And then there were four! The quarterfinals of the 2022 Apertura season are now officially over, leaving just a few teams in the running for the Liga MX title. After the latest batch of playoff games, here are four talking points and some thoughts ahead of this week's semifinal matches.
America thump Puebla in historic 11-2 rout
What curse? Despite a widespread belief in Mexico that the top-performing regular-season club is jinxed once the playoffs roll around, No. 1 seed Club America demolished No. 8 Puebla with an 11-2 aggregate victory in the quarterfinal round --- tying a Liga MX record from 2000 (Toluca 9-0 Puebla) for the highest-goal margin in a two-legged playoff series.
Following a comfortable 6-1 away win in Wednesday's first leg, America had few problems at home on Saturday with an ensuing 5-1 result in their favor. Perhaps just as impressive as the scoreline was the fact that manager Fernando Ortiz made six changes to his XI in the second leg, showcasing the depth and the conviction that his entire roster has.
And yet, even with an exciting number of squad options and a historic tally of goals, Ortiz made a point to emphasize that Las Aguilas still have more work ahead of them.
"We haven't won anything yet," he said on Saturday. "I don't want to be a bad omen, but the remaining rivals in the semifinals are going to be very difficult."
Their manager has a point. This week, they'll take on No. 6 Toluca, who are emerging as dark horses in the Liguilla. Los Diablos Rojos are wild cards that have defensive questions but some serious attacking momentum building with four wins in a row and 13 goals scored during that run. Even goalkeeper Tiago Volpi has joined in on the fun, stepping up with not only vital saves, but also a goal and assist in the latest round.
Volpi leads Toluca at both ends of the pitch
The argument could be made that Volpi, Toluca's 31-year-old Brazilian goalkeeper, was the most important attacking player in the 6-4 aggregate victory against No. 3 Santos Laguna in the quarterfinal stage.
Although he allowed three goals during Thursday's first leg, Volpi scored the eventual game-winner and penalty in injury time that initially put Toluca up 4-3 in the series. On Sunday, the Brazilian was then decisive with not only his saves, but also an assist during the 2-1 victory in the second leg -- which was unfortunately marred by instances of the anti-gay goalkeeper chant from Santos fans that momentarily paused the match in the second half.
Looking back on the field at Toluca, there's much more to the dark horses than just Volpi. They may not have the most high-profile roster in Liga MX, but they do still contain players that are worthy of being included in the Best XI of the season such as midfielders Jean Meneses and Leonardo Fernandez. Strikers Carlos Gonzalez and Camilo Sanvezzo are also worthy of highlighting with their sudden uptick in goals.
Manager Ignacio Ambriz must be given credit as well through his efforts that have organized a significant roster overhaul just a few months ago. Since a less-than-exciting 2021 run in Spain's second division with Huesca that lasted a few months, the veteran Liga MX coach is beginning to rebuild his reputation that once made him one of the most respected managers in Mexican soccer.
Trouncing the title favorites in the semis this week would be an easy way to exponentially grow his status, and when you consider that Club America are also his former employers, Ambriz might end up having some extra motivation in the next playoff series.
Defense carries Monterrey into next round
Only one team didn't allow a single goal during the quarterfinal stage: No. 2 Monterrey. Against No. 7 Cruz Azul, Los Rayados were impressive and efficient in a 3-0 aggregate victory that featured all three goals during Saturday's second leg at home. Carried by impressive defensive performances from Stefan Medina, Hector Moreno, Jesus Gallardo, goalkeeper Esteban Andrada and others, Monterrey shut out a Cruz Azul team that couldn't capitalize in the final third.
Monterrey, on the other hand, didn't need too many chances to find the back of the net. After German Berterame scored in the 20th minute of Saturday's second leg, Los Rayados sat back and absorbed pressure from Cruz Azul before securing goals after the 80th minute from Rogelio Funes Mori and Gallardo.
Funes Mori was especially amped after scoring for the first time since July. The Argentine-born Mexico national team striker has dealt with injury problems this season, and after clinching his latest goal for Monterrey over the weekend, the forward let loose with a Ray Lewis-inspired celebration at the Estadio BBVA Bancomer.
Rogelio Funes Mori doing his best Ray Lewis imitation pic.twitter.com/usbDaf7za4— Rayados90 (@rayadosninety) October 16, 2022
Speaking of the Mexican national team, El Tri manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino might keep his fingers crossed that Monterrey keep up their great run of defensive form in the Liga MX playoffs. On paper, Rayados defenders Cesar Montes, Moreno and Gallardo could all potentially be starters for Mexico in the upcoming World Cup.
Up next for those El Tri stars from Monterrey: a semifinal battle against No. 4 Pachuca. Regardless of Los Tuzos narrowly surpassing Tigres in the quarterfinals, they remain title contenders with their attractive style of play that previously helped them reach the final in the 2022 Clausura tournament. Depending on who you ask, they might have also been a little too confident with their celebrations on Sunday.
Pachuca, Guzman twerk their way into next round
After a 1-0 loss to No. 5 Tigres in the quarterfinal first leg earlier last week, Pachuca bounced back with a 2-1 victory on Sunday, dancing included. Shortly following a Victor Guzman goal in the first half of Sunday's win for Los Tuzos, the midfielder went viral after feigning injury and then twerking, perhaps inspired by a similar celebration in August from the NWSL's Lo'eau LaBonta.
Impacted by either Guzman's moves or the early setback, Tigres had issues with recovering. Even after being given a glimmer of hope from a 64th-minute goal from Guido Pizarro to make it 1-1 in the second half, Pachuca immediately responded in the 68th with a strike from Javier "Chofis" Lopez to make it 2-1 and 2-2 on aggregate.
Both sides eventually going down to 10 players after earning second-half reds, Pachuca held on to the 2-2 scoreline that narrowly pushed them into the semis thanks to their higher seeding (away goals are no longer utilized as tiebreakers in the Liga MX playoffs).
Monterrey shouldn't take Los Tuzos lightly this week in the semis. Typically attack-minded and risk-taking with his attacking efforts, Pachuca manager Guillermo Almada caught some by surprise with his more cautious approach that stifled Tigres' highly talented frontline. More curveballs could be thrown by Almada in the Liguilla, and depending how things go, maybe even more viral celebrations from Guzman.
Liga MX semifinal schedule
Club America vs. Toluca
First leg: Wednesday, Oct. 19, 10 p.m. ET
Second leg: Saturday, Oct. 22,9 p.m. ET
Monterrey vs. Pachuca
First leg: Thursday, Oct. 20, 10 p.m. ET
Second leg: Sunday, Oct. 23, 9 p.m. ET