Season in Review: Cementeros fight back, Pumas roll over

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - APRIL 20: Orbelin Pineda of Cruz Azul fights for the ball with Alan Mozo of Pumas during the 15th round match between Cruz Azul and Pumas UNAM as part of the Torneo Clausura 2019 Liga MX at Azteca Stadium on April 20, 2019 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Mauricio Salas/Jam Media/Getty Images)
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - APRIL 20: Orbelin Pineda of Cruz Azul fights for the ball with Alan Mozo of Pumas during the 15th round match between Cruz Azul and Pumas UNAM as part of the Torneo Clausura 2019 Liga MX at Azteca Stadium on April 20, 2019 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Mauricio Salas/Jam Media/Getty Images) /

Cruz Azul recovered from a slow start to finish strong, but the Pumas stumbled and staggered through the entire Clausura.

The three Mexico City teams finished 1-2-3 in the standings of the Apertura 2018 season, but the soccer gods were not so generous during the Clausura 2019. While América won the Copa MX and reached the Liga MX semifinals, Cruz Azul and UNAM started off the Clausura on the downslope and only the Cementeros were able to reverse their slide. To make matters worse, América caused considerable grief for both teams.

The Aguilas defeated Cruz Azul in the Apertura championship series, extending the Cementeros Liga MX title drought to 21 years. Before that, América destroyed UNAM 7-2 on aggregate in the semifinals, spanking the Pumas 6-1 in the second leg of their series.

Both Cruz Azul and UNAM suffered obvious hangovers in the early stages of the Clausura. The Pumas fired coach David Patiño after a Matchday 4 loss that dropped UNAM to 0-2-2, while the Cementeros were on the verge of sacking coach Pedro Caixinha after a Matchday 7 loss to Santos was followed by a draw against lowly Veracruz. At the time, Cruz Azul was 2-3-3 and in 14th place.

Cementeros foiled by their nemesis … again

Cruz Azul enjoyed a brilliant Apertura, claiming the regular season title and riding their top seeding all the way to the final only to watch América ruin their planned coronation. Cementeros management re-tooled during the brief winter transfer window, positive that they now had the roster to claim the trophy that has eluded them since December 1997.

But the Apertura did not go as GM Ricardo Peláez had planned. Stalwart defensive midfielder Iván Marcone forced a trade back home to Argentina two games into the season. Then Elías Hernández – the team’s leading scorer and top playmaker – went down with a knee injury a month later and was ruled out the rest of the way.

Cementeros, Pumas season review
Jose Madueña, right, and Roberto Alvarado of Cruz Azul lament another playoff elimination at the hands of bitter rivals América. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images) /

Despite adding Chivas playmaker Orbelín Pineda and flashy Santos forward Jonathan Rodríguez in December, the Cementeros did not address their shortcomings at right fullback and that would be a trouble spot all season. Neither Pineda nor Rodríguez adapted quickly to Caixinha’s system and the latter appeared to be in the coach’s doghouse, rarely getting minutes until late-season injuries forced Caixinha’s hand. Pineda eventually found a comfort zone behind the forwards and was a key player in the stretch run and into the playoffs.

The injury bugaboo and the problem at right back weakened the staunch Cruz Azul defense, but the absence of Marcone was the real issue. Peláez managed to sign a young Portuguese defensive midfielder – Stephen Eustaquio – just before the transfer window closed but he tore up his knee only two weeks after arriving.

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In the Apertura, Cruz Azul did not lose at home the entire regular season, but Estadio Azteca was not so friendly in 2019. The Cementeros lost two of their first three games at the Azteca and Caixinha was given an ultimatum heading into the Matchday 9 match against Necaxa – win or else!

Cruz Azul did win, but not convincingly. Still, it proved to be a turning point and the Cementeros did not lose again the rest of the season, going 6-3-0 down the stretch while outscoring opponents 20-7. Striker Milton Caraglio claimed the starting spot and led the attack, finishing third in the Liga MX scoring race with 12 goals.

The Cementeros’ nine-game unbeaten streak saw them end with the No. 4 seed, but the reward for their strong run was a quarterfinal date with América. The champs put a quick end to Cruz Azul’s dreams, however, defeating the Cementeros 3-2 on aggregate. For the 43rd straight season, Cruz Azul fans are left to mutter: “Wait till next year.”

Pumas tumble down the standings

UNAM far exceeded expectations in the Apertura 2018 season and there was confidence that the Pumas had returned to the upper echelon with a happy blend of veterans and academy products, and a popular coach to lead them.

Then the Pumas ran into the América meat grinder and were destroyed 6-1 in the decisive semifinal playoff match. Despite a brave face, the mutilation left an indelible mark and the Clausura 2019 season was doomed before it began.

UNAM opened the season with a scoreless draw at home against the worst team in the league – Veracruz. Their next home game was against the second-worst team in the league – Atlas – and the Pumas blew a 2-0 lead, settling for another tie. The front office became panicky and started whispering about coach David Patiño.

Cementeros, Pumas review
Coach David Patiño was blamed for the Pumas’ failure to recover from the previous season’s playoff disaster against América. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images) /

When the Pumas lost at Pachuca the following week, falling to 0-2-2, Patiño got the axe. Instead of bringing in a veteran coach, however, management settled on a former Pumas star, Bruno Marioni, who had limited experience – and not much success – in the second division.

Marioni – still popular with the fan base who remembered him as the star striker of their 2004 league champion team – initially had success, going 2-1-0 in his first three games. When the Pumas defeated América at Estadio CU on Matchday 7, fans were euphoric. But that would be short-lived.

UNAM followed their huge win over the Aguilas with a 4-game winless streak and won only 2 more games the rest of the way. Although UNAM managed to reach the semifinals of the Copa MX, they lost to second division Juárez, missing out on another rematch with América.

The defense had fashioned six shutouts the previous season and were the third-highest scoring team in the Apertura 2018. In the Clausura, the Pumas had the sixth-worst defense and only five Liga MX teams scored fewer goals.

The Pumas finished the season in 15th place and it was obvious that Marioni was in over his head. However, the front office was a veritable mess (financial troubles, primarily) and it would take a few weeks for them to finally hand Marioni his pink slip.

Of additional concern was the slowing productivity of the Pumas’ academy players, the pride of the organization. Coach Patiño had been the club’s Under-20 coach before moving up to the senior team and his successors had failed to keep the assembly line moving smoothly. Management is caught between the desire to prop up its academy while also competing for trophies. This summer the club must figure out how to spread its meager funds to restock the academy and improve its roster. Not an easy task.