WITH JUST A FEW WEEKS to go in the Clausura, the green-bellied side that plays in the heart of Mexico was hoping to make a deep run in a tournament. They rested some key players for Leon's home match against Tigres, a team that itself was struggling to make the Liguilla despite its fat payroll. The reserves took care of the Monterrey side, but Leon did not do the same in the Libertadores, as they were eliminated by their first round nemesis, Bolivar.
Heading into the final week, a split squad took the field in Tijuana to see if Leon could temper the disappointment a bit by salvaging the last slot in the liguilla. All they could do was win and then scoreboard watch. The won, and then watched the teams that needed to not win do just that. 3 teams had a win and in game. None of them won, so Leon was in - as dangerous an 8 seed as their could have been. What team was lucky enough to draw the sleeping giant? Cruz Azul, of course. Who else?
Leon took out the 1 seed, and then took care of seed #2, Toluca. Even after going down 3-2 in the first leg of the Liga MX final vs. Pachuca, Leon was going to find a way. The young tuzos had spent the better part of the liguilla scoring goals at will. But their coach, Enrique Meza, decided to castle with hopes of protecting the goal advantage. The only way they would put the final out of reach was going to be with the counter. At home. It almost worked, thanks to the acrobatics of a 40 year goal keeper. But Conejo Perez proved he was a mere mortal in the second half when one of his parries caught him in the hip and the ball spun over his person and into the goal. Mario Boselli's header leveled the aggregate. In the 2nd extra time, Ignacio Gonzalez got the trophy winner with a header off a corner kick. And for the first time in over 10 years, a team repeated as Liga MX champs.
And this was a team that earned promotion 2 years ago.
Liga MX is not copycat league like the NFL. Few teams, if ever, imitate their more successful counterparts. They may want to take a closer look at Leon's blueprint. The squad's base helped them earn them promotion 2 years ago. Pachuca cast-offs, Carlos "Gullit" Peña & Luis Montes, along with Gallito Vazquez not only have become the most dominant midfield in Liga MX, they are poised to become the base of the national team next month. The club has made some shrewd signings, namely Rafael Marquez, but they have swung and missed as well (Nery Castillo). Above all, the team bet on continuity. The front office let Uruguayan coach, Gustavo Matosas work. There were no knee-jerk firings here after a bad spell. The coach, in turn, has stated how much he loves living in Guanajuato and is excited to see how the club will deal with the impending losses of some of the key figures. Gullit is rumored to already have a deal in place with an EPL team, while other Mexican suitors are said to be ready to shell out the big bucks fro some of the other players.
That's next month's order of business. For now, one of the most storied clubs in Mexican soccer has made a thunderous return to the top flight and take its rightful place among the league's elite teams by winning their 7th championship. 4 players of their players - Montes, Gullit, Gallito and Rafa will get a much-needed week off before they head to national team duty. And then in about a month, we'll see if Leon has the pieces in place to go for a three-peat.