Wildcard Weekend opens with pair of shootouts

Cruz Azul players maul goalie Sebastián Jurado after he saved a Necaxa penalty kick to earn the Cementeros a spot in the Liga MX quarterfinals. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
Cruz Azul players maul goalie Sebastián Jurado after he saved a Necaxa penalty kick to earn the Cementeros a spot in the Liga MX quarterfinals. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /
Liga MX wildcard Day 1
San Luis players rush out of the center circle after Monterrey’s Rodolfo Pizarro missed the decisive penalty kick as the Tuneros upset the Rayados in a Liga MX Wildcard match. (Photo by JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP via Getty Images) /

The Liga MX playoffs kicked off with two thrillers that came down to penalty kicks after late equalizers forced the “Showdown from 12 Yards.”

In the opener, Cruz Azul conceded a late goal to visiting Necaxa after the Rayos largely outplayed the favored Cementeros. In fact, Necaxa forced six saves from Cruz Azul keeper Sebastián Jurado who proved he is up to the task of replacing long-time captain Jesús Corona between the pipes.

But the No. 9 seeded Rayos squandered a number of scoring opportunities in the second half, before Rodrigo Aguirre powered a header home off a corner kick to tie the score at 1-1 in minute 88. Juan Escobar had put “La Máquina” ahead in minute 56.

In the shootout, Necaxa went down docilely, scuffing its first and fourth spot kicks, the latter being the one that ended the contest with the Cementeros advancing 3-1.

Tuneros and Rayados put the ‘Wild’ in Wildcard Weekend

Atlético de San Luis overcame the loss of its captain early on, scoring twice just after halftime to take the lead before coughing up the equalizer in minute 90+6. But in the shootout, former River Plate legend Marcelo Barovero stepped up to send favored Monterrey to an early offseason rest.

Tuneros central defender Unaí Bilbao was forced out of the match after badly injuring his knee in minute 14. Monterrey scored a few minutes later when Vincent Janssen took advantage of Bilbao’s substitute Ramón Juárez, scoring a golazo.

San Luis – also playing without head coach André Jardine who was serving a one-game suspicion – managed to settle down and regroup, fortunate to make it to the half only down 1-0. The Rayados outshot the Tuneros 8-3 in the first 45 minutes while enjoying 57% possession. None of that mattered eight minutes into the second half.

Less than 90 seconds after the teams returned to the field, San Luis flowed forward finding Jhon Murillo near the top left corner of the box. The Venezuelan fired a cross over the Monterrey defense to the onrushing Facundo Waller at the back post and Waller thumped a left-footed volley into the roof of the net.

Five minutes later, Waller returned the favor. Another Tuneros break-out found Waller on the right flank. The Uruguayan turned Jesús Gallardo around and got free at the end line, sending a looping cross to Murillo at the back post for a header that scraped the metal before ricocheting off the goalie and into the net.

As the clock wound down, San Luis scrambled to protect the lead, dangerously ceding ground and possession to Monterrey, and the Rayados set up camp in and around the box, firing centering passes into the scrum.

Finally, nearly 6 minutes into stoppage time, a Rodolfo Pizarro lofted cross caught too many San Luis defenders chasing the ball and not enough man-marking. The ball rebounded to the left side of net where Michell Rodríguez stood all alone. The 21-year-old had just come on as a sub and he thrashed a low shot past Barovero to knot the score.

The 2-2 score momentarily saved Monterrey’s season, but joy turned to disbelief as Barovero parried Monterrey’s first two spot kicks and when Pizarro clanged his penalty shot off the left post, the Tuneros advanced to the Liga MX quarterfinals – la Liguilla – for the first time in the franchise’s history.

Two of Liga MX Big Four to meet in Wildcard Weekend finale

Playoff rookies Mazatlán FC take on a fading Puebla side in the first game of Sunday’s Liga MX playoff doubleheader, quickly followed up by the much-anticipated Chivas-Pumas tilt.

The first game is the least attractive of the weekend’s four Liga MX Wildcard matches. Neither the Cañoneros nor the Camoteros play attractive football, whereas the Pumas-Chivas rivalry has provided some tremendous playoff moments.

Sunday’s match will be the sixth playoff meeting between the two members of Liga MX’s mythical Big 4 (América and Cruz Azul are the others), although it will be the first time they’ve met in the wildcard round.

UNAM defeated Guadalajara to reach the 1981 Liga MX Final and went on to win the title. The Chivas got revenge three years later, knocking aside the Pumas in a penalty shoot-out to reach the 1984 final before losing (to América).

In the Invierno 1998 season, Guadalajara ousted the Pumas (again in the semifinals, and again losing in the Liga MX Final, this time to Necaxa). Then in the Clausura 2004 Liga MX Final, the Pumas emerged victorious with the trophy in hand, defeating Guadalajara in a penalty shoot-out.

The most recent Pumas-Chivas meeting in a Liga MX playoff series came in the Clausura 2011 with UNAM flicking aside “El Rebaño Sagrado” 3-1 to advance to the Liga MX Finals, defeating Morelia.

So this season’s encounter lacks the high drama of the previous five, but the game will be no less entertaining for it, especially as Pumas fans travel so very well.

No. 11 UNAM at No. 6 Guadalajara

The Chivas pummeled an exhausted Pumas team 3-1 at Estadio Akron on Matchday 16 (on April 23), a victory that clinched a wildcard berth. Carrying a four-game win streak into the Liga MX playoffs, Guadalajara has momentum to go with home-field advantage. The Chivas were 4-2-3 at home in Liga MX play this season.

UNAM, in contrast, is only just back in Mexico after a disheartening 3-0 loss at Seattle in the Concacaf Champions League Final on Wednesday. And that gut punch came just three days after the Pumas defeated top-seeded Pachuca in Mexico City’s noonday heat to claim its spot in the Liga MX playoffs. Sunday’s clash in Estadio Akron will be UNAM’s seventh game in 21 days

The Pumas lost five times on the road in Liga MX play, going 2-2-5, and they will be without dynamic wingback Alan Mozo who suffered a hyperextended knee on April 27. Mozo was the star of UNAM’s run to the Apertura 2021 semifinals and he was second in Liga MX with 4 assists this season. Also missing for the Pumas will be holding midfielder Higor Meritao.

Guadalajara enters the game in good health, especially as J.J. Macías and Fernando Beltrán have been given clearance to play Sunday, though right wingback Isaac Brizuela will miss the game.

Macías – the top striker off the bench – has been battling a knee injury that sidelined him the last four games of the season. Beltrán aggravated a knee injury of his own on Matchday 16 and missed the season finale, but the midfield playmaker is available to start.

No. 12 Mazatlán FC at No. 5 Puebla

The Cañoneros defeated Puebla 2-1 just last week to qualify for the Liga MX playoffs for the first time ever. That game was played in Mazatlán’s El Kraken stadium, however, where the newcomers were a decent 4-2-2.

When forced to play away from home, The Purple Gang went just 2-1-6 and were outscored 10-17. That doesn’t bode well for Gabriel Caballero and his men though they did defeat defending Liga MX champions Atlas on the road on April 14.

The Camoteros for their part have limped into the playoffs, winning just one of their last eight matches. Coach Nicolás Larcamón must hope the brighter lights of the playoffs will inspire his men to rediscover their early season form.

Next. Liga MX coaching carousel spun crazily. dark

Puebla led the Liga MX standings as late as Matchday 10, before hitting the proverbial wall. “La Franja” won only twice at home this season, however, going 2-5-1 at Estadio Cuauhtémoc.