Cementeros under Construction: Engineering a framework

Javier Orozco laments a missed opportunity against Paraguay's Libertad in a Copa Libertadores match in 2012 at Estadio Azul. (Photo by Angel Delgado/Clasos.com/LatinContent via Getty Images)
Javier Orozco laments a missed opportunity against Paraguay's Libertad in a Copa Libertadores match in 2012 at Estadio Azul. (Photo by Angel Delgado/Clasos.com/LatinContent via Getty Images) /

When the Apertura 2019 season comes to an end, it will have been 22 years since Cruz Azul’s last league title. After leading a revival at rivals América, Ricardo Peláez is the man in charge of ending the Cementeros’ ignominious streak.

As the Verano 1998 season kicked off, Cruz Azul fans were still celebrating their team’s first league title in 17 years. The victory hangover soon turned into a persistent headache for the Cementeros and their supporters.

The Cementeros enjoyed a respectable follow-up season, earning the No. 3 seed and confident that they could chase a repeat. Then América won a wildcard playoff to set up a quarterfinal against Cruz Azul. The Aguilas knocked the crown of Cruz Azul’s head, shutting out Carlos Hermosillo and winning with a 3-2 aggregate scoreline.

Cementeros under Construction, Part III
Cruz Azul fans have experienced plenty of agonizing playoff losses over the years. And nothing is more painful than losing to América in the Liguilla. (Photo by /Jam Media/Getty Images) /

By now, Cruz Azul fans were absolutely sick of losing to América in the playoffs (if they only knew … flash forward to the Clausura 2013 Final … or the Apertura 2018 Final).

The magic touch displayed by coach Luis Fernando Tena in 1997 seemed to have disappeared, in the playoffs at least. Despite leading Cruz Azul to the No. 1 seed in the Invierno 1998, Tena watched his Cementeros get knocked out of the playoffs by the eighth-seeded Pumas when Jimmy Lozano scored a goal in the 86th minute at Estadio Azul.

Cruz Azul claimed the No. 3 seed heading into the Verano 1999 playoffs, but lost to a youthful Atlas team (led by 20-year-old Rafa Márquez) in the semifinals. Then, the Cementeros stumbled through a rough Invierno 1999 regular season, but defeated No. 3 Necaxa as the No. 6 seed in the quarterfinals. The prize? A date with the No. 2 seed Aguilas of América in the semifinals.

“Paco” Palencia and Diego Latorre scored in the second leg and Cruz Azul finally had bragging rights over their crosstown rivals after holding on for a 2-1 win. Now, the Cementeros only needed to dispatch No. 7 seed Pachuca to hoist the trophy. The Tuzos were seen as a pushover even though they had eliminated the defending champs, No. 2 seed Toluca, then got past top-seeded Atlas in the semifinals.

Alas, Cruz Azul came up agonizingly short in the Final. After scoring a 90th-minute goal at Pachuca to equalize the first leg at 2-2, the Tuzos and Cementeros played an intense 90 minutes without scoring a goal at Estadio Azul. Just three minutes into sudden death overtime, however, Pachuca’s Alejandro Glaría bundled a cross into the net at the back side. The Golden Goal deprived the Cementeros of their ninth league crown.

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Cementeros collapse into rubble

The loss in the Finals was a gut punch. Tena and the Cementeros did not recover quickly. The team finished 11th and missed the playoffs the next season. Management decided that after 115 games (55 wins, 35 draws, 25 losses), Tena would have to be replaced.

José Luis Trejo was brought on board and revived the team’s fortunes … but was unable to add any hardware. The Cementeros earned the No. 1 seed in Trejo’s first season – Invierno 2000 – but the playoff curse continued as eighth-seeded Atlas stunned Cruz Azul in the quarterfinals.

The Spring of 2001 was a season of contrasts. Cruz Azul flopped in the Liga MX, sinking to a 13th-place finish while making Mexican soccer history in the Copa Libertadores. The Cementeros became the first Liga MX club to reach the final of the prestigious South American tournament, defeating Paraguay’s Cerro Porteño, powerful River Plate and Argentina’s Rosario Central during the knockout stages. Awaiting them in the final was Boca Juniors and their legendary coach Carlos Bianchi.

Cementeros under Construction, Part III
Cruz Azul players celebrate their third goal against Argentina’s Rosario Central. The away goal by Paco Palencia in minute 89 sent Cruz Azul to the finals of the 2001 Copa Libertadores tournament. (Photo: FABIAN GREDILLAS/AFP/Getty Images) /

Cruz Azul hosted the first leg and fell to Boca when midfield ace Marcelo Delgado scored in minute 81 (Delgado would join Cruz Azul two years later). Everybody figured the Cementeros would wilt under the pressure at La Bombonera in Buenos Aires. Instead, “La Maquina” played a whale of a game and a late first-half goal from “Paco” Palencia was enough to force a penalty kick shoot-out. Luck would not join the Cementeros at the penalty spot, however, and Boca claimed the title.

The Libertadores experience was to be the high point for Cruz Azul over the next four years. The Cementeros suffered a talent shortage and blew through five coaches in five in two years, including familiar names Enrique Meza (from March 2003 to March 2004) and Luis Fernando Tena (from March 2004 to October 2004).

Cruz Azul finished the Apertura 2004 in 17th place with a 4-4-9 record and a relegation battle loomed. Rubén Omar Romano was given the job for the Clausura 2005 and the Argentine tactician masterfully guided the Cementeros to a No. 2 seed and hopes of a return to glory. No such luck … Cruz Azul ran into América in the semifinals and crashed out by a 6-2 scoreline.

In Part IV, the Cementeros find some stability and contend for titles under Sergio Markarián and former Cementero Benjamín Galindo. Part V – Structural deficiencies – can be read here.

You can read Part I – Cementeros under Construction: A solid foundation – by clicking here. Part II – Cruz Azul looks to rebuild – can be found here.

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