As the season started in the first year of the newly-branded Liga MX, I thought having León back in the league was going to be a cute story.
And nothing more.
It was great to have one of the historic teams back, I thought. They had won plenty of championships in the past, they had a great fanbase, serviceable players, and a serviceable coach. A trip to the liguilla was certainly not out of the realm of possibility, much like it was for Xolos when they were promoted last year.
With only 6 games left in the Liga MX Aperttura, it is clear that León has quickly established itself as one of the teams to beat, along with those plucky Aztec Dogs up North, and Toluca (whose 1st place standing is a huge surprise in and of itself). León goes by many names - Los Esmeraladas, las panzas verdes, (the green bellies), and La Fiera (loosely translated as the beast, but it can apply to the team, the fans and the stadium). Call'em what you like, but they have become a force in the A2012 season.
In a league where sold-out, intimidating stadiums are the exception rather than the rule, León has turned their home-field into a very formidable advantage. Outside of the Monterrey teams and to a lesser degree, Xolos, no other team enjoys as vibrant a home atmosphere, and it is paying off. Leon has won 4 of 6 games at home, and has lost only once on the road. It certainly helps that the city's central location in the country means that most away games aren't more than a half day's drive.
It also has to be said that León could have altered the television landscape for the better by signing a deal to televise their home games outside of the Azteca-Televisa duopoly. I have heard many times business types say about something like this "I won't be the first, but I'll sure be the second." We'll see if anyone else makes a move as their contracts expire, but that is a topic for another day.
So why is it different now? Why did León languish so long in the 2nd division? I asked a local TV and radio personality here in Austin, Jorge Iturralde, a very passionate León fan just that?
"León is a city whose citizens go all in with the team. They take to the streets to celebrate wins, shed tears after defeats, and consume all things to do with the León brand. None of these were ever properly leveraged by the long list of owners who have come and gone.
"(Pachuca owner) Jesús Martínez, Sr. invested a great deal of resources to convert León into a force in the 2nd division, with hopes that the team would earn promotion. And it is with those players that this team currently sits in third place."
It was the last part of what Iturralde said that got me thinking. I seem to recall last summer that León (and Pachuca both) was one of the big movers and shakers in the draft. They collected over a dozen players.
"The team decided to opt for continuity - they did add 16 players in the draft, but only a small handful of those have seen action." Iturralde said.
One of the players who helped the esmeraldas make the jump is Carlos "el Gullit" Peña, a brash, young midfielder who struck his fourth goal in the tournament last night to equalize vs. Pumas. The 22-year old Pachuca product has been nothing short of sensational for la Fiera this season. His 4 goals lead the team, which have tallied 20 altogether - tied for tops in the league with Toluca. Defensively, only Cruz Azul has allowed less goals than the ones in green.
***UPDATE*** It looks like important people have also been keeping an eye on Peña. He just earned his first call-up.
Regardless, is this just a passing phase. Does León really have what it takes to make a deep run into the playoffs? Again, I asked for insight from Austin's León Authority.
"León has what it takes to take the trophy, but it will not be easy. They have a good roster, but they lack that one difference maker, a heavyweight whose mere presence can make the other side quake in their boots (like an Humberto Suazo or Christian Benítez, for example). Nevertheless, with the players they have and their exhaustive work-rate, there is no reason to think that they cannot surprise some folks."
Honestly, I don't think anyone can be surprised with what León does.