León made history, the Chivas were historically bad and the Tigres are clearly the Team of the Decade
The Clausura 2019 provided lots of entertainment and surprises. León was historically good, setting records for points and Most Consecutive Wins. A teenager (León’s José Juan Macías) was the highest-scoring Mexican in Liga MX.
On the other end of the scale, the Guadalajara Chivas were setting records for incompetence and will spend the summer trying to figure out how it sank into relegation territory.
The Tigres won another title – their 5th of the decade – but also suffered the indignity of losing in the Concacaf Champions League Final to crosstown rivals Monterrey.
This is the first of an occasional series looking back at the Clausura 2019.
Dreaming Emerald Dreams
The Esmeraldas of León finished the Apertura 2018 in 13th place and but burst upon the Liga MX scene during the Clausura 2019 with an historic season.
Pundits did not consider León to be a title contender especially since they got rid of legendary striker Mauro Boselli in December and brought in a few unremarkable players including 19-year-old striker José Juan Macías who failed to make an impression with the Chivas.
The big acquisition was supposed to be feisty midfielder Rubens Sambueza, but the purchase of midfielder Angel Mena turned out to be transformational.
The 31-year-old Ecuadorian debuted in Liga MX in the Clausura 2018 with Cruz Azul and scored only 8 goals with the Cementeros. He rarely played in the Apertura 2018 as Cruz Azul reached the Final, so the Cementeros let him go.
Much to the delight of León fans, Mena proved to be a revelation, producing an MVP-worthy season with a league-leading 14 goals and 9 assists (tied for most in the league). He became the first non-striker to win the Liga MX scoring crown since 2011. Macías, the teen striker, developed a magical relationship with Mena and he scored 8 times.
Even so, the Esmeraldas opened the season with two ties and a loss, so their chances remained slim in the minds of soccer “experts.” What was overlooked was that the two ties were against Tigres and Monterrey, teams viewed as title contenders who would end up second and third, respectively, in the final standings.
After the slow start, León started to roar, piling up wins with ease and moving into first place after a Matchday 10 win over Lobos BUAP. They manhandled Cruz Azul on Matchday 5, destroyed América 3-0 on Matchday 6, crushed Toluca 3-0 on Matchday 7, and pounded Santos 3-0 on Matchday 9. All four had been playoff teams in the Apertura 2018 and León had smashed them by an 11-0 aggregate score.
The Esmeraldas defeated Necaxa 2-1 on Matchday 13 to tie the all-time league record with 10 straight wins, then won twice more to establish a new Liga MX record with 12 consecutive wins.
La Fiera finished atop the table – and our Power Rankings – enjoying a 4-point cushion, setting a new league mark for points in a 17-game seasons (41), while scoring 41 goals (2.4 per game). The Esmeraldas led the league in goals scored and had a stunning +27 goal differential. Goalie Rodolfo Cota recorded 8 shut-outs as León gave up the fewest goals (14).
Staring at Goats
The beloved Chivas of Guadalajara made a big splash in the transfer market before the Clausura 2019. El Rebaño Sagrado acquired young striker Alexis Vega, big striker Luis Madrigal, midfielders Jesús Molina, Dieter Villalpando and veteran defender Hiram Mier.
The big haul had Chivas fans thinking the Goats could challenge for the title. When Vega scored a hat trick in Matchday 7 in the Clásico Tapatío, the Chivas moved into 4th place only 3 points behind leader Monterrey (14 points and a 4-2-1 record).
Then reality hit the fan. Guadalajara followed their promising victory over Atlas with an 8-game winless streak (0-1-7) and tallied only 4 points the rest of the season, finishing with 18 points (5-3-9) in 14th place.
Injuries played a role – midfielder Michael Pérez missed time as did fullback Jesús Sánchez and defender Jair Perreira – but the team simply played poorly. The Chivas hit bottom when they lost twice to bitter rivals América in a 4-day period. It’s not just that they lost, they never looked like they had a chance against the Aguilas.
Coach José Cardozo was fired after the Matchday 12 loss to the Pumas and a big coaching search was launched. Team management promised a big-name signing and CEO José Luis Higuera made a big show of going to Europe to interview coaches.
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So, it was a bit of a disappointment when the Chivas presented Tomás Boy as the new manager. Boy is familiar to Liga MX fans, coaching 14 teams since 1989, never lasting more than three years in one job. “El Jefe” prefers attacking with flair and has produced over-achieving teams, reaching one final with Morelia.
Chivas management insisted Boy was only an interim coach for the final four games and he went a mediocre 1-0-4, but the win was against league-leading León to end the Esmeraldas’ historic 12-game win streak. As such, it was shocking when the Chivas announced they had signed Boy to a 3-year contract.
Guadalajara will no doubt overhaul their line-up again this summer and they will open the Apertura 2019 with serious relegation problems (although demotion seems unlikely since Liga MX initiated its 120-million peso buy-in fee to allow relegated teams to remain in top division).
The Chivas will open the season tied with Querétaro for 16th place in the relegation standings, only above newly promoted Atlético San Luis and buy-in team Veracruz.
Clausura champs and Team of the Decade
The Tigres claimed their fifth Liga MX title of the decade one season after crashing out in the quarterfinals. The trophy is the club’s 7th overall, fourth most in the league behind América, Guadalajara and Toluca.
Tuca Ferretti’s squad overcame a series of injuries, helped by the deep roster put together by management. Star striker André-Pierre Gignac missed six weeks in the middle of the season and was only rounding back into form in the playoffs. Gignac scored the title-winning goal against León. It was also his 104th goal with the Tigres, tying Tomás Boy for the most goals in club history.
Ferretti had the Tigres playing his familiar disciplined, possession-based style very effectively. The Tigres were at or near the top of the table most of the season, moving into the top three after Matchday 4, even leading the league for two weeks before León surged past them.
Tuca’s team was not spectacular, merely efficient. Though their tactical proficiency prompted descriptions of “boring” and “conservative,” the Tigres were the second-highest-scoring team in the league with 33 goals and they boasted the second-best defense (16 goals allowed in 17 games). The defense was anchored by goalie Nahuel Guzmán who led the league with 86 saves during the regular season.
Central defender Hugo Ayala paired with newcomer Carlos Salcedo (acquired from Eintracht Frankfurt in January) while fullbacks Luis “Chaka” Rodríguez and Jesús Dueñas were equally reliable on defense and offense. “Chaka” even led all defenders with 172 steals.
The midfield duo of Guido Pizarro and Rafa Carioca were the heart and soul of the Tigres. They consistently shut down opponents’ offensive forays and played a major role in the Tigres possession offense. Pizarro led all midfielders with 1,023 passes completed.
Up front, Enner Valencia, Edu Vargas, Luis Quiñones and Julián Quiñones (no relation) compensated for the long absence of Gignac. When Julián went down with a season-ending injury, Javier Aquino was just getting healthy and he filled in admirably.
In the Liguilla, the Tigres did not overwhelm opponents (they only went 2-3-1 in the playoffs and scored only 4 goals in 6 games), but their defense was solid and Guzmán was unbeatable in goal. The Argentine keeper was brilliant against Pachuca, Monterrey and León, making game-saving stops at each stage of the playoffs.
In the final, Gignac scored early in the first leg while Guzmán and the defense shut down the high-powered León attack, holding them scoreless over 180 minutes of action.
With only one season remaining in the decade in which they have earned five titles and made seven Finals appearances, the Tigres have left no doubt that they are the team of the decade.