The Liga MX Apertura'12 season was dominated by storylines from 2 unexpected sources. The first was Xolos de Tijuana, a team that did not exist until 2007 had earned promotion in 2011. Only 1 year later they won the Liga MX title. The other was the most recently promoted team. León was the exact opposite of Xolos. They were one of the league's oldest and most decorated teams that had wallowed in lower division obscurity for 10 years before finally climbing out of the abyss last summer.
The green-bellies took Liga MX by surprise with a very attractive brand of offensive soccer. They finished in third place, just behind Toluca and the afore-mentioned Xolos (who would knock Leon out in the Liguilla semis). The third place had earned León a wild card ticket into the Libertadores. Xolos, on the other hand, had won a spot in the group stage.
In between seasons, Xolos followed the if ain't broke, don't fix it philosophy. Conversely, León's front office figured a couple of big name signings would not only help them in the local league, they would also come in handy in the Libertadores. In came two marquee players: Rafa Marquez and Nery Castillo.
After a month of play, Xolos, have won all their matches and have a huge match-up with equally unbeaten and untied Tigres in Monterrey this weekend.
Leon has yet to win.
In either tournament.
The big names have made an impact, but not a positive one. Rafa Marquez has been caught out repeatedly - a step too slow in a league that is much more dynamic than he may remember it. He left the Libertadores tie vs. Chile's Iquique with a muscle strain after only 10 minutes and did not make the return trip. Rafa injured? Well, he is no Jim Marshall.
Nery Castillo has struggled to blend into the Fiera offense, but not for lack of effort. His lungs and legs have been working overtime to figure out the connections with his new teammates, but it is going to take time.
The emeralds' priorities were revealed this weekend in a 2-0 loss (their 3rd in a row) at Santos when they trotted out a reserve squad. After the game, their coach, Gustavo Matosas explained his strategy: Both tournaments are important, but we would all love to play in the (Libertadores) group stage. It could be that our limited roster has affected us, so we can't maintain our normal intensity if our players are tired for a definitive game."
And there I was thinking it was the pepto-colored alternate jersey.
Ii was going to be all or nothing in Chile, and León took a lead that would see them through (without Nery and Rafa, mind you). The sophomoric defending that has plagued La Fiera in 2013 did them in again, though. And when it went to penalties, even the most optimistic León fan had to have doubts. The players had it written all over their faces. Iquique moves on.
León goes home, winless for 2013.
As for Xolos, it has been nearly 10 years since a defending champion started so hot. But they will soon have to contend with a few trans-continental flights in addition to their longer than normal commutes.
Something tells me it won't make a lick a difference.