Santos Laguna storms into Liga MX Clausura final with upset of Club America
MEXICO CITY -- If only briefly, it appeared as if the Estadio Azteca was working its magic once more.
Two quick goals from Cecilio Dominguez and Bruno Valdez had Club America on the brink of an epic comeback just 23 minutes in, after a 4-1 loss in the first leg of the Liga MX semifinals necessitated a 3-0 win from the 12-time league champions. Echoes of Club America's late comeback against Cruz Azul in the Clausura 2013 finals rang through the fabled Mexico City soccer cathedral when Dominguez jammed home the first goal after just 11 minutes.
Later, a timely jump from Valdez saw him beat Santos goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco with a header. Moments later, Club America was again knocking at the door, providing heavy pressure. Nevertheless, Santos' defensive unit held on.
Relying solely on the counterattack, Santos struck gold when Jonathan Rodriguez scored just four minutes before the end of the first half, dumping ice water on the red-hot start from the locals.
Though America once more needed two goals to stamp their ticket for the finals, second-half substitutions from manager Miguel Herrera were not enough to turn the tide, as Andres Ibarguen and Diego Lainez could not provide the dose of expected offense.
With just five minutes left in regulation, Jesus Isijara provided the final blow on a counterattack, besting a pair of overwhelmed Club America defenders and launching a powerful strike beyond the reach of Argentina goalkeeper Agustin Marchesin to make it 2-2 on Sunday and 6-3 in the aggregate.
Throughout the final moments of the game, Club America fans voiced their displeasure at the team's performance, with some sectors of the crowd asking for Herrera's removal.
"Santos took advantage of our mistakes, we can't allow ourselves to be beaten this way," a downtrodden Herrera said at the post-match news conference. Herrera also said his team "beat themselves" with mistakes in the final third on both offense and defense, singling out two of the four goals his team received in the first leg in Torreon.
It is the second consecutive disappointment for Herrera and his club at the semifinal stage of a tournament. Earlier this year, MLS side Toronto FC whisked past the Mexican giants in the CONCACAF Champions League before being beaten by Chivas in the final.
Meantime, Santos Laguna moves on to face Toluca in a final series few saw coming at the outset of the playoffs.
Winners of five league titles, the Torreon-based club will face the Diablos Rojos, the only team outside of Chivas and Club America to have amassed ten or more Liga MX titles. The two sides have a long history in the final stages of the league.
In the Verano 2000 tournament, a historic Toluca team spearheaded by Paraguay legend Jose Cardozo and manager Enrique Meza won their third title in as many years by besting Santos Laguna. Ten years later, for the Bicententario 2010 championship, Toluca once again claimed the title. In both cases, Toluca managers (Meza and Jose Manuel de la Torre) quickly went on to manage the Mexican national team.
As for Club America, Herrera failed to take the team into his third finals appearance and first in his second stint as Aguilas manager. After the epic Clausura 2013 win, a repeat title was in the cards when the team faced Leon. However, they were unable to link back-to-back championships on that occasion.
Since his return to Liga MX following a period of managing the Mexican national team, Herrera has failed to reach the final with Tijuana and now Club America.
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.