Liga MX: UNAM preparing to take next step in Clausura 2019

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - DECEMBER 09: Team of Pumas pose during the semifinal second leg match between America and Pumas UNAM as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Azteca Stadium on December 9, 2018 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - DECEMBER 09: Team of Pumas pose during the semifinal second leg match between America and Pumas UNAM as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Azteca Stadium on December 9, 2018 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /

The Pumas overachieved throughout the Apertura 2018, but the positives were erased by a 6-1 rout in the semifinals.

Just one year removed from an absolutely horrendous 2017 calendar year, UNAM and coach David Patiño were aiming to re-establish stability and finish in the top half of the Liga MX table. Instead, the Pumas discovered an offensive identity, flirted with first place for the first month of the Apertura 2018 season and claimed a No. 3 seed for the Liguilla.

Despite the higher seed, UNAM was still seen as an underdog against the Tigres in the quarterfinals but outplayed the northern powerhouse in the second leg to move on to face bitter rivals América in the semifinals.

After a 1-1 draw at home, UNAM visited Estadio Azteca dreaming of an upset and a trip to the Finals. But América was having none of it and the Aguilas stomped the Pumas 6-1 to ruin what had been a special season.

UNAM must now find a way to shake off the bitter loss, contemplate the positives and prepare to reclaim their spot as a legitimate big club in Liga MX. Thus far, it appears as though they’ll be asked to do so with most of the same faces that produced so many pleasant surprises in the Apertura 2018.

Patiño settles in

When coach Patiño accepted an interim role with the Pumas on Oct. 3, 2017, the fabled university team was headed for a last-place finish in the Apertura 2017. This came on the heels of an embarrassing 17th-place finish in the Clausura 2017 and Patiño was seen as a stop-gap.

Instead, the former Pumas star was kept in place for the Clausura 2018 and his calm demeanor helped steady the ship. UNAM finished the season in 7th place, but was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by América on a 6-2 aggregate score.

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Heading into the Apertura 2018, there were still whispers about hiring a top-line coach, yet Patiño was still there on the sideline when the season opened. The Pumas exploded on offense, scoring 10 goals in their first three games. But when that was followed by three scoreless games and a disappointing 2-2 draw vs 9-man América, Patiño’s days appeared to be numbered.

The Pumas responded with a 6-game unbeaten streak, including their first win in Guadalajara against the Chivas in over 3 decades. UNAM moved into the top 3 and held on down the stretch, confounding the pundits who saw them as a nice, developing team with a bright future.

Although the 6-1 rout at the hands of América in the semifinals (a 7-2 aggregate) was a brutal blow, UNAM will not be overlooked during the Clausura 2019.

Standing pat

Pumas management has not been active in the transfer market thus far with the only roster change being the return of on-loan striker Matías Alustiza to Atlas. On the other hand, top striker Felipe Mora and winger Martín Rodríguez were purchased from Cruz Azul after they spent a productive season on loan with the Pumas. Mora led the team with 9 goals scored.

Mora’s strike partner Carlos González suffered an inconsistent start to the season after his arrival from Necaxa, but he recovered his nose for goal and was a force down the stretch and in the playoffs.

The engine to UNAM’s attack is skipper Pablo Barrera who has rediscovered the form that led to his departure for Europe in 2010 where he played with West Ham United and Real Zaragoza before returning to Liga MX. Barrera played with Cruz Azul and Monterrey before returning to his home at the CU, but he suffered two nasty knee injuries in 2017 and he seemed a shell of himself in early 2018 and was not a major contributor during the Clausura 2018.

But as the Apertura 2018 progressed, Barrera flashed signs of his best years and formed a dynamic partnership with fullback Alan Mozo that dominated the right side of the Pumas attack for large portions of the season. If Barrera avoids injury, he and Mozo could terrorize Liga MX defenses throughout 2019.

Midfield was a strong point for the Pumas last season with Andrés Iniestra and Víctor Malcorra the primary starters while David Cabrera and Juan Iturbe were sturdy stand-ins. Cabrera especially enjoyed a solid year, displaying a physicality combined with consistent passing. Toward the end of the season, Malcorra was moved to left back, but a leg injury limited his effectiveness.

On the back line, veteran Alejandro Arribas was a solid presence. The Spaniard suffered an ugly elbow injury that cost him 4 games in the middle of the season, but his leadership and coverage skills were key in controlling the area. Alongside him in central defense were Luis Fernando Quintana, 26, and Pablo Jáquez, 23, with Quintana most often getting the starting nod.

The problem spot for Patiño was left back where Alan Mendoza played himself out of a starting role due to rash tackles and getting caught out of position. Malcorra is not a natural replacement and coach Patiño will have to search for a better option.

In goal, Alfredo Saldívar enjoyed a decent season, though occasionally lacking consistency. He posted several spectacular games, but also let in a few weak goals. And he seemed helpless against América in the 6-1 season-ender.

The Kiddie Corps

The Pumas youth pipeline appears to be producing again after a few down years. The arrival of Mozo, the 21-year-old right back, heralded the renewal of the farm system. Mozo proved to be a skillful passer, a fearless attacker (with the instincts to know to take chances going forward) and a feisty defender.

Right winger Brian Figueroa, 19, would seem to be the heir apparent to Barrera. He showed flashes of talent in his Copa MX appearances and it would be no surprise to see him take some minutes from Barrera, helping the 31-year-old stay rested.

The 22-year-old Iniestra also came into his own this season, playing a steady role in front of the central defenders, occasionally dropping back to serve as the middle man in a 3-man back line. Waiting in the wings is Kevin Escamilla, though at 24 he is more of a late bloomer. Given the opportunity in central midfield this past season, the Mexico City native proved to be a reliable substitute when called upon.

The current roster allows the Pumas to hold high expectations entering the Clausura 2019. Their fans can count on the same high-flying offense, while hoping the youngsters continue to grow on defense.

Oh, and you might want to circle Feb. 17 on your calendar. That’s when América pays a visit to Estadio Olímpico Universitario for another Clásico Capitalino. The Pedregal will be ringing with “Goyas”!