thing you cannot say is that this team is not fun.

March 3, 2021 – Liga MX Matchday 9

This team is good. They are not good for a small team, not good for a team with a new coach, not good for a team with the financial constraints that they operate — they are just a good team, no caveats, and they can play.

After a hard-fought draw away at Queretaro and a demolition of Necaxa at home — that was only a 1-0 win due to the heroics of Mexican U23 National Team keeper Luis Malagón — the team is finally getting some momentum. Slowly but surely, the team is playing the way coach Larcamon wants and the results have been getting better by the game.

In a normal season for the club this is where reality comes crashing down. A couple good results and then a come back to earth loss against reigning champs Leon FC away. It feels preordained as the hosts took the lead in the game late in the first half. Puebla does look better than they did in their last matchup against Leon, but they are still losing and as the clock ticks down it certainly feels like we are headed for yet another “feel good” loss.

And, then, well, this happened:

When did this team learn to counter attack like the German national team? Since when do we get the last minute goals going our way? Did we just beat the reigning champs away?

It has happened.

I have bought in.

March 21, 2021 – Liga MX Matchday 12

WHAT IS GOING ON?!

Was that the game of the year or what? How many more goals could they have scored? How did they do it one man down?

Ok, ok, let’s talk this through.

After the seemingly tide changing victory over Leon, Puebla hosted the always dangerous and always talented Tigres UANL and came away with a draw in a very evenly matched game overall. Immediately after came a letdown loss against Atlas that left the club solidly as a middle tier team in the table.

It all starts and stops, the team is clearly building an identity and a better understanding of the system but they haven’t quite managed to find the solidity and consistency that you need to really threaten for a top four - and a guaranteed place in the Liguilla quarterfinals - spot in the table.

This Toluca game was looking rough. Toluca is traditionally a tough place to visit; the altitude, coupled with a noon kickoff time make it one of the most physically demanding atmospheres in Mexican football regardless of fans being in attendance.

In the first half it was more of the same we saw against Atlas. Solid play but no end result to show for it and a 1-0 score line going into halftime. Early in the second half a VAR assisted penalty gets awarded to Toluca, and Puebla’s Emanuel Gularte gets subsequently red carded for it. Toluca’s striker Alexis Canelo slots it in and it sure seems like the upstart Franja will accrue back to back losses for the first time in the tournament.

I’ll admit it, I flirted with the idea of turning the game off and going back to bingeing the quite excellent Drive to Survive documentary series on Netflix. Even if it wasn’t against a team that we almost never beat, being down two with 10 men on the field seemed like too much to overturn.

And yet, the team never gave up, never conceded a game that they had every right to concede. Every miraculous goal seemingly more dramatic and out of nowhere than the previous one. Sure, some of it is aided by goalkeeping gaffes, but still! To rescue a point in those conditions is an incredible feat.

If you subscribe to the belief that momentum exists, that certain events or moments can turn a season around, then, you have to believe that this is that moment for Puebla FC.

April 2, 2021 – Liga MX Matchday 13

You see a lot more jerseys on the streets.

There was the young clerk at the price club register. A kid at the checkout line with a true eye popping amount of toilet paper in his cart. A woman corralling an unruly child while the father looked away pretending none of it was happening. A man struggling at the self-serve gas pump.

Very few of them are brand new. These kits are mostly three or four years old, suggesting that they aren’t fad purchases or that they are worn by fair weather fans. They’ve always been there, it’s just that there hadn’t been a lot of reasons to wear them in public until recently.

Today, Puebla comes from behind to beat Mazatlán 3-1 as they give themselves a chance to make the top four of the league, while solidifying their spot in the table to at the very least get into the Repechaje. Considering they barely made it through in the last game of the season in the previous tournament, this feels like solid improvement already.

April 17, 2021 – Liga MX Matchday 15

I can’t wait for “El Extra” to drop. I’d previously written about the excellent work that the social media team of the club performs and “El Extra” is just another part of their effort to connect the fans to the club, taking you inside the locker room for pre-game and post-game speeches from the players and the coaching staff.

Not only is it legitimately refreshing to see and hear what goes on inside the locker room — even though 75% or so of what you hear is several different iterations of “Let’s go!” — but it has made a team that is already likeable and easy to root for, even more so.

I already talked about Ormeño, but he’s not the only one. Puebla FC is an island of misfit toys; filled with journeymen, South American newcomers, youngsters, and veterans.

Take Javier Salas. After unremarkable stints with Cruz Azul and Atlas, he landed with Puebla in 2020 and has become not only the captain of the team but a key holding midfielder in Larcamon’s system as well as a low key candidate for a call up to the Mexican National Team. Or Omar Fernandez, one of the longest tenured players in the club and someone who was part of significantly less successful Puebla incarnations finally finding success with the club in his sixth season. It’s legitimately affecting to see Fernandez tear up when describing what it means to be part of a team that actually wins games and competes after accruing over 100 appearances for the club.

Daniel Alvarez is another guy who never quite broke out with stints in Necaxa and Atlas, and has now carved himself a role as a super sub, with key play after key play in late instances of matches. Antony Silva is one more in a long line of excellent South American keepers for Puebla that came out of nowhere to establish himself as one of the best in the league. Maximiliano Araujo is going from talented, but erratic, youngster to consistently excellent as the season goes on. Same goes for Salvador Reyes who should get a call up to the Olympic National Team.

They say that every dog has its day, don’t they? Well this dog is having a lot of good days all of a sudden. After the evisceration of Atletico de San Luis 4-1 and with 15 goals in their last four matches, Puebla boasts the highest flying offense in the league. The top four is now not out of the question as they are very much in the mix to get one of the coveted tickets straight into the quarterfinals.

May 2, 2021 – Liga MX Matchday 17

When the broadcast announcers mentioned the fantastic unbeaten streak Puebla was on as they got ready to face Santos in the last game of the season all I could think was how that probably meant that statistically, we were now due for a loss.

That’s the thing about supporting a team that hasn’t won the league title in 30 years. No matter how good things are going you are always expecting the other shoe to drop. And things have been undoubtedly going well. Not only has Puebla looked great in the closing stages of the season, but even the results out of their control have panned out.

Thanks to Monterrey’s slide the last couple of games, the only thing La Franja needs to rubberstamp their ticket to the quarterfinals in third place overall is a draw against direct rival Santos Laguna away. Of course because nothing is easy with this team, a loss would bump them all the way down to fifth and in line to play the one game Repechaje knockout. Oh, and did I mention that Puebla has not won at Santos since 1999?

Everything pointed to this result going against them. Early in the game Santos hits the post - twice! - and yet the ball does not go in. Santos players go down like flies the minute they feel any sort of ticky-tacky contact from a Puebla defender in the box. I’m sure the referee will go to the VAR and call one of them a penalty, and yet it does not happen.

Minute by minute the clock bleeds as Santos gets more and more desperate to put shots on goal. Puebla engages in time wasting shenanigans to finish out the game and Gustavo Ferrareis gets red carded for his troubles. But, it works out. Everything worked out, I’m stumped, they did it. It happened. They pulled it off, Puebla has qualified to the Liguilla.

Brazilian writer Nelson Rodrigues came up with a term to describe the overall feeling of the country after the Maracanazo — Uruguay’s stunning underdog victory over Brazil in the 1950 World Cup — as complexo de vira-lata. Literal meaning “street dog complex” and it referred to the Brazilians reflex to turn back to an inferiority feeling against the rest of the world, a belief that they were lesser than other countries, to fail when the moment was biggest because of course we did, we are the street dogs, the mongrels.

Think about that. Brazil. The same country of the five World Cup wins, of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Roberto Carlos, Pele, and Neymar. That same country at one point felt so genuinely snake bitten, unlucky, and inferior they believed they would never win anything ever.

I’m not necessarily saying Puebla FC is the proverbial Brazil in this analogy. Despite this last couple solid seasons the realities of Liga MX remain the same in the short term and if you don’t have a billionaire backer, a telecom company, or massive corporations behind you, it’s going to be hard to sustain any measure of success in the long term.

Still, Brazil’s story serves as a reminder that not all losing teams remain so forever. Whether the last couple tournaments are a harbinger of things to come or they are Puebla FC’s scheduled couple seasons of good play followed by years of mediocrity is yet to be seen. The truth is that with improved success in their academies and the renewals of key players, a more solid foundation of the team is being built. Larcamon himself is already on track to get a new contract for himself, and for the first time in a while the club is not facing relegation problems.

Puebla is scheduled to face off against Atlas in the quarterfinals and to host the second leg at home, something that hasn’t happened in a good decade plus. And for once, I’m optimistic about it, I genuinely believe this team can play with anyone in the league. At least for now, gone are the days of hoping, praying and expecting the worst.

At the very least that’s already an improvement.