Can Necaxa stay in the race for the top seed?

Mauro Quiroga kisses the ball after scoring the tying goal against Tijuana in a Matchday 8 contest. (Photo by Oscar Meza/Jam Media/Getty Images)
Mauro Quiroga kisses the ball after scoring the tying goal against Tijuana in a Matchday 8 contest. (Photo by Oscar Meza/Jam Media/Getty Images) /

The Rayos have a modest payroll yet find themselves in first place for the second time this season.

After 13 weeks of the Apertura 2019 schedule, there is a shock leader at the top of the Liga MX table. Necaxa boasts a 1-point lead over Santos and I am confident in declaring that not a single pundit predicted that would be the case with six matchdays remaining to be played.

Coach Guillermo Vázquez obviously deserves consideration for Coach of the Year as he has taken a completely remade roster and turned it into a cohesive team.

Necaxa in first place
Necaxa coach Guillermo Vazquez has his Rayos playing an exciting brand of soccer. (Photo by Manuel Guadarrama/Getty Images) /

The Rayos surprised many by stealing into the playoffs last season, claiming a sixth seed behind the outstanding play of winger Brian Fernández. The speedy Argentine scored 12 goals – second best in the league – but was suspended for both legs of the quarterfinals and Necaxa bowed out to No. 3 seed Monterrey.

But while Necaxa was being eliminated by the Rayados, Fernández was sold to MLS club Portland. And over the summer, Rayos management overhauled the club’s roster, selling off and releasing eight additional players. In came eight new faces, including Argentine forwards Mauro Quiroga and Maxi Salas. Before the season, Necaxa’s payroll ranked 16th out of the league’s 19 teams.

It was no surprise that Necaxa got off to a slow start as “Memo” Vázquez tinkered with his line-up and continued coaching his preferred style of play – an orderly defensive formation with tactical pressing and an emphasis on the swift counter-attack.

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Necaxa opened the season with a 1-1-2 record that included two shutouts (0-0 home draw vs. Cruz Azul and a 2-0 loss at UNAM). However, the Rayos’ only victory gave a hint of things to come. Necaxa routed Veracruz 7-0 on Matchday 3 with six different players getting on the scoresheet.

Matchday 5 saw 11th-placed Necaxa playing host to league-leading Santos who came into Estadio Victoria with a perfect 4-0-0 record and an impressive 12-2 goal differential. Ninety minutes later, Santos headed for home with a 3-0 loss on its record, the goals provided by Salas and Quiroga.

New stars emerge for Necaxa

After the Santos match, Salas – a 21-year-old who had been signed from Chile’s O’Higgins – was in the media spotlight. “El Tanque” was tied for the league lead with 4 goals and, when he scored the following week against the Chivas, Necaxa fans had a new hero to replace the departed Brian Fernández.

Necaxa in first place
Maxi Salas (center) has teamed up well with Mauro Quiroga (right) to form a dynamic duo for Necaxa. (Photo by VICTOR CRUZ/AFP/Getty Images) /

The Rayos rode a five-game unbeaten streak that included a comeback win at Tijuana (with Salas getting the equalizer and Quiroga netting the game-winner in minute 78) into a spot atop the leaderboard. Necaxa was tied with Querétaro and Santos at 17 points but in first place on goal differential after Matchday 9.

León then doused Necaxa with cold water, winning in Estadio Victoria, causing Rayos fans to wonder if it had all been done with mirrors. But “Memo” Vázquez boldly tweaked the line-up for the next game – leaving Salas on the bench – and his Electricistas shocked Querétaro, earning a 2-1 road win.

Since then, Necaxa played to a lackluster scoreless draw against FC Juárez, but bounced back from a 2-0 deficit on the road to defeat Morelia 3-2 thanks to a brace from Quiroga. Now the big Argentine veteran is the man of the hour and his 8 goals has him tied for the league lead with Julio Furch.

With the October FIFA break momentarily interrupting the Liga MX schedule, Necaxa sits atop the table with 24 points from 13 matches. That’s good for a 1-point lead over Santos and 3 points better than Querétaro, although both of those teams have already served their bye.

Necaxa has no time to rest on its laurels. The Rayos host fourth-place América on Oct. 19, then visit Atlas before serving their bye on Matchday 16. Fortunately, their two closest pursuers face each other on that same date as Santos hosts Querétaro to kick off Matchday 16 on Oct. 29.

With a potent offense (the Rayos are tied for the league lead with 26 goals), a steady defense and a talented goalie in Hugo González between the pipes, Necaxa seems a sure bet to be in the playoffs again. If Quiroga can keep producing and “Memo” Vázquez can hit all the right tactical buttons down the stretch, there’s no reason Necaxa can’t be considered a genuine title contender.