The semi-finals of the Apertura 2022 season are now officially over, leaving only two teams in the race for the Liga MX title. After the latest batch of play-offs, here are a few talking points and some thoughts ahead of this week’s two-legged final.
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Club America title favorites banished by Toluca
No. 6 seed Toluca was already eliminated before even stepping on the field last week. Up against No. 1 Club America in the semifinals, Toluca was widely seen as a minor setback for the Liga MX giants who previously demolished Puebla 11-2 on aggregate in the semifinals.
Then came the mistakes that seemed to double the size of their innocent obstacle. In a strange night full of errors for Club America, Toluca pounced on mistimed passes and shaky moments that carried them to a stunning 2-1 victory in the first leg of the semi-final series last Wednesday.
“It’s football, mistakes happen,” Club America manager Fernando Ortiz said after the loss, dismissing the result as nothing more than a freak. “Today they happened to us.”
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At home during Saturday’s second leg at the historic Estadio Azteca, things didn’t go any better Las Aguilas. Toluca remained solid defensively, led by standout performances from defenders Haret Ortega, Valber Huerta and Andres Mosquera. In net, goalkeeper Tiago Volpi was influential with his handful of saves that would go on to hold Club America to just one goal over the weekend. With an own goal from left back Jorge Torres Nilo, Toluca finally sneaked away with an aggregate result of 3-2.
Although Club America almost turned the series in their favor with a dramatic injury time goal from Henry Martin that was ruled out — which would have sent them to the final via a higher draw — Las Aguilas without any excuses for their semi-final departure.
Typically able to rely on a number of high-performance options in midfield and attack, Club America seemed lost when starters like Diego Valdes and Richard Sanchez were shut out by Toluca’s attacking play. Los Diablos Rojos forcing the Mexico City squad to make mistakes, and in response, Ortiz made questionable substitutions in the second leg that did little to bring new ideas in the final third.
“I’m the one responsible for this sporting failure,” Ortiz said after being knocked out, later adding “obviously I want to continue [as manager].”
As for Toluca, the once defensively weak group of players has gained momentum at the perfect moment. After claiming just six wins from July to September, Los Diablos Rojos and manager Ignacio “Nacho” Ambriz sprinting to the final with five wins in October alone.
Ambriz was hired last December ahead of the 2022 Clausura campaign but only finished 15th in the table. In this Apertura season, he has put together a team that has thrived with a more resilient defense and produced behind game changers like Volpi, Jean Meneses, and Leonardo Fernandez.
“Eight months ago we were a disaster,” said Ambriz when defeating Club America. “Now it’s changing.”
Against No. 4 seed Pachuca in this week’s two-legged championship series, Ambriz and his group of players will try to defy expectations once again.
Pachuca back in the last upset over after Monterrey
Toluca wasn’t the only Liga MX club to pull off an upset in the semifinals. Pachuca was convincing in the previous round against No. 2 seeds Monterrey, eventually defeating the favorites 6-2 on aggregate.
Thursday’s first leg at home set the tone for Pachuca. Fearless with their attack minded approach, Los Tuzos Traded jabs in a thrilling start to the series that found Pachuca narrowly up 3-2 by 47 minutes. To begin an even battle between the two, Monterrey then shot themselves in the foot through a direct red in the 64th minute to Erick Aguirre, allowing Pachuca to score two extra times and win the first leg with a score of 5-2.
Also adept at absorbing pressure and playing defensively if needed, manager Guillermo Almada used a more compact version of his usual 4-2-3-1 formation during Sunday’s second leg, resulting in a frustrated Monterrey front line that could find the back of the net in a 1-0 loss. With veteran goalkeeper Oscar Ustari collecting 11 saves — and defenders like Oscar Murillo, Gustavo Cabral and Kevin Alvarez racking up even more clearances and tackles — Los Tuzos surviving the Monterrey attack that quickly ran out of solutions to problems by the second half.
With the series almost over, a goal from a spot kick in the 95th minute for Aviles Hurtado of Pachuca, who left Monterrey in 2021 after a lack of minutes, was the perfect icing on the cake for Almada and his squad.
Arriving in December ahead of the 2022 Clausura campaign, the 56-year-old Uruguayan coach has now taken his club to back-to-back championship series. Having also pushed Santos Laguna to the final in Clausura 2021, is this the moment Almada will not only win his first Liga MX title, but also help Pachuca claim their second Liga MX championship since 2016?
“Hopefully yes,” Almada said after the win. “We’re going to give it our all to reach the goal, [but] Toluca will think the same as us, so may the best win.”
Pachuca should not overlook a team from Toluca whose regular season standings can be deceiving. In a short tournament format like Liga MX, it can often take more than one season for a manager to get his roster to click. At their best, Los Tuzos is a much more organized and balanced team that can switch seamlessly from an aggressive style of attacking to dropping deep and defending if necessary.
With a good mix of promising academy talent and experienced foreign signings, Pachuca could finally be the ones to topple underdogs Toluca.
Liga MX final schedule
Pachuca vs. Toluca
First clause: Thursday, October 27 (time to be confirmed)
Second leg: Sunday, October 30 (time to be confirmed)