Hot Stove League, Liga MX-style: The Big Four

The Chivas will take the field at Estadio Azteca under the leadership of interim coach Marcelo Michel Leaño. (Photo by Alfredo Moya/Jam Media/Getty Images)
The Chivas will take the field at Estadio Azteca under the leadership of interim coach Marcelo Michel Leaño. (Photo by Alfredo Moya/Jam Media/Getty Images) /
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Liga MX Hot Stove League Big 4
Federico Viñas (left) and Henry Martín will lead the América strike force in the Clausura 2021. Liga MX (Photo by Cesar Gomez/Jam Media/Getty Images) /

Chivas aim for Final; Cruz Azul, América find new coaches

For the first time since the Clausura 2011, América, the Chivas, Cruz Azul and the Pumas qualified for the Liga MX playoffs in the same season.

Despite the “success” The Big Four enjoyed during the Guardianes 2020, each club enters the Clausura 2021 in varying degrees of disarray and with a surplus of drama to muddle through.

Like all Liga MX clubs, The Big Four have suffered from pandemic-related financial issues that impacted roster decisions and two of the clubs (América and Cruz Azul) made coaching changes.

In this installment of “Hot Stove League, Liga-MX style,” I’ll take a look at each member of “Los Cuatro Grandes” and identify the primary issues and concerns each team will confront this season.

The winningest Liga MX team

América’s fans and – most importantly – its front office demand hardware. Every season without a trophy is a failure.

The Aguilas claimed the No. 3 seed and a first-round bye for the Guardianes 2020 playoffs. Then they promptly wilted, knocked out of the Liguilla by hated rivals Guadalajara. It is virtually unforgivable to lose a “Super Clásico” and doing so in the Liga MX playoffs as the clear favorite is a mortal sin.

Coach Miguel Herrera survived another three weeks, however. His final moments as Top Aguila took place in Orlando, Florida, where América lost to MLS club LAFC in the Concacaf Champions League semifinals. “El Piojo” watched the last 45 minutes of that match from the stands after getting ejected for instigating a mini-brawl at halftime.

The loss to the Chivas was bad enough, but the constant scuffles (with referees, with other coaches) and the tendency to be politically incorrect (“El Piojo” shouted homophobic slurs at a ref on the pitch, and told reporters he’d gladly welcome back a player accused of domestic violence even after ownership traded him away and declared he’d never be allowed back).

Santiago Solari is the new head coach. Solari, 44, has a short resumé but the team he coached just happens to be Real Madrid. The Argentine spent a year in Mexico – with Atlante – back in 2009-2010, so he is familiar with Liga MX. That means he knows he must win trophies to earn the affection of América fans.

The Aguilas not only moved on from “El Piojo” but failed to keep midfielder Santiago Cáseres. The 23-year-old defensive mid returned to Spain’s Villarreal after the front office was unable to extend Cáseres’ loan agreement at a reasonable price. The feisty Argentine failed to impress during his first season in Coapa but won a starting spot down the stretch of the Guardianes 2020.

América effectively addressed this issue by signing Pedro Aquino from the champs. Aquino, 25, helped León win the Liga MX title with scrappy defense and ownership hopes he’ll finally fill the hole left in front of the back four when Guido Rodríguez left for Real Betis in January 2020.

With little interest in relying on wingers Roger Martínez and Andrés Ibargüen, the Aguilas acquired Mauro Lainez, 24, from Tijuana. Lainez – the older brother of academy product Diego who left with Guido for Real Betis a year ago – had a break-out season with the Xolos and should line up opposite Leo Suárez in support of strikers Federico Viñas and Henry Martín.

Also coming into the nest is Alan Medina, a midfielder who could nudge Richard Sánchez out of the starting line-up. There have been whispers that Sánchez – an effective player – is seen as a locker-room cancer and Medina, 23, showed versatility during his 10 appearances with Toluca last season. If the Sinaloa native shows promise, América will likely try to prolong Medina’s loan deal or exercise the buy-out.

Besides Cáseres, América said good-bye to former captain Paul Aguilar (the 34-year-old defender declined to accept an 80-percent pay cut) and fullback Luis Reyes who returned to his old club, Atlas, after failing to convince ownership he deserved a contract extension.

Solari must still await the return to health of defender Bruno Valdez (knee surgery in August) but he has Guillermo Ochoa between the pipes and capable back-liners in Jorge Sánchez, Sebastián Cáceres, Emanuel Aguilera and Luis Fuentes.

The club’s other concerns? Will Gio dos Santos rediscover his form? Can playmaker Nicolás Benedetti avoid injury? Will on-loan Sergio Díaz demonstrate the skills that earned him a contract with Real Madrid (the Uruguayan played for Solari in 2016 when the coach managed Real Madrid B in La Liga Second Division)?