América tried to bully top-seeded León, but the Esmeraldas stood tall.
León was not able to play the free-flowing style it prefers, but the Esmeraldas managed to weave together a single extended possession in the second half and it resulted in a José Juan Macías goal. The top-seeded Esmeraldas maintained their composure and remained disciplined on defense, demonstrating why they were the best team in Liga MX this season.
After a day’s delay and a change of venue precipitated by poor air quality in Mexico City, the América-León semifinal match was finally played in Querétaro’s Estadio Corregidora and the Esmeraldas came out on top.
América sought to knock León out of its comfort zone (literally, it seemed) and spent a good part of the first half knocking León players to the ground then surrounding the ref and complaining about the call. The Aguilas collected 13 fouls before halftime and could have been called for a few more, but it’s possible that ref Jorge Pérez Durán was tired of blowing his whistle.
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Although the strategy worked to a degree (León only mustered 3 shots by halftime), the lack of rhythm and slow pace of the game also impacted the Aguilas who managed to get only one shot on goal through 45 minutes.
As the second half got under way, León was able to move the ball through midfield, circulating the ball through captain Luis Montes, but were unable to find shooting room. At the same time, América’s wingers Renato Ibarra and Andrés Ibarguen were finding some space to probe the León defense. In minute 56, Ibarra found Nico Castillo inside the box, but his one-timer drifted wide right. A minute later, Matheus Uribe fired high from the top of the box.
Finally, León turned an extended possession into a goal. The Esmeraldas passed it around, then played some keep-away on the left flank near midfield, triangulating as an América defender chased, before suddenly bursting forward. Former Aguilas Rubens Sambueza broke off from the triangle and sprinted toward the box where he gathered in a wall pass from Montes, the 28th pass of this possession. Sambueza raced around Bruno Valdez to left of goal and squared to the far post where Macías slid and poked home the pass (the 29th) for a 1-0 lead.
Seconds later, León goalie Rodolfo Cota came up big, making a reflex save off a Nico Castillo shot. América coach Miguel Herrera pulled out all the stops, subbing in two attackers and his team cut back on the purposeful fouls.
The Aguilas pushed forward steadily and had León’s defense on its heels, earning corner kicks and two dangerous free kicks. Cota made a strong save on an Emanuel Aguilera free kick from 19 meters in minute 81, then made a lunging parry of a shot by Ibarguen in stoppage time. Cota made 5 saves in all.
The return match is set for Estadio León on Sunday evening and América will have to hand the Esmeraldas only their second home loss of the season to return to the Final for a second consecutive year.