How Aguilas regained flight: Soaring the heights again

Christian Benitez and his America teammates celebrate after defeating Cruz Azul in penalty kicks to win the Clausura 2013 title. AFP PHOTO / RONALDO SCHEMIDT (Photo credit should read Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)
Christian Benitez and his America teammates celebrate after defeating Cruz Azul in penalty kicks to win the Clausura 2013 title. AFP PHOTO / RONALDO SCHEMIDT (Photo credit should read Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images) /

Just over a decade ago, Club América was a mess. The Aguilas hit historical lows, churning through two GMs and 11 coaches from 2004 to 2011. This is a five-part series reliving América’s crash and return to relevance. In Part III, Ricardo Peláez and Miguel Herrera stabilize the franchise.

As the Clausura 2011 season began, Manuel Lapuente was in his third stint as coach of América. “Manolo” had promised the Aguilas would “defend like Inter and attack like Barça,” but the lofty expectations were not realistic.

A season-opening home loss to Pachuca was followed by a tie in Chiapas. When the Tigres marched into Estadio Azteca and scored the winning goal in added time, fans booed the Aguilas off the pitch. Embattled team president Michel Bauer knew it was time for a change … again.

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None of the three coaches Bauer had hired to that point had ties to América and he desperately needed to win back support from the discontented fan base. In came Aguilas legend Carlos Reinoso on Jan 25, 2011.

“El Maestro” was the face of the powerful Aguilas teams of the 70s, helping América win two league titles (1970-71 and 1975-76) plus a Copa MX (1974) and a Concacaf Champions Cup (1977). He returned as a coach in the 80s and claimed another league championship for América, guiding the Aguilas to the 1983-84 title.

Americanistas were ecstatic. But disappointment came quickly. The Aguilas reached the playoffs as a No. 6 seed and were dumped by Morelia in the first round and the locker room was in turmoil. The Apertura 2011 season went sour quickly.

After 5-3 loss to Chiapas in Week 9 – the Aguilas’ third straight loss – Reinoso’s team had allowed 18 goals. “El Maestro” was shown the door and Bauer turned to another Aguilas legend – Alfredo Tena.

“Captain Fury” was the no-nonsense captain of América teams that won six titles in the 1980s. Tena had led Santos Laguna (Invierno 1996) and Pachuca (Verano 2001) to league titles as a coach, but the Aguilas were a team in crisis. Tena could not repair the divided locker room and the team finished in 17th place with a 3-6-8 record, falling well short of the playoffs.

Bauer was fired on Nov. 8, 2011, just four days after the Apertura 2011 season ended. His tenure has been called the worst in the history of the proud América franchise.

Turning the Aguilas back into predators

Two days later, Ricardo Peláez was hired. Peláez had started his playing career with América, playing two seasons with the Aguilas (helping the team win the 1985 league title) and he promised to restore the team to greatness before the club’s 100th anniversary in four years’ time. He said he would focus on roster stability, player development and filling the seats at Estadio Azteca. His first act was to fire Tena, his former teammate.

Six days later, Miguel Herrera was introduced as the new coach of the Aguilas. “El Piojo” promised to re-energize the fan base with a flashy style of play and results. He also promised to control his legendary temper; Herrera had been kicked out of 23 games during his 10-year coaching career to that point.

In his first season – the Clausura 2012 – América finished third and reached the semifinals where they lost to eventual champion Monterrey. The Apertura 2012 was not much different – a fourth-place finish and a loss in the semifinals.

In his third season on the job, Herrera led his club to its 11th league title with a workmanlike team that challenged opponents offensively and defensively.

Aguilas regain flight, part 3
Miguel Herrera had América back on top in his third season in charge. Photo: OMAR TORRES / AFP / Getty Images /

Peláez had given “El Piojo” an impressive roster (El Tri stars Paul Aguilar, Miguel Layún, “Maza” Rodríguez, Diego Reyes and Raúl Jiménez, plus strong role players like Osvaldo Martínez, Jesús Molina and Adrián Aldrete, with classy players like Rubens Sambueza and Christián Benítez on offense) and Herrera managed them to perfection.

The Aguilas swept past the Pumas in the quarterfinals. Jiménez headed in a goal in the first leg at UNAM, while Benítez scored twice in the second at Estadio Azteca to claim a 3-1 aggregate win.

América avenged its Clausura 2012 semifinal loss to the Rayados with a steady, disciplined showing over 180 minutes. Benítez scored twice more in the first leg and found the net in the return match at Estadio Azteca to earn a 4-3 aggregate win.

The Clausura 2013 Finals featured a Junior Classic: América vs crosstown rivals Cruz Azul. The two Mexico City clubs had battled in two memorable finals, Cruz Azul winning in 1972 and América taking home the 1989 trophy.

The Aguilas dominated the first leg at Estadio Azul but could not find the net as Jesús Corona was fantastic between the pipes for Cruz Azul. A 19th-minute header by “Chaco” Giménez gave the Cementeros a 1-0 lead heading into the second leg at the Azteca.

Aguilas regain flight, part 3
Referee Paul Delgadillo shows the red card to Jesús Molina, right, early in the second leg of the Clausura 2013 final against Cruz Azul. (Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images) /

Only 14 minutes into the Grand Final, ref Paul Delgadillo showed Aguilas midfielder Jesús Molina a red card and América was behind the proverbial 8-ball. Six minutes later, Teofilo Gutiérrez scored for the Cementeros, establishing a seemingly insurmountable 2-0 deficit for 10-man América.

But Cementeros coach Memo Vázquez made the mistake of sitting back in a “prevent defense” and América started coming forward in waves. In minute 89, an Aguilas corner kick was re-centered and defender Aquivaldo Mosquera sent a header bouncing inside the far post. Three minutes later, goalie Moisés Muñoz came forward to take part in another corner kick and he powered home a header to tie the aggregate score at 2-2. Azteca was in pandemonium.

The Aguilas entrenched themselves on defense throughout the overtime and then prepared for the penalty kick shoot-out. Muñoz stopped the first Cruz Azul shot and Alejandro Castro slipped on the Cementeros second, sending the ball over the crossbar. When Layún fired home América’s fourth penalty shot, the Aguilas had their 11th league crown, ending an eight-year drought.

In Part IV – Chasing the updrafts – Antonio Mohamed has a tough act to follow after coach Miguel Herrera leaves to coach El Tri.

Part I – Spiraling in the downdraft – can be read here. Part II – Playing with clipped wings – can be read here.

This feature is part of a series about the Big Four of the Liga MX: América, Guadalajara, Cruz Azul and the Pumas.