As the top seed, Leon is understandably favored against No. 8 Tijuana, but the Xolos will not roll over.
Leon finished the Clausura 2019 as the clear-cut super leader, setting a league standard for points in a 17-game season – 41 – by virtue of its 13-2-2 record. Their reward is a quarterfinal date with 8th-place Tijuana, a club that claimed the final postseason berth on the final matchday with a controversial 4-0 win over Puebla.
The Esmeraldas warmed up for the Liguilla by defeating playoff-bound Pachuca 2-1 on Saturday, demonstrating why they have been the class of the Liga MX. For weeks, Leon has been the league’s top-scoring team as well as boasting the stingiest defense. They finished with 41 goals (the Tigres and Monterrey were second-best with 33) and conceded only 14 (Cruz Azul was No. 2, giving up 15 goals). With versatility all over the field, Leon is a cinch to reach the finals if they continue playing with the same tactical order under the guidance of coach Ignacio Ambriz.
Leon set another record this season, winning 12 straight games, surpassing a record that had stood for 47 years (Cruz Azul won 10 straight during the 1971-72 season). The Esmeraldas also boast the league’s scoring champion, Angel Mena, who finished the tournament with 14 goals. The Ecuadorian also led the league with 10 assists.
Teen striker Jose Juan Macias came over from Chivas before the Clausura and quickly developed a productive relationship with Mena who joined Leon from Cruz Azul in December. The 19-year-old Macias scored eight goals to become the top-scoring Mexican player in the Clausura 2019. Jean Meneses added 4 goals from his midfield position.
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The Xolos will host Leon in the first leg of the quarterfinal series and they should have a lot of confidence, after two back-to-back wins helped them snare the eighth and final playoff spot. On Saturday, Tijuana manhandled Puebla 4-0 in a do-or-die game that was marred by controversy. Puebla needed a win to knock out Tijuana and reach the playoffs. In minute 9, there appeared to be a clear penalty in favor of Puebla, but it was not called. Only 15 minutes later, Puebla striker Lucas Cavallini scored but it was annulled for a handball that videos did not seem to confirm.
The game was scoreless at halftime, but in minute 52 Puebla defender Vladimir Loroña was red-carded and the Camoteros fell apart. Tijuana scored 4 goals in 15 minutes and punched its ticket to the postseason. Despite the controversy, it was a huge accomplishment for Xolos coach Oscar Pareja who came from MLS club FC Dallas to take over the Tijuana job. Earning a spot in the Liguilla as a first-year coach in the Liga MX is no easy task.
The Xolos finished with 25 points (9-1-7), and were among the best home teams in the Liga MX, going 6-0-2 to earn 18 of their 25 points. Since they are an average road team, they will want to take advantage of home field although Leon was the league’s best team away from home.
Leon faced Xolos on Matchday 3 in Tijuana at Estadio Caliente, handing the Esmeraldas a 1-0 loss. Leon started its 12-game winning streak the following weekend. Striker Gustavo Bou scored the only goal of the game in minute 27 and went on to score 8 times for Tijuana, tying Macias for fifth place among Liga MX goal-scorers.
The historical record shows these teams facing off 18 times with the Xolos winning eight, Leon winning seven, and three draws.
The Liguilla is an all-new season and Leon’s last appearance was after the Apertura 2017 season while Tijuana reached the semifinals in its last playoff appearance after the Clausura 2018 season, one year ago. I expect nerves and jitters to be evident, but Tijuana will find a comfort level at home and should find a way to score. But Leon is too powerful to keep under control.