Pumas are manager-less no longer. Hours ago, a press conference was held to officially present Rafael Puente Jr. as the club’s new manager for the Clausura 2023 season. He will replace former manager Andrés Lillini who was let go following the conclusion of the current Apertura 2022, where the club finished 16th overall, with a record of just 2W, 8D, 7L, amassing 14 points, far from where a club of this stature intends to be. Especially after making an investment in a player like Dani Alves to give you that extra push into the playoffs, not out of them.
And let’s face it, Pumas were in dire need of a change. Since Lillini took charge in an emergency / interim fashion for the start of the Apertura 2020 season where he guided them to 2nd overall in the table and a fairytale playoffs ending in a final loss to León, they subsequently finished 15th, 11th, 11th, and their worst as 16th this season. It wasn’t just a new low for Lillini, but also the exclamation point at his inability to revert the negative trend this club was headed in.
Rumors swirled over the past weeks involving Ricardo Ferretti and Jaime Lozano mainly as potential suitors. Miguel Mejía Barón even commented in the presser they interviewed 7 total candidates for the role. And those more experienced, more accomplished names made sense. But Rafa Puente Jr.? Is he really the ideal candidate for this veteran squad?
Now, this is no knock on Puente Jr. He seems like a good dude and sure appears to know his football. Heck, in his first role as manager, he took charge of Lobos BUAP (in Ascenso MX - Mexico’s 2nd tier) midseason, who were in complete disarray. By the following semester, he led his club to the playoffs and an eventual title to compete for promotion against the previous season’s champs, Dorados de Sinaloa, who they ultimately defeated. And just like that, 7 months after taking charge of his first pro club, he was now a 1st Division manager. Talk about an incredible start to a career.
The problem is that from here, it’s all been downhill. After a good debut season, Lobos BUAP finished 10th overall with 23 points. The following season, however, things took a turn for the worse. The club won just 2 matches for the season and finished with 9 points, relegating them back to Ascenso MX. Puente Jr. was let go with four games left on the schedule.
Just over a month later, he was named Gallos Blancos de Querétaro manager. He again got off to a hot start, guiding Gallos to an 8th overall finish and a playoff birth, only to be ousted by Cruz Azul in the QF. His next season in charge, however, he was fired after the club lost its first 7 matches of the season.
It took him nearly a year to get his next managerial role, which would be with Atlas. The Rojinegros were desperate and willing to try anything at that point. Puente Jr. came in and after just a month and half, COVID hit. After earning just one point in the first 3 matches of the Apertura 2020, Puente Jr. was relieved of his duties yet again.
He spent the entire last year as ‘Tuca’ Ferretti’s assistant coach in FC Juárez, and has now gotten a new opportunity. The real question here is, is he the right man for the job? Sure, he likes to have ball possession. Sure, he has an attacking mentality / style of play and can be exciting at times. But in all three of his opportunities, he’s either started hot his first season to only see his team become a shell of itself the following, or simply never took off. He was fired very quickly in all three of his jobs if you only consider the top flight matches.
The answer to my previous question is, only time will tell. But Mejía Barón and company are fully aware of this and have taken it into consideration. Proof of this is the last question he answered in the presser regarding contract length and objectives for Puente Jr. Mejía Barón stated: “It’s for one season (six months), and obtain the points that will get us out of the relegation zone we’re in currently that will make us pay (the relegation fine).” A very safe bet if you ask me, as they currently sit 12th in that race. Pumas would pretty much have to go winless this season for the teams below them to move ahead. I mainly believe those clauses are in place as an escape route in case he repeats his Atlas performance. If Puente Jr. fails here, this could ultimately mean his last chance as Liga MX manager for a while, if not permanently.