Despite early América goal, top-seeded León hung on to earn first trip to the Liga MX Final in five years.
Leon players dropped to the pitch when the final whistle blew signaling the end of 85 minutes of torture. The No. 1 seed Esmeraldas had reached the Grand Final despite losing 1-0 to a dauntless América side that came up a goal short in their gallant effort to defend their title.
América defender Bruno Valdez headed home a corner kick only 5 minutes into the second-leg match in León, evening the aggregate score at 1-1. As the lower seed, the No. 5 seed Aguilas needed a second goal to eliminate the league leaders and, all of a sudden, Esmeraldas players were stricken with weak knees and the hometown crowd was hit with a gut punch.
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It didn’t help that ref César Ramos did not have a good first half, allowing América to chip and trip while whistling León for apparent touch fouls. Fortunately, Ramos was on his game in the second half and he did not negatively impact the outcome.
The defending champs enjoyed much the better of play for the first 25 minutes, pressing and dispossessing León while flooding forward in search of the go-ahead goal. Midfielder Guido Rodríguez was all over the place, creating double teams and stopping León’s outlet attempts.
América was finding space in midfield and filtering passes into the goalie box, eliciting gasps from the crowd. Goalie Rodolfo Cota was under considerable pressure, making a contested save in a crowd in minute 20, then coming off his line late shortly thereafter and grateful to be saved by an alert Andrés Mosquera. The Colombian defender was a 5-star performer Sunday night, arguably the MVP of the game for León.
Finally, just before the half-hour mark, León settled down and was able to gather momentum moving forward. The Esmeraldas did not manage to get a shot on goal, but they forced América back into their own half.
The first half could have been much more tranquil had José Juan Macías nodded his header inches more to the left shortly after the opening kickoff. In minute 2, León skipper Luis Montes got free down the left side and lifted a cross to the near post where Macías flicked it onward. América goalie Agustín Marchesín could only watch helplessly as the ball pinged the far post and bounced back into play.
Instead, León suffered and sweated. América went into the locker room at the half with 10 shots taken and 3 on goal. The Aguilas enjoyed success attacking down the left flank where Andrés Ibarguen was dribbling circles around Esmeraldas right back Fernando Navarro.
In the first leg, América had sought to attack on the right wing, but León defender William Tesillo outplayed Renato Ibarra who had run rampant against Cruz Azul in the quarterfinals. In the first half Sunday, Ibarra was used mostly as a decoy, staying near the sideline to force the León defense to widen its line in the hope of opening space in the middle. Fortunately for León, Mosquera was flawless and defense partner Ramiro González recovered from his early error (he lost track of Valdez on América’s goal).
Luis Rodríguez checked in for León to open the second half. The defensive midfielder had missed the first leg after turning an ankle during pre-game warm-ups. The tactical shift here worked for the Esmeraldas and Rubens Sambueza took advantage of the freedom to move forward, creating scoring chances that Macías and Angel Mena squandered.
The game devolved into a high-wire act with end-to-end action as both teams wasted offensive opportunities. León was guilty of over-dribbling and indecisive play-making while América’s passing and decision-making left plenty to be desired.
It got even more interesting with 15 minutes remaining. In minute 75, Sambueza picked up his second yellow card for a needless grab in midfield and the tension increased dramatically for the home team. León retreated into a defensive posture and parked the bus in front of Cota as América threw everything in its arsenal forward. After Miguel Herrera made his final substitution at the 78-minute mark, América was essentially playing a 2-1-2-5 with defender Valdez playing as an extra center forward.
At this point, América was not worried about giving up a goal to León, because they only needed a second goal to knock out León. Due to the away goal rule, the Aguilas would have advanced just the same with a 2-1 result as with a 2-0 result.
Unfortunately, Guido Rodríguez unwisely stuck out his arm as León tried to clear its defensive zone and he was shown his second yellow card in minute 86, eliminating América’s man advantage.
The top-seeded Esmeraldas nervously saw out the remaining time on the clock and, despite being sapped of all energy, exulted when ref Ramos blew his whistle and pointed to the center circle.
With the 1-1 “victory,” León returns to the Liga MX Final for the first time since winning its second consecutive league title exactly five years ago. Awaiting La Fiera in the final series are the No. 2 seeded Tigres in what promises to be a thrilling Grand Final.