Chivas among title faves; ‘Tuca’ wins Cruz Azul debut

We’re now past the halfway point of the Liga MX regular season! With Week 9 of the 2023 Clausura set to close on Monday night, let’s dive into our latest recap with some of the biggest talking points from Mexico’s top flight.

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Chivas make title case after stunning Tigres

Nearly six years after winning their last Liga MX title in the 2017 Clausura, optimism has finally returned to one of the most storied and successful clubs in Mexican soccer.

In a rebuild project that began late last year with the hirings of technical director Fernando Hierro and manager Veljko Paunovic (a former coach for Major League Soccer side Chicago Fire and England’s Reading FC), Chivas have quickly turned into championship contenders in 2023.

Although it’s far from the entertaining and attack-minded fútbol seen under former coach Matias Almeyda — who carried them to their Liga MX title in 2017 and a CONCACAF Champions League trophy in 2018 — Paunovic has so far thrived with his pragmatic style of play that has pushed Chivas to fourth in the table.

Against talent powerhouse Tigres last Saturday in a 2-1 away win, and throughout the season, Chivas have been efficient with their direct attack, solid backline, and game-changing saves from goalkeeper Miguel “Wacho” Jimenez. Often happy to give up possession and wait for well-timed tackles and interceptions, Chivas have maintained an impressive 5W-3D-1L record through their approach that has trended towards a defensive gameplan after scoring early goals.

It’s also worth noting that from their nine games, they’ve already faced the current top three teams in the standings. That said, Paunovic still expects even more from his squad.

“I don’t think that this Chivas [team] is a finished project, matches like this one help us strengthen the base and foundation of the team, from here we’re going to demand improvement,” said the Serbian coach after the victory against Tigres.

The good news for Paunovic and Chivas fans is that their frontline is set to have an important reinforcement next month. Currently recovering from a knee injury suffered in January, Mexico international Alexis Vega is expected to return to the field this March. With arguably their most important player back in the mix, Chivas’ evolution might soon reach another level.

Depending on how things go, they might soon reach another title as well.

After smoke break, ‘Tuca’ Ferretti wins in Cruz Azul debut

Aside from the boisterous and polemical Miguel “Piojo” Herrera, there is no manager in Liga MX that is as eccentric or controversial as 69-year-old Brazilian coach Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti. In a lengthy Liga MX career that has seen him lead a total of seven Mexican clubs since the 1990s, Ferretti has made headlines for his viral tirades, inappropriate quotes and also his unique manner of carrying out his job.

But as atypical as he may be, achievements have also followed with his five Liga MX titles earned with Tigres since 2011, which is why it wasn’t much of a shock that a “Big Four” club like Cruz Azul made the decision to hire him for their vacant coaching position last Wednesday.

By Saturday in his debut against FC Juarez, Ferretti went full Tuca.

Cigarette in hand, the coach spent the first half scribbling notes up in a suite in the Estadio Azteca stands. After eventually wandering down to the pitch in the second half and watching Cruz Azul secure a 1-0 win, he then continued his peculiar tradition of not taking part in a post-game news conference when his team claims a victory.

Three points earned in his Cruz Azul debut, Ferretti sat quietly in a corner, occasionally nodding at the comments made by goalscorer Uriel Antuna to reporters, who was selected to take his place.

An idiosyncratic figure in the Mexican soccer world, time will tell if he can continue to help energize a Cruz Azul team that began the season with a 0W-1D-4L record (they’re now 3W-1D-4L), or if he once again becomes a distracting sideshow that can be outdated, crude and cringeworthy.

For example, during 2021 in his uneventful run with FC Juarez, Ferretti was given a three-match ban and widely criticized after making an anti-gay joke when addressing reporters. When he does speak after matches that his teams haven’t won, Ferretti also typically requests that women ask questions first, which once led to him storming out when a journalist questioned why he did this. On the sideline with FC Juarez and in his final seasons with Tigres, his tactical approach also felt predictable as other coaches surpassed his method week by week.

Nonetheless, Cruz Azul are taking the gamble and giving at least one more chance for the veteran manager who is now 30+ years into his coaching career.

Liga MX youngsters help Mexico beat U.S. to a CONCACAF trophy

Despite having nothing to do with Week 9 of the Liga MX season, we should give a spotlight to a number of up-and-coming players that were recently involved in Mexico’s title-run in the CONCACAF U17 Championship.

With a roster that had 17 of their 20 players based in Liga MX academies, Mexico lifted the youth tournament trophy on Sunday night after defeating the United States 3-1. Special recognition should be given to El Tri‘s U.S.-based dual-nationals like Fidel Barajas (Charleston Battery) and Javen Romero (LAFC) that thrived in the competition, but it was a strong core of Mexico-based talent from nine different Liga MX clubs that helped push the team to the championship.

Sure, El Tri winning a U17 championship isn’t exactly groundbreaking — they’ve won six of the last seven — but it remains as much-needed good news for a national team setup that has been on a decline over the last couple of years. The setbacks, which range from Mexico’s group stage exit in the 2022 World Cup to a failure to qualify for the 2024 Olympics and the 2023 U20 World Cup, rattled the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) that has made a handful of front office changes since last summer.

In a new World Cup cycle, there is now some hope with another promising generation of Liga MX talent emerging with a regional championship. Looking ahead, it might be only a matter of time before players like Santos Laguna’s Stephano Carrillo, Pachuca’s Gael Alvarez and Necaxa’s Brandon Lomeli become household names in Mexico, but first, they’ll need to establish themselves as players in their senior Liga MX team.

Earning those minutes, in a league that can frequently overlook opportunities for young players, is a lengthy article for another day.

Additional observations

– Elsewhere in Week 9: Necaxa had a late game-winner overruled by VAR in a 1-1 draw with Queretaro, Gustavo del Prete collected two assists in Pumas’ 2-1 away win over Mazatlan, Atlas bounced back from an early deficit in a 2-2 draw with Club America, Toluca defeated Atletico San Luis 2-0, Juan Brunetta scored twice in a 3-2 victory for Santos Laguna against Puebla, and Club Tijuana defeated current champions Pachuca 2-0. Leon vs Monterrey is scheduled for Monday night.

ESPN MX reported last week that Club America dual-national Alejandro Zendejas is set to decide his national team future in March. The winger, who recently made his debut with the U.S. men’s national team, is also eligible for a one-time switch to Mexico and has already had conversations with new manager Diego Cocca.

– To close things out, let’s go to Guadalajara where Atlas’ Brian Lozano scored what might not only be one of the best goals of the Liga MX season, but also one of the best goals you’ll see from any league so far this year.