Contrasting outlooks for bitter Mexico City rivals

After top-seeded America was KO'd in the playoffs by UNAM, the Aguilas know it's title or bust this season. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
After top-seeded America was KO'd in the playoffs by UNAM, the Aguilas know it's title or bust this season. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /
Liga MX America Pumas
América coach Santiago Solari knows that if he fails to win the Liga MX title this season, it could be his last. (Photo by Mauricio Salas/Jam Media/Getty Images) /

América and UNAM provided fans with a thrilling playoff series last season with the heavy underdogs knocking out the No. 1 seed in stunning fashion.

While América trudged off the Estadio Azteca pitch in shame, the Pumas’ celebration was short-lived and they were sent home by eventual champions Atlas a week later.

Nearly six weeks later, the two Mexico City rivals are preparing for the Clausura 2022 season with very different expectations.

While América coach Santiago Solari knows his time as Aguilas boss might come to an end if he doesn’t win a title, Andrés Lillini and Pumas Nation anticipate another long slog that could end before the postseason.

Liga MX title or bust for Aguilas

América ran away with the Liga MX regular-season title last season, but that didn’t matter one bit to 11th-seeded UNAM who overwhelmed the Aguilas at Fortress Azteca (América had been 7-2-0 at home before losing 3-1 to the visiting Pumas on Nov. 27).

And as Liga MX fans know too well, any season without a trophy is considered a failure at América.

Aguilas ownership quickly compiled a list of expendable players (midfielder Sebastián Córdova was on the trade market within days while Leo Suárez, Renato Ibarra, Nico Benedetti and Nico Castillo were informed that their services were no longer required).

The front office rapidly went to work identifying available playmakers within Liga MX and soon were outbidding Cruz Azul for Santos Laguna star Diego Valdés. The 27-year-old Chilean midfielder will be called upon to direct the Aguilas offense from the middle of the pitch while making better use of the team’s wingers.

“Los AzulCremas” are still looking for help on the wings (Mauro Lainez and Salvador Reyes could use with some competition) and, now that Brian Ocampo (a 22-year-old Uruguayan right winger) is negotiating a new contract with his club, their recruiters are taking a close look at Ivan Alejo, a 26-year-old Spaniard play with La Liga’s Cadiz.

The club has until Feb. 5 to finalize its roster, but coach Solari knows the sooner they bring in a player, the quicker he’ll be able to contribute. Or at least that’s the mantra in Coapa.

Defensive midfielder Jonathan dos Santos is the only other acquisition the Aguilas have made thus far. The Team Mexico star, now 31, has never played in Liga MX before, starting alongside his brother Gio in Barcelona’s famed La Masía Academy. Since then, Jona has played in La Liga’s Villarreal and most recently with LA Galaxy.

América opens its Liga MX season on Friday and coach Solari has already said that neither Valdés nor Dos Santos will be on the club’s game-day roster.

Pumas standing pat … minus one key player

UNAM was in 17th place and contemplating a long winter when suddenly the Pumas roared to life, going 4-1-1 down the stretch before winning a wildcard game on the road to set up a “Clásico Capitalino” in the quarterfinals.

The Pumas had been awful for most of the Apertura 2021, a dormant offense playing in front of a shaky defense weakened by the injury-absence of star goalie Alfredo Talavera. Financial issues sent their wage bill down, shutting the club out of the transfer market.

When the quantity and quality of long-relied-upon academy players declined as well, “los Auriazules” resigned themselves to a middle-of-the-table finish. The terrible start (1-5-5, 6 goals for, 14 goals against) suddenly made the playoffs a pipe dream.

But then the midfield pairing of Erik Lira and Leo López – both academy products – sparked a revival and the Pumas found themselves facing hated rivals América in the Liga MX quarterfinals.

Alan Mozo (a Pumas academy grad) and Washington Corozo played the game of their lives while Lira and López reigned supreme in the middle of the pitch, and UNAM won at Estadio Azteca for the first time in six years. Pumas Pride was restored.

The comedown against Atlas in the semifinals was difficult to take, perhaps, but the Clausura 2022 seems likely to produce more aggravation as the front office announced this week that they had no money available to bring in fresh faces. The only roster addition expected is Omar Islas who was to be promoted from the club’s second division team, Pumas Tabasco.

That’s a problem because the club was forced to sell the 21-year-old Lira to Cruz Azul to help cover costs (including signing Leo López to a contract extension) and the academy is not expected to contribute any stars this season (unless 21-year-old Marco García starts to tap the potential that was momentarily paused after sexual assault allegations in 2020).

Next. Chivas telenovela renewed for another season. dark

The Pumas were set to kick off the new season on Sunday against Toluca but the game has been pushed back a day (to Jan. 10) after 11 members of the Diablos tested positive for the coronavirus. The visiting Diablos will be aiming to avenge the Nov. 21 wildcard loss to the Pumas who clawed their way to a 2-1 win at La Bombonera, setting up the memorable quarterfinals showdown against América.