How Aguilas regained flight: Trying to remain aloft

Edson Alvarez is mobbed by teammates after scoring the title-winning goal against Cruz Azul in the Apertura 2018 final. Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images)
Edson Alvarez is mobbed by teammates after scoring the title-winning goal against Cruz Azul in the Apertura 2018 final. Photo by Manuel Velasquez/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 V, Ricardo Peláez comes undone and Miguel Herrera returns.

As usual, expectations were high in América’s camp ahead of the Clausura 2015 season. New coach Gustavo Matosas had coached León to back-to-back titles only six months prior and the first of those two titles came at the expense of the Aguilas as Matosas led the Esmeraldas to a 5-1 aggregate victory in the Apertura 2013 Finals.

Matosas promised to bring an exciting brand of attacking soccer to Estadio Azteca just as 100th-anniversary celebrations were in the works (América was founded in July 2016). “With the roster we have in place, we should aspire to be the team of the decade,” Matosas said upon being presented as the new coach on Dec. 18, 2014.

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Just three months later, screaming headlines such as “America in crisis” were common. On March 18, Costa Rica’s Herediano stunned América 3-0 in the first leg of the Concacaf Champions League semifinals. Matosas contemplated quitting.

América regrouped, steamrolling Herediano 6-0 in the second leg at Estadio Azteca with Darío Benedetto scoring four times, saving Matosas’ job. In the finals against Montreal, Oribe Peralta rescued a tie at home as the Impact nearly snatched an upset. In the second leg on April 29, the visiting Aguilas overcame an early 1-0 deficit as Peralta scored again and Benedetto added a brace.

América also recovered in the league, claiming the No. 2 seed. But it was all for naught when the team fell apart in the playoffs, giving up 7 goals to No. 7 seed Pachuca and crashing out in the quarterfinals. A week later, Matosas quit after he and general manager Peláez squabbled over transfer targets.

Ignacio Ambriz was named Aguilas coach on May 26, 2015, with a 2-year contract in his pocket. But “Nacho” started off on the wrong foot as América finished the Apertura 2015 in sixth place and lost to the Pumas in the semifinals. A month later, América was upset by China’s Guangzhou Evergrande in the Club World Cup quarterfinals.

Aguilas regain flight, Part V
Ricardo Pelaez, left, talks to former Necaxa teammate Ignacio Ambriz at an América training session at the Club World Cup in 2015. Photo: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images) /

Ambriz turned things in early 2016, leading América to its second straight Concacaf Champions League title, handily defeating the Tigres 4-1 in the final.

In league play, América finished a poor fourth before pushing past the Chivas in the quarterfinals as Oribe Peralta scored the game winner, only to fall in the semifinals for a third straight season. This time Monterrey eliminated the Aguilas.

Ambriz survived into the Apertura 2016, but when the Chivas smashed América 3-0 in Estadio Azteca in Week 7, Nacho’s days were numbered. The Aguilas lost two weeks later to León – again in the Azteca – and Peláez fired Ambriz.

Veteran coach Ricardo La Volpe stepped into the driver’s seat on Sept. 22, 2016, but his tenure – his second term with América – would be less than fruitful. Though La Volpe finished the Apertura 2016 season undefeated, his record was 5-8-0. The Aguilas finished fifth but muscled their way into the Finals, only to lose on a penalty shoot-out to the Tigres.

Aguilas lose altitude

Things were not as rosy during the Clausura 2017 (though La Volpe debuted two precocious academy players, Edson Álvarez and Diego Lainez) and América missed out on the playoffs, finishing ninth. The Aguilas had not missed a Liguilla since before Peláez was hired nearly six years earlier.

Peláez was fired on April 28, 2017, with two games remaining in the season. He would not get to choose the next América coach. Peláez had found quick success with Miguel Herrera, but then went through three coaches in 20 months though each coach contributed a trophy to the club’s collection. Worse still, América had won nothing of consequence during its centennial anniversary.

Aguilas regain flight, Part 5
Santiago Baños was the GM of the national team before joining América. (Photo by Omar Vega/LatinContent via Getty Images) /

A month later, América hired Team Mexico Sporting Director Santiago Baños, naming him GM. And it was no surprise that Baños’ first act was to bring back Miguel Herrera. “El Piojo” had coached Baños – a central defender – at both Atlante and Monterrey (2002-2007), then added him to his coaching staff when he retired. Baños served as Herrera’s assistant thereafter, including during the latter’s title-winning stint as coach of the Aguilas (2012-2013).

Peláez had not left the cupboard empty and Baños/Herrera assembled a rugged team centered around midfielder Guido Rodríguez who had played for “El Piojo” at Tijuana. Guido shielded central defenders Bruno Valdez and Emanuel Aguilera in front of goalie Agustín Marchesín. A formidable defense, indeed.

Aguilas regain flight, Part V
Apertura 2018 MVP Guido Rodriguez dispossesses Cruz Azul’s Edgar Mendez. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /

In quick order, “El Piojo” had América back in the playoffs. A third-place finish produced a quarterfinal match-up vs Cruz Azul. Both matches were scoreless draws but the Aguilas moved on as the higher seed. In the semifinals, the Tigres avenged their loss in the Apertura 2014 final, knocking out “Los Azulcremas” 4-0 on aggregate.

The next season (Clausura 2018), América finished second and opened the playoffs against the Pumas, dominating the “Clásico Capitalino” 6-2. But again, the Aguilas were tripped up in the semifinals, losing to the eventual champion for the second straight season. This time Santos was the culprit.

Then, just like his first time around, Herrera led América to a championship in his third season at the helm. Led by league MVP Guido Rodríguez, the No. 2 seed Aguilas claimed their league-record 13th title by defeating top-seeded Cruz Azul in a thrilling final. The Eagles had come full circle.

Part I – Spiraling in the downdraft – can be read here. Part II – Playing with clipped wings – can be read here. Part III – Soaring the heights again – can be read here. Part IV – Chasing the updrafts – 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.