Moneyball and memes: Puebla's rise from also-rans to Liga MX darlings

PUEBLA, Mexico -- The newest member of the Liga MX ownership club started his entrepreneurial career selling lemons and chocolate pastries from his doorstep. "I was five when I started selling the Gansitos [chocolate pastries]," said Manuel Jimenez. The 53-year-old took control of Club Puebla last December, culminating his lifelong dream of owning the two-time Mexican champions.

One of five siblings, Jimenez pressed on through a life of financial hardship in his early years, coupled with the loss of his mother at age 16. In college, Jimenez sold clothes to fellow students and teachers for book money. After graduation, Jimenez established himself at Puebla's flea markets, where hatched an idea for a business.

"I thought we would do well selling tennis shoes at the swap meet," he explained. "I convinced my brothers to move away from clothes and focusing on something else." Jimenez got a regional distributor to loan him six pairs of shoes in Mexico City. Over time, that modest loan became the genesis of a brand, Mister Tennis, that boasts over 160 stores in Mexico. Jimenez sold Mister Tennis in 2016 and used the money from the transaction to finance his purchase of Club Puebla, his boyhood club.

In their new owner's entire lifetime, Puebla had won the league just once, back in 1990. Since then, the team had gone through multiple relegations and owners. At the time of writing, Jimenez and his team of owners are not yet allowed to use the team's crest and original name, Puebla FC, thanks to a lawsuit won by a former owner, Ricardo Henaine, in court.

"I don't know if there's any football club, no -- any brand in Mexico -- that's been through so much as Puebla in the last two decades or so," said Rogelio Roa, the team's Vice President of Marketing and Commercial.

On the pitch, Puebla was also in danger of dropping out of the first division once more when Jimenez took over the club but through it all, the new owner kept focusing on what was working.

"There were positives from the get-go. We have a great coaching staff, we have one of the best managers in Mexico, Enrique Meza," he said. When Meza took over the team, Puebla was just three points clear. In only a few months, the team is 18 points clear of last-place Veracruz. This season, making the playoffs is a far more likely endeavor than dropping out of the top division.

Meza himself is finding his time in Puebla a welcome surprise. The former Mexico national team manager last won the league since 2007 and said there "weren't very many offers" when he decided to join Puebla last year. "I wouldn't say I'm being vindicated, don't get it wrong," said Meza. "I look at it as taking advantage of an opportunity and making the most of what we have here, which is a great squad."

That squad was brought together in large part to a revolutionary [by Liga MX's standards] way of thinking. "We had to think of a way to do things differently," said Jimenez. "I'm proud to say we've built a great group here." Operating on one of the country's more modest budgets, Puebla assembled a backroom staff focused on out-thinking their counterparts and tapping markets and resources usually ignored by the rest of Mexican clubs.

"If there's an interesting player out there, it doesn't matter if he's from Mexico or Malaysia: we want to take a look and bring him in if he can help," said Eduardo Saracho, Puebla's Director of Football Operations.

Saracho, who earned his MBA in Liverpool, never played professional soccer, in stark contrast to former Liga MX veterans Angel Sosa and Fabian Pena. The trio form Puebla's soccer operations team and are responsible for the team's player signings, making waves last winter when they signed Bolivia international Alejandro Chumacero, a player from a market not usually explored by Mexican clubs. The 26-year-old midfielder scored eight goals in last year's Copa Libertadores with former club The Strongest before moving to Mexico.

"'Chuma' has been an absolute steal," said Sosa. "You look at the way he plays and you're just blown away." Combined with Peru international Anderson Santamaria and Canada striker Lucas Cavallini (who signed last summer), Puebla has assembled one of the more internationally eclectic -- and effective -- rosters in Liga MX.

Over the first nine games of the Clausura, Puebla is just one win beneath tournament leader Club America, with 14 points accrued over that span. In each of their last two tournaments, Puebla's full point total was just 16 points in either semester.

"Yes, I suppose you can call it [Moneyball]," said Saracho, referring to the oft-referenced Michael Lewis book about the Oakland A's, who used broad statistical analysis and other unconventional tactics to turn their fortunes around in the early 2000's. The technique was notably adapted in English soccer as a means of competing with big-spending clubs.

"We understand other teams will see what we're doing," said Saracho, "which is why we're developing other methods to stay ahead." Both Saracho and Sosa agree the strategy is necessary to stay one step ahead from Liga MX clubs with seemingly unlimited budgets like America, Monterrey and Tigres. "The focus beyond the market is our youth teams and our local scouting," said Sosa.

During a recent practice at the Estadio Cuauhtemoc, Saracho and Sosa studied a group of youth players who had been integrated with the first team, explaining their use of biotechnology and advanced metrics to gauge who could make the jump into the top squad sooner rather than later. The idea is to create more fan engagement with the club by identifying and supporting local talent that makes it into the team's starting lineup.

Puebla's success this season has not been limited to the pitch and its backroom staff. A few miles away from the Estadio Cuauhtemoc, in the club's offices, Roa's team has gained plaudits (and criticism) for its handling of social media. The club's official Twitter handle has made waves this season by humorously calling out opponents and engaging in banter before and after matches. "It's always respectful," said Roa, who previously worked for Chiapas FC and Chivas in Liga MX. "At the end of the day, we want to echo what the backroom staff is doing and have fans identify with their club and our brand."

Aided by the team's performance against top teams this season -- Puebla has beaten the last two Liga MX champions, Tigres and Chivas in the Apertura 2017 -- Roa's brand of prodding has been effective, with many of the social media messages making the rounds on television and radio.

"I insist, it's all respectful," said Roa. "At the end of the day, we sometimes take this too seriously. What is it they say about soccer? 'It's the most important out of all the least important things in life.' That's how I feel about this."

For all the behind-the-scenes work being done, Puebla's rise in Liga MX is still relatively new and could easily be derailed by a spell of bad form, something especially true in a league notorious for its mood swings.

"One of the mantras I live by is that you have to work hard when things are good to prepare for when they're bad," said Saracho. "What we're doing right now is setting the basis for what comes ahead." Roa agrees with the assessment. "These memes and snarky tweets tend to fall flat when the team's not doing well, so that's not our entire strategy, by any means."

Despite their hot start, Puebla is slated to start next year in the bottom half of the relegation table again for the 2018-19 Apertura due to Mexico's particular relegation formula, in which the last six seasons' worth of point totals are averaged together to determine who drops out. To that end, a first-time owner, a wily veteran coach and a young, talented group of soccer and marketing executives are enjoying their current rise while bracing for the natural ebb and flow of the sport.

"For me, running a business is like running a soccer club," said Jimenez. "It's not win, draw or lose. It's win, draw or learn. Even when we fall, we take lessons with us. I just hope most of our lessons come by way of winning."