Nov 19, 2007

Mexican Liguilla Primer: 2007 Apertura Quarterfinals

North American soccer fans hungering for some action now that MLS has completed its season are advised to check out the Mexican Liguilla, the eight team playoff that kicks off Wednesday night. While not quite Man U versus Arsenal, the Mexican league is deeper and better than many European leagues and is considered by some to be the best professional soccer league outside of Europe. I reckon the eight playoff teams would give nearly all Premiership sides a good game. There are also several young players you're likely to see in European leagues before too long. The quarterfinals play out over two legs, concluding this weekend. Let's take a look at the match-ups:

Santos Laguna (top seed) vs. Morelia (8)
First game:
At Morelia, Thursday. (Exact times and U.S. television to be determined and added later).
Second game:
At Santos, Sunday.
Outlook: Santos is obviously heavily-favored, having completed the regular season with just one loss. Morelia had to win a play-in series against Club America--which they may not have pulled off without America playing their Copa Sudamericana semifinal 48 hours before their first match. Santos have several players who look like they might be on the verge of stardom. Monarcas, meanwhile, scored only 20 goals in 17 Apertura games. Only three teams in the 18-team league scored fewer.
Regular season game: A 3-2 Santos home victory on Oct. 21.
Santos players you may have heard of: Oswaldo Sanchez, who until very recently (this summer?) was the starting goalkeeper for Mexico's national team. Oswaldo hasn't played much though, and it looks like the club is sticking with Miguel Becerra. Argentine forward Daniel Ludueña (I think he used to play at River Plate?) scored 13 goals in 15 games during the Apertura. Matías Vuoso (another Argentine) had a stint at Manchester City in 2002-03 but didn't play in a single game.
Morelia players you may have heard of: Fernando Arce has 25 caps for Mexico and played at the Copa America this summer. Yeah. That's all.
Players you're likely to hear of soon:
Santos' 21 year old Ecuadorian forward Cristian Benitez played in last summer's world cup. Benitez has been capped 14 times and scored seven goals. His Santos teammate Edgar Castillo is a 21 year-old defender who was born in New Mexico (the U.S. state) but chose to play for el tri (he got his first cap this summer).

Toluca (2) vs. UNAM Pumas (7)
First game:
At Toluca, Thursday.
Second game:
At Pumas, Sunday.
An intriguing match-up featuring youth (Pumas) versus experience (Toluca), and offense and scoring prowess (Pumas) versus airtight defense (Toluca). Toluca is coached by Jose Pekerman, who was the Argentine national team coach for two years through last year's world cup. He took over a team that finished 13th in the Clausura. The Diablos Rojos have not lost since Sept. 29 and their 16 goals allowed are tied for best in the league. Pumas, on the other hand, barely won more games (six) than they lost (five) but their 32 goals scored are second behind Santos' 40. Esteban Solari, another Argentine, scored 14 of those goals, which according to my calculations is nearly half. That in 17 games. Not bad! Pumas have a young nucleus of talent with a few grizzled veterans but their most talented young players may be on defense.
Regular season game:
A scoreless draw at Toluca on Halloween night.
Toluca players you may have heard of: Christian Gimenez had a long run in Europe, playing in Switzerland, for Olympique Marseille and most recently at Hertha Berlin before signing for Toluca this summer. Antonio Naelson Matias, a.k.a. "Zinha" is Brazilian-born but played for Mexico's national team at last summer's world cup. Hugo Sanchez has yet to cap him since taking over as national team coach. Vicente Sanchez, the team's leading goalscorer got two goals for Uruguay at this year's Copa America.
Pumas players you may have heard of:
Paco Palencio, of course. The 35 year old has 78 caps for El Tri and was on Chivas USA for parts of the 2005 and 2006 seasons. Israel Castro was part of Mexico's Copa America and Copo Oro squads this summer and was widely hailed with excellent coverage of Lionel Messi in el tri's game with Argentina.
Players you're likely to hear of soon: Pumas defender Efrain Velarde is only 21 but started and finished all 17 of the team's games. He's been capped at the U20 level. Keep an eye on him. Solari is 27 and has never been capped for Argentina, but the dude's been a scoring machine the past couple of years. Last year he scored 20 goals for APOEL in the Cypriot league (the team only played 26 league games all season) after netting 14 goals in 18 games for APOEL the season before that. If he was any other nationality (other than perhaps Brazilian) he'd have at least a dozen caps by now. But there's still time.

Atlante (3) vs. Cruz Azul (6)
First game:
At Cruz Azul, Wednesday, 8pm EST (Azteca America).
Second game:
At Atlante, Saturday.
An interesting pairing of resort town (Atlante is from Cancun) and capital city (Cruz Azul is one of two D.F. teams in the Liguilla--the other's Pumas). Cruz Azul had to beat Pachuca in a play-in. The Mexico City side have arguably the best young talent of all eight Liguilla teams.
Regular season game: The teams tied 2-2 after Atlante came back with two second half goals, the equalizer coming in the final minute.
Atlante players you may have heard of: Giancarlo Maldonado led Venezuela's Copa America efforts this summer. He only scored 15 goals in 15 games for Atlante in the Apertura season. Alain Nkong played for Cameroon at the 2002 world cup as well as in Spain and Portugal. For some reason the Colorado Rapids waived him. Twice.
Cruz Azul players you may have heard of:
Jared Borgetti, of Bolton shame/fame and of course the Mexican national team, though I'm not sure he plays much. Gerardo Torrado, another linchpin on El Tri (I think he's one of the midfielders who sports an afro).
Players you're likely to hear of soon:
Cruz Azul's Cesar Villaluz is all of 18 but scored five goals in 12 Apertura games and has been part of all of Mexico's junior national teams the past five years. His 20 year old teammate Julio Dominguez has already been capped by the senior national side. Maldonado is only 25 and could (and probably should) get a look from European clubs. Atlante's Daniel Guerrero was also on El Tri's U20 team at the world cup in Canada this summer and has also been called up to the senior national side, but the defender doesn't always start for his club team.

Chivas de Guadelajara (4) vs. San Luis (5)
First game:
At San Luis, Wednesday, 10pm EST (TeleFutura).
Second game:
At Chivas, Saturday.
This match-up pits one of the league's most storied names (Chivas) against one of its newest (San Luis was reestablished in 1999 as a farm team for Club America. They've also had to battle relegation in recent seasons). Chivas, for their part had a pretty mediocre season, at least by the club's high standards (losing the superclasico to America and being ousted from the Copa Sudamericana in the quarterfinals) San Luis is led by Argentine forward Alfredo Moreno, who scored a freakish 18 goals in 16 games.
Regular season game: A scoreless tie on Sept. 8.
Chivas players you may have heard of: Omar Bravo, Ramon Morales and Alberto Medina are "El Tri" regulars.
San Luis players you may have heard of:
Moreno had separate stints at Boca Juniors. Tressor Moreno (no relation) was on Colombia's 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup squad but will miss the first leg.
Players you're likely to hear of soon:
Patricio Araujo captained the Mexico Under 20 side at the world cup this summer and has also been capped for Hugo Sanchez' side. Chivas reportedly declined a $3 million offer from Ajax Amsterdam for his services. You'll be seeing him in Europe eventually. Omar Esparza, another guy from that U20 same team, features in defensive midfield for Chivas. Alberto Medina came out of nowhere to produce his goal-scoring binge this season. It will be interesting to see if a) it keeps up and b) he attracts attention from Europe and elsewhere if it does. (He turns 27 Dec. 1. Maybe a late bloomer?)

1 comment:

  1. Great write-up! Always talk soccer with the workers at the deli across the street from my office and they're all Chivas fans so they've gotten me pretty excited about tonight's game.

    My understanding about Castillo is that he wanted to play for the US but the federation never reached out to him.