Liga MX: Tuzos eager to return to Liguilla after 2-year absence

PACHUCA, MEXICO - NOVEMBER 24: Franco Jara of Pachuca celebrates after scoring the first goal of his team during the 17th round match between Pachuca and Leon as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Hidalgo Stadium on November 24, 2018 in Pachuca, Mexico. (Photo by Jam Media/Getty Images)
PACHUCA, MEXICO - NOVEMBER 24: Franco Jara of Pachuca celebrates after scoring the first goal of his team during the 17th round match between Pachuca and Leon as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Hidalgo Stadium on November 24, 2018 in Pachuca, Mexico. (Photo by Jam Media/Getty Images) /

After fading out of the Liga MX playoff race at the end of the Apertura 2019, the Tuzos have been active in the transfer market.

Pachuca struggled out of the gate last season, but found its rhythm in mid-season and controlled its fate heading into the final two games. Unfortunately, coach Pako Ayestarán could not get the Tuzos to seize their opportunity and the Liga MX season came to a bitter end without a playoff berth.

Despite losing skipper Erick Gutiérrez seven games into the season (Guti signed with PSV Eindhoven), the youthful Tuzos pulled together and made a charge up the table. Youngsters Erick Aguirre and Víctor Guzmán led the revival, earning call-ups to the national side in the process and impressing with their performances wearing the green jersey.

Stepping into the breach left by Guti’s departure, 20-year-old Pablo López demonstrated veteran savvy and tactical understanding on the left flank. Another youth team product (via the Mineros de Zacatecas), defender Miguel Tapias, 21, showed tremendous promise in filling in for the injured Oscar Murillo such that Ayestarán utilized a 5-man back line featuring Tapias at times. The Hermosillo native might get a bigger role in the Clausura 2019 since nominal starting center back Alexis Pérez was sent to Necaxa.

For a while, coach Ayestarán masterfully mixed and matched his line-up, with the Matchday 11 upset of league-leading Cruz Azul proving to be the highlight. The Matchday 15 rout of Necaxa was the club’s high-water mark, but the Tuzos did not win again.

The Spaniard patiently waited for late signing Leo Ulloa – an Argentine striker who came over from Leicester City – to work his way into the line-up. Although Ulloa did not produce consistently, he showed enough potential to suggest he might provide a scoring spark in the upcoming season.

Also up front, Franco Jara (pictured at top) enjoyed some success, pushed by the arrival of Ulloa no doubt, and the 30-year-old Argentine striker tied for the team lead with 9 goals (Víctor Guzmán also had 9 goals). His brace against the Chivas on Matchday 8 led the Tuzos to a key road win in the team’s first game after the departure of Guti.

On the flanks, fullbacks Manny García, “Shaggy” Martínez and Raúl López proved steady but not spectacular. More should be expected from the veteran García in the Clausura 2019 while it was a disappointment that “Dedos” López failed to beat out “Shaggy” for a starting spot. Instead, López was often called upon as a sub to play a more advanced role on the wing to take advantage of his centering skills.

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New arrivals

After posting the 6th-best goal differential in the Liga MX – 7th in the league with 26 goals, and 5th in the league with 18 goals against – the Tuzos have moved to improve their offense.

The Pachuca front office has been quite active heading into the winter transfer market, picking up three attacking players and a goalie to challenge first-choice keeper Alfonso Blanco.

Joining the Tuzos forward line are Ismael Sosa, Víctor Dávila and Edwin Cardona.

Sosa comes over from the Tigres where he was stuck on the bench in Tuca Ferretti’s star-studded line-up after enjoying two splendid years with UNAM. Pachuca hopes he can rediscover the form he displayed in helping the Pumas reach the Apertura 2015 finals. The 31-year-old Argentine scored 29 goals during his 2 years with UNAM.

Dávila is a 21-year-old striker who showed flashes of brilliance with Necaxa, but demonstrated a tendency to get frustrated and go solo instead of playing within the offense. Even so, the Chilean tallied 10 goals during his two seasons with the Rayos.

Cardona is a 26-year-old Colombian who enjoyed considerable success with Monterrey from 2015 through 2017, scoring 31 goals, before exhibiting disciplinary problems that led to his separation from the first team and eventual sale to Boca Juniors. If he has his head on straight, he could be a significant contributor.

These three attackers will be expected to contribute more than holdovers Angelo Sagal and Sebastián Palacios did last season. Sagal, a 25-year-old Chilean striker, will surely see playing time, but Palacios – the team’s leading scorer during the Clausura 2018, but a disappointment during the Apertura 2018 – could see his role severely diminished.

Joining the team from Costa Rica is 28-year-old goalie Leonel Moreira who just backstopped Herediano to the Costa Rica league championship this month. He served as the back-up to Keylor Navas at the 2018 World Cup in Russia and is expected to challenge Blanco for the starting spot between the pipes. Blanco was a steady performer during the Apertura 2018 as he took over for 45-year-old Oscar Pérez, but still allowed the occasional cheap goal (including a late goal against Monterrey in the Tuzos’ season-opening 1-0 loss).

Ayestarán surely knows he must guide Pachuca to the playoffs or he might be looking for a new job come May. He would seem to have the necessary tools at his disposal, so he’ll have to teach his players how to close out games, a problem last season. The Matchday 12 loss at Toluca despite playing more than 55 minutes with a man advantage was a case in point.

For the Clausura 2019 Copa MX, the Tuzos also find themselves in Group 1 with Ascenso MX team Atlante and the Xolos of Tijuana. Management no doubt expects them to advance out of the group stage and would hope they can at least match last season’s performance when the Tuzos reached the semifinals before losing to Monterrey on penalty kicks.