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
Juan Ignacio Dinenno (right) and Juan Pablo Vigón starred in the Pumas’ miraculous comeback victory over Cruz Azul in the semifinals. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images) /

Labeled a mid-table team, UNAM reached Liga MX Final

The Guardianes 2020 started ominously for the Pumas, a team viewed as a fringe playoff team. Coach Miguel González quit just days before the season opener and pundits waited for the inevitable collapse under emergency coach Andrés Lillini, the club’s academy instructor.

Instead Pumas Pride was on display all season. Sure, the “Felinos” played unspectacularly, but they refused to beat themselves and proved to be opportunistic on offense. The result was a second-place finish (only 1 loss in 17 regular-season matches) and a playoff march to the Final where they came up short against the top-seeded Esmeraldas of León.

During the brief winter break, UNAM watched three important players depart, most impactfully striker Carlos González. That’s sure to inspire the naysayers to predict doom and gloom again.

González scored 34 goals across all competitions in his five seasons with the Pumas, including 7 goals this past term. Club finances being what they are, the front office decided it was better for the bottom line to sell the 27-year-old Paraguayan to the Tigres. His production (he was a willing chaser as well, often tracking back to press opponents) will be hard to replace.

Left fullback Alejandro Mayorga also left the fold (his loan deal ended, he returned to the Chivas) while former captain Andrés Iniestra was sold to FC Juárez. Mayorga will likely be replaced by youngster Jero Rodríguez while academy products Erik Lira and Amaury García are ready to step into Iniestra’s shoes in midfield.

UNAM’s success can, in part, be attributed to in-house player development. The Pumas boasted the third-youngest team in Liga MX last season and it surely helped that Lillini worked with many of the young Pumas as they came up through the system.

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Two players returned to the CU after loan deals expired: Chilean forwards Felipe Mora and Martín Rodríguez. Mora spent the past year with MLS club Portland (the Timbers are actively negotiating to continue the loan). Rodríguez played with Mazatlán FC last season.

The Pumas asked about Puebla striker Santiago Ormeño to replace but got nowhere. The expectation is that Lillini will play with a single striker – Juan Ignacio Dinenno (he led the team with 12 goals) – and rely on active wingers and peripatetic midfielder Juan Iturbe to provide offense.

There’s little doubt that the strength of this team will be the defense.

Goalie Alfredo Talavera was having an MVP-type season before injury sidelined him down the stretch. Central defenders Sebastián Freire and Johan Vázquez stood tall in front of back-up netminder Julio González. Right back Alan Mozo could attract interest from El Tri if he plays up to his potential.

So … all things being equal, bet against a Pumas playoff run at your own risk.