Apertura 2021 final: No. 2 Atlas visits No. 3 León

León must keep Atlas forward Julio Furch (left) in check if it hopes to claim the Apertura 2021 trophy. (Photo by ULISES RUIZ/AFP via Getty Images)
León must keep Atlas forward Julio Furch (left) in check if it hopes to claim the Apertura 2021 trophy. (Photo by ULISES RUIZ/AFP via Getty Images) /
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Liga MX Final 1
The Atlas will be tested by an attack-minded León squad as the Liga MX finals kick off Thursday night. León is chasing its ninth title; Atlas its second. (Photo by Refugio Ruiz/Getty Images) /

The two teams set to meet in the Liga MX finals are not even the flagship franchises of their ownership groups.

Although FIFA has tried to discourage multi-club ownership, the practice is alive and thriving in Mexico.

For instance, in years past, media companies owned several teams. Televisa owned América, Necaxa and Atlante while TV Azteca owned Monarcas Morelia (now Mazatlán FC) and Atlas.

Nowadays, the only two organizations that own more than one Liga MX franchise are Grupo Pachuca (Tuzos de Pachuca and Club León) and Grupo Orlegi (Santos Laguna and Atlas).

Grupo Pachuca acquired León in late 2011 while Orlegi purchased the Zorros team in May 2019.

How they got to Liga MX Final

So let’s move away from the activity in the boardroom and take a look at the activity on the pitch.

Atlas is the No. 2 seed and hosts the first leg tonight. The Zorros bounced back from “relegation” hell last season (Atlas finished second-last in the “relegation standings,” paying a 90 million-peso penalty, but still qualified for the playoffs to begin its climb out of the Liga MX basement) before rising to prominence this season with a tough defensive mentality. They moved into second place back on Matchday 12 and remained there the rest of the Apertura 2021.

Relying on three central defenders in front of star goalie Camilo Vargas, the “Rojinegros” have proven to be the stingiest team in Liga MX. The Zorros allowed just 10 goals in 17 regular-season games (tied with América for fewest) and have permitted just 2 goals in four playoff games thus far.

Atlas has not outright won either of its playoff series thus far, benefiting from Liga MX postseason rules that favor the higher-seeded team. (In the event of an aggregate tie, the team with the better regular-season record advances. That rule does NOT apply in the Finals.) The Zorros shut out the high-powered Monterrey attack on the road in the quarterfinals before battling the Rayados to a 1-1 draw in Estadio Jalisco thanks to a controversial penalty converted by Julio Furch.

In the semifinals, Atlas stole a 1-0 win at UNAM (again, a goal by Furch) before surviving a tough challenge from the Pumas who won 1-0 at the Jalisco. And again, a penalty claim (this one not called) benefited the Zorros who advanced on the 1-1 aggregate score line.

‘The Green Machine’ revs up late

León loves to attack, attack, attack, relying on an intricate pass-and-move system that features playmaking from all 10 field players. Wingers Angel Mena and Jean Meneses are particularly dangerous while Víctor Dávila led the team in scoring with 6 goals.

The focus on going forward is helped by a sturdy back line in front of Rodolfo Cota whose nine shutouts tied his Finals counterpart (Vargas) for most in Liga MX this season. The defense was doubly important this season since the offense struggled to find the net this season.

Since a 2-0 loss at Atlas back on Matchday 10, the Esmeraldas conceded only 2 goals the rest of the way, riding six shut-outs to a 4-2-1 closing stretch to claim the No. 3 seed.

In the playoffs, “La Fiera” has used home field to make up first-leg deficits. León lost 2-1 at Puebla to open the quarterfinals before dominating at the Camp Nou (winning 2-0). In the first leg of the semifinals, León was lucky to return home just down 2-1 after the Tigres thoroughly dominated the match. Back at the Camp Nou, the Esmeraldas rode a 2-1 into the Finals (thanks to that Liga MX rule about higher seeds).

Mena has scored four of León’s five goals in the playoffs, matching his regular-season output.