Twin ‘exiles’ for Necaxa: Aguascalientes, Ascenso MX

Necaxa players celebrate with the Copa MX trophy after defeating Toluca to win the Clausura 2018 Cup. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
Necaxa players celebrate with the Copa MX trophy after defeating Toluca to win the Clausura 2018 Cup. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /
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Necaxa back in Liga MX
Igor Lichnovsky, Carlos Gonzalez and Marcelo Allende celebrate after winning the Clausura 2018 Copa MX title. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /

The prodigal team returns to Liga MX

As the first decade of the new millennium was coming to an end, Necaxa was wallowing in irrelevance. The Rayos were troubled by a lack of continuity and front office turbulence.

Raúl Arias had coached the team to its last title (Winter 1998) and had capably bridged the gap from Team of the Decade to hard-working overachievers. But poor front office decisions and bad contracts stifled the team, forcing Arias out in May 2005. Over the next four years, the Rayos had eight coaches.

Sinking into second division further shrank the payroll and hurt attendance figures. But the team responded to the strategies of Omar Arellano and he proved to have a magic touch, losing only 5 off 44 games at the helm.

Necaxa back in Liga MX
Necaxa players pose with the Ascenso MX trophy they won after the Clausura 2010 season. (Photo by Mario Castillo/Jam Media/LatinContent via Getty Images) /

The Rayos won both the Apertura 2009 and the Clausura 2010 Ascenso MX titles, earning immediate return to Liga MX. But the front office was to show little loyalty to Arellano and he was fired only six games into the Apertura 2010. The decision was harder to understand considering that Arellano’s son was Necaxa’s star player.

New coach Daniel Brailovsky was not up to the task and he was axed four games into the Clausura 2011 season after posting a 3-1-11 record. Sergio Bueno picked up the baton, but fumbled the handoff and the Rayos were demoted for a second time after only one season back in the top flight.

Necaxa back in Liga MX
Omar Arellano led Necaxa out of Ascenso MX exile in 2010, but was pink-slipped after only five games in the Liga MX. (Photo by Hector Vivas/LatinContent via Getty Images) /

Back in the Ascenso MX, Necaxa struggled to find consistency. The team went through three coaches over the next year before finding a balance under Jaime Ordiales. But Ordiales was stricken with health concerns early in his second season in charge (Apertura 2013) and the Rayos were guided by interim coaches, disrupting the tactical influences that had Necaxa vying for a return to Liga MX.

It would be nearly three years before the arrival of Alfonso Sosa set the club back on course. In the interim, the team had been sold to a local investment group and stability was re-established in the front office. The Rayos reached two consecutive Ascenso MX finals but failed to win promotion. The team won another title after the Apertura 2014, but lost to eventual champion Sinaloa in the Clausura 2015 semifinals. Sinaloa then defeated Necaxa in the Promotion Playoff, condemning the Rayos to another year in purgatory.

Return of the prodigal Rayo

Things didn’t look so good for Necaxa when the team failed to reach the playoffs in the Apertura 2015 and coach Miguel de Jesús Fuentes was fired. In came “Poncho” Sosa and he promptly led the Rayos to a second-place finish. The Electricistas then marched through the playoffs, easing past the Correcaminos in the quarterfinals before getting a series-clinching goal in the semifinals against Atlante from Jesús Isijara.

Necaxa outplayed Zacatecas in the finals, advancing to the Promotion Playoff thanks to goals by Felipe Gallegos and Isijara. The Rayos then routed FC Juárez 3-0 to climb back up into the Liga MX.

Sosa led Necaxa to the playoffs that first season back in the big leagues, upsetting the defending champion Tuzos of Pachuca in the semifinals before falling to América in the semifinals. But when the Rayos finished out of the playoffs the following season, Sosa was sent packing. Any sense of disgust at this sense of déjà vu (firing the coach who had lifted the team back into Liga MX) was mitigated by the hiring of former Necaxa legend Ignacio Ambriz to be the new coach.

But that sense of “connectedness” to Necaxa history did not last as Ambriz was let go after only one year on the job. The Rayos just missed out on the Liguilla in both of Nacho’s seasons, but he led the club to the Clausura 2018 Copa MX title. Rayos management claimed it wanted a more exciting style of play, so in came the youthful Marcelo Michel with Cruyff-like Total Football tactics.

Initially, the Rayos responded to the new attacking style, winning the SuperCopa MX over Monterrey before upsetting América in the season opener. That would turn out to be the high point of the Marcelo Michel Era and he was fired after going 3-3-7. Necaxa finished in 16th place and Guillermo Vázquez was brought in as the new head coach.

Despite this setback, the new front office was proving to be efficient at identifying talent. Necaxa scouts were combing the South American leagues and finding unpolished talent and promising youngsters, especially from Chile.

Necaxa back in Liga MX
Guillermo Vázquez has had Necaxa near the top of the table the entire Apertura 2019 season. (Photo by Azael Rodriguez/Getty Images) /

Brian Fernandez, Maxi Salas and Mauro Quiroga were hired from Argentina, while Chileans Víctor Dávila, Juan Delgado, Marcelo Allende and Claudio Baeza have been productive for the Rayos. These players have thrived under the guidance of Vázquez, whose aggressive pressing style and counter-attacking offense has proven effective. This, combined with solid scouting and pragmatic transfer decisions, has lifted Necaxa back into the upper echelons of the Liga MX.

The Rayos have clinched a playoff spot this season and their 31 points (with one game remaining) is one off the franchise record. A win over Puebla on Friday night will secure a No. 2 seed in the Liguilla, guaranteeing that the return match will be played at Estadio Victoria in the quarterfinals and, should they advance, in the semifinals as well. Quiroga is poised to become the first Rayos player to lead the Liga Mx in scoring since Agustín Delgado in Summer 2000.

Necaxa might not ever be a league power again, but with wise personnel decisions and productive transfer moves, Rayos fans can be confident that the club has built a solid foundation that could tease us with long playoff runs in the coming years.