The semifinals of the 2022 Apertura season are now officially over, leaving just two teams in the running for the Liga MX title. After the latest batch of playoff games, here are a couple of talking points and some thoughts ahead of this week’s two-legged final.
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Title favorites Club America ousted by Toluca
No. 6 seed Toluca were already being written off before even stepping onto the field last week. Up against No. 1 seed Club America in the semifinal round, Toluca were widely seen as a small roadblock for the Liga MX giants that previously demolished Puebla 11-2 on aggregate in the quarterfinals.
Then came the mistakes that seemed to double the size of their supposedly harmless hurdle. In a bizarre error-filled evening for Club America, Toluca pounced on mistimed passes and shaky moments that carried them to a shocking 2-1 win in last Wednesday’s first leg of the semifinal series.
“It’s soccer, mistakes happen,” said Club America manager Fernando Ortiz after the loss, brushing off the result as simply an oddity. “Today they happened to us.”
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At home during Saturday’s second leg in the historic Estadio Azteca, things didn’t get any better for Las Aguilas. Toluca remained defensively solid, 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 a goal of their own from left-back Jorge Torres Nilo, Toluca eventually sneaked by with a 3-2 aggregate result.
Despite Club America nearly turning the series in their favor with a dramatic injury time goal from Henry Martin that was ruled offside — which would have sent them to the final through a higher seed tiebreaker — Las Aguilas have no excuses for their semifinal exit.
Typically able to rely on numerous high-performing options in the midfield and attack, Club America appeared lost when starters like Diego Valdes and Richard Sanchez were shut out by Toluca’s aggressive play. Los Diablos Rojos forced 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,” said Ortiz after getting knocked out, later adding that “obviously I want to continue [as manager].”
As for Toluca, the once defensively feeble group of players have gained momentum at the perfect moment. After claiming just six victories from July through September, Los Diablos Rojos and manager Ignacio “Nacho” Ambriz are sprinting into 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 side that has thrived with a more resilient defense and produced behind game-changers such as Volpi, Jean Meneses, and Leonardo Fernandez.
“Eight months ago we were a disaster,” Ambriz said 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 seek to defy expectations once again.
Pachuca back in final upset over after Monterrey
Toluca weren’t the only Liga MX club to earn an upset in the semifinals. Pachuca were convincing in the previous round against No. 2 seed Monterrey, ultimately 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 the 47th minute. Initially an even battle between the two, Monterrey then shot themselves in the foot through a direct red in the 64th minute for Erick Aguirre, allowing Pachuca to score two additional times and win the first leg with a 5-2 scoreline.
Adept at also absorbing pressure and playing defensively if needed, manager Guillermo Almada utilized a more compact version of his usual 4-2-3-1 formation during Sunday’s second leg, leading to a frustrated Monterrey frontline that couldn’t 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 amassing even more clearances and tackles — Los Tuzos survived Monterrey’s onslaught that quickly ran out of solutions to problems by the second half.
With the series all but wrapped up, a goal off a penalty in the 95th minute for Pachuca’s Aviles Hurtado, who left Monterrey in 2021 after a lack of minutes, was a 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. After also pushing Santos Laguna to a final in the 2021 Clausura, could this finally be the moment that Almada not only wins his first Liga MX title, but also helps Pachuca claim their second Liga MX championship since 2016?
“Hopefully yes,” Almada said after the victory. “We are going to give our all to achieve the goal, [but] Toluca will think the same as us, so may the best win.”
Pachuca shouldn’t overlook a Toluca side whose regular season position can be deceiving. In a short-tournament format like Liga MX, it can often take a manager more than just one season to get his roster to click. At their best, Los Tuzos are a much more organized and well-balanced team that can seamlessly switch from an aggressive style of attack to dropping deep and defending if needed.
With a good mixture of promising academy talent and experienced foreign signings, Pachuca could be the ones that finally stop underdogs Toluca.
Liga MX final schedule
Pachuca vs. Toluca
First leg: Thursday, Oct. 27 (time TBD)
Second leg: Sunday, Oct. 30 (time TBD)
Toluca, Pachuca over Club America, Monterrey
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