Reflections on Matchday 1: America, Leon pass first tests

Renato Ibarra holds off Carlos Rodriguez during first-half action. Ibarra provided two assists and created a penalty for America in the team's 4-2 win. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images)
Renato Ibarra holds off Carlos Rodriguez during first-half action. Ibarra provided two assists and created a penalty for America in the team's 4-2 win. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images) /

The Liga MX raised the curtain on the Apertura 2019 season after which the Aguilas and Esmeraldas look to be playoff shoo-ins.

The Best Game of Opening Weekend was Saturday night’s America-Monterrey match at Estadio Azteca pitting two legitimate title contenders in a high-flying shoot-out. The Aguilas showed extended flashes of a lethal attack while defeating the Rayados 4-2, with Nico Castillo netting twice.

The second-best game took place in Pachuca where León ended the Tuzos’ 16-game unbeaten streak at home with an impressive 3-1 win. The Esmeraldas made it clear that they intend to be a protagonist again this season and have now won 14 of their past 15 regular-season contests.

Elsewhere Saturday, Atlético San Luis lost 2-0 to the visiting Pumas in its Liga MX debut, Cruz Azul and Necaxa played to a scoreless draw and the Tigres toyed with Morelia 4-2. On Sunday, Querétaro stunned host Toluca 2-0 and Santos spanked the Chivas 3-0. On Friday night, visiting Tijuana smacked Puebla 3-1 and host Atlas edged debutante Juárez 1-0. Veracruz had a bye.

America 4, Monterrey 2

Agustín Marchesín and Renato Ibarra led the Aguilas to a victory in a game that also featured a halftime tribute to Edson Álvarez who has officially left The Nest and is headed to Ajax.

Marchesín made 5 stops including a great sprawling save off a Maxi Meza shot only 70 seconds into the match. The America keeper was primarily responsible for the Rayados’ first goal in minute 7 (his free kick to nobody in particular was turned into a fast break by Dorlan Pabón who flicked a volley ahead to Rogelio Funes Mori who was running free behind the defense and the Argentine striker slotted home without much trouble).

America beats Rayados
Edson Alvarez salutes fans during a halftime tribute at Estadio Azteca Saturday night. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images) /

“Marche” did cause a bit of a scare late in the first half shortly after another spectacular save. The keeper complained of dizziness and the game was stopped for nearly 4 minutes while medics attended to him. Though he was able to finish the match – and though perhaps it was just a one-off occurrence – this bears monitoring as the season goes on.

Ibarra drew the penalty that Castillo converted in minute 17 to even the score, then assisted on the go-ahead goal just two minutes later. The shifty Ecuadorian winger created space out wide then lifted a perfect cross to Matheus Uribe who powered home a header from right in front.

After the Rayados knotted the score in minute 31 (a splendid pass from John Stefan Medina carried over the America back line and found the head of Avilés Hurtado who nodded home from 12 meters past a helpless Marchesín).

Ibarra then added another assist when he dribbled away from a double team then lifted a nifty cross to an unmarked Castillo who couldn’t miss with his wide-open header. The play was indicative of a sloppy performance by the Monterrey backline. The Rayados center backs (Nico Sánchez and Medina) got drawn out of position and completely lost track of Castillo, the last person you want to leave alone in front of goal.

America beats Rayados in opener
Nico Castillo celebrates after scoring America’s third goal – his second – as the Aguilas manhandled Monterrey at Estadio Azteca. (Photo by Mauricio Salas/Jam Media/Getty Images) /

The Aguilas’ final goal came from a play started by sub Jérémy Ménez. The Frenchman carried the ball left to right above the penalty box then back-heeled a pass to Ibarra who was moving in the opposite direction. Ibarra blasted a left-footer from 22 meters that goalie Marcelo Barovero could only parry to his left. Roger Martínez was the first to react and he pounded home the insurance goal with less than 15 minutes remaining.

Before the game, America coach Miguel Herrera said this was the best roster he’d ever had the privilege of coaching (despite the transfer of Álvarez to Ajax) and the Aguilas played like they believed him. Though only the first game of the season, America looked strong. In attack, the Aguilas were quick and vertical, while timing and spacing looked sharp. On defense, the team pressed well and showed good awareness with Matheus Uribe taking up part of Edson’s normal duties alongside Guido Rodríguez. Francisco Córdova, 22, was solid as a starter in midfield.

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As for Monterrey, coach Diego Alonso held out key starters Rodolfo Pizarro and Jesús Gallardo who joined training camp late after helping El Tri win the Gold Cup. However, Alonso can’t be happy with his defense. America found too much space around the box and left back Leonel Vangioni often look outmatched against Ibarra.

There was one minor controversy. In minute 33, “Marche” blocked a Pabón bullet, popping the shot high into the air. As Funes Mori ran down the rebound, he appeared to get sideswiped by America defender Emanuel Aguilera. Ref César Ramos waved off the call, but we never saw a replay to see if he missed the call.

Pachuca 1, León 3

This was a highly anticipated contest matching last season’s best road team (León was 6-1-1 with 20 goals for and 7 goals against) against the best home team (Pachuca was 8-0-0 with 26 goals for and 5 goals against).

These two teams last met in the final game of the Clausura 2019 regular season and the outcome was the same, although León’s victory Saturday evening in Pachuca left the Tuzos with their first home loss since August of last year.

America, Leon pass opening tests
Leon defenders Ramiro González, left, and Miguel Herrera, right, bracket Pachuca striker Franco Jara. (Photo by Jam Media/Getty Images) /

León overran Pachuca in midfield throughout the first half and were denied an early goal when ref Adonai Escobedo whistled Ismael Sosa for a non-existent foul when Sosa stripped Pachuca defender Gustavo Cabral right in front of goal. Minutes later, León striker José Juan Macías clattered a shot off the right post.

Two minutes later, Sosa knocked in the rebound of his own blocked shot after Joel Campbell had fed him with a sharp cutback pass just left of goal. Defender Oscar Murillo blocked Sosa’s initial effort, but the former Tuzo got to the loose ball first and rammed it past Pachuca keeper Rodrigo Rey. Macías doubled the lead from the penalty spot in minute 38.

Pachuca established control in the second half as León retreated a bit on defense and closed its lines. The Tuzos created chance after chance but could not find the net. León goalie Rodolfo Cota made 7 saves on the day, but most were routine.

In minute 71, León midfielder was shown red for stamping on the heel of Pachuca’s Víctor Guzmán and the Tuzos pressed forward in waves after that. Minutes later, Esmeraldas defender Miguel Herrera was called for a penalty and Franco Jara converted to cut León’s lead to 2-1.

As the Esmeraldas scrambled to close out the game, sub Leo Ramos sloppily turned the ball over, leading directly to a Tuzos counterattack. Cota screamed at the striker and Ramos made amends seconds later, controlling an outlet pass at the sideline and escaping a double team to drop a pass to captain Luis Montes. Ramos then sprinted toward goal as Montes navigated midfield before softly hitting a through pass that Ramos ran onto and slotted home to clinch the game.


Toluca 0, Querétaro 2

The Gallos Blancos stunned the Diablos Rojos, a sleeper pick to contend for the title, outplaying the hosts at Estadio Nemesio Díez. Toluca goalie Alfredo Talavera made 6 first-half saves but could not stop Fabián Castillo’s fabulous individual effort in minute 65. Querétaro doubled its lead just two minutes after Toluca fullback Rodrigo Salinas was ejected.

Santos 3, Chivas 0

The Guerreros picked apart visiting Guadalajara who appeared to sleepwalk through large portions of the match in Torreón. Chivas keeper José Antonio Rodríguez misplayed a free kick by Brian Lozano in minute 40, his defense failed to mark Doria on a corner kick and the Santos defender headed into the back of the net in minute 48 and Julio Furch held off Chivas defender Oswaldo Alanís before flicking home inside the near post from point-blank range.