Liga MX: No. 1 Pachuca, red-hot América begin trophy chase

With midfield bulldog Pedro Aquino (left) back in the line-up, América will pose a tough test for Puebla in the Liga MX quarterfinals. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
With midfield bulldog Pedro Aquino (left) back in the line-up, América will pose a tough test for Puebla in the Liga MX quarterfinals. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /
Liga MX quarters 1
Nicolás Ibáñez (left) helped Pachuca take down his former club, Atlético de San Luis, in the Liga MX season opener for both teams on Jan. 6. (Photo by Leopoldo Smith/Getty Images) /

Pachuca was not a preseason title favorite according to Liga MX pundits yet here are the Tuzos, seeded No. 1, poised to make a run at their seventh league title.

The oldest football club in Mexico (CF Pachuca was founded by English miners in 1892) finished 15th last season and seemed to be in a rebuilding stage with persnickety Uruguayan Guillermo Almada taking over as manager.

Much like he did at Santos Laguna, Almada identified eager talent in Pachuca’s academy system and plugged them in alongside veteran holdovers and installed a new system bit-by-bit until the Tuzos were running smoothly. Some underachieving veterans (specifically Nicolás Ibáñez) thrived and from Matchday 4 through 10 Pachuca went 6-1-0 to climb to the top of the Liga MX table.

Standing in Pachuca’s way at the quarterfinal stage is Atlético de San Luis, a franchise just completing its third year in Liga MX. Lest you think this is a walkover (well, to be honest, it might be, but for the sake of argument …) the Tuneros have earned a reputation as Giant Killers this season.

First Liga MX postseason meeting

These two teams have never faced off in a playoff game. This is only the second playoff appearance for the Tuneros who lost in a wildcard match last season to Santos Laguna. Ironically, Santos was coached by Guillermo Almada.

Pachuca defeated San Luis in the first game of the Clausura 2022. That game was played at the Estadio Alfonso Lastras, the site of tonight’s first-leg match.

Nicolás Ibánez, the former Tuneros scoring ace, tallied both goals in the Tuzos’ 2-0 win on Opening Night. The Argentine striker joined Pachuca last summer but struggled to fit in, scoring just twice last season after netting 27 times in two years with San Luis.

Ibáñez was instrumental in helping the Tuneros win promotion from Ascenso MX in 2019 and he has mixed emotions about playing against his former club while expressing satisifaction that San Luis has reached the Liga MX playoffs for a second season running.

Can Puebla slow streaking América?

Wednesday’s other first-leg match offers a study in contrasts. Red-hot América pays a visit to a wobbly Puebla side that has won just once since March 5.

Liga MX giant and preseason title favorite América fell on its face out of the gate, sinking into last place after a Matchday 9 loss at Monterrey. A coaching change prompted a revival and the Aguilas soared up the standings on a 6-2-0 updraft that saw them overtake Puebla to earn a first-round playoff bye.

For its part, Puebla was the last Liga MX team to suffer its first loss of the season, racing out to a 6-3-0 start that had the Camoteros comfortably in first place. Coach Nicolás Larcamón was suddenly on everybody’s short list with América the favorite to acquire his services next season. But then “La Franja” forgot how to win, stumbling down the stretch with a 1-2-5 record to finish in fifth place.

The slump forced the Camoteros to host a wildcard match against lowly Mazatlán FC, a club playing in its first-ever Liga MX playoff match, a match that turned out to be a microcosm of Puebla’s season.

Diego de Buen (minute 4) and Juan Segovia (14’) scored off of set pieces and it appeared that Puebla would waltz into the quarterfinals. Then Brian Rubio narrowed the gap in minute 37 and the host Camoteros tensed up, losing tactical shape and fumbling possessions. The visiting Cañoneros found the equalizer in minute 90+1 setting the stage for Antony Silva’s heroics.

Silva – Puebla’s Paraguayan keeper – stopped two of Mazatlán’s penalty kicks allowing Israel Reyes to play the hero. The Camoteros defender knocked him the clinching spot kick to give Puebla a 3-1 shootout victory, advancing to the Liga MX quarterfinals.

Playoff rivalry from the Liga MX vault

The Puebla-América quarterfinals clash is the fifth playoff meeting between these two franchises, but the first since 1995. In the late 1980s, the Aguilas and Camoteros met in the postseason three consecutive seasons.

In the quarterfinals after the 1994-95 Liga MX season, second-seeded América eased past No. 7 Puebla 4-2 on aggregate. The two sides played to a scoreless draw in Estadio Cuauhtémoc but the Leo Beenhakker-led Aguilas cruised to a 4-2 win at Estadio Azteca behind a brace from Luis Garcia and goals by Francois Oman Biyik and “Zague.”

The 1988-89 playoffs were played in a round-robin format that saw América and Cruz Azul emerge to play in the final. In the round-robin group stage, Puebla and América drew twice – 1-1 in Puebla and 2-2 in Mexico City.

The season before, América crushed Puebla 6-2 at the quarterfinals stage of the Liga MX playoffs. The Aguilas were the top seed and after a 2-2 draw at the Cuauhtémoc, they wiped out the 10th-seeded Camoteros 4-0.

Next. Liga MX playoffs offer Jalisco Derby. dark

After the 1986-87 Liga MX season, Puebla entered the Liga MX playoffs as the No. 6 seed and managed to eliminate the third-seeded Aguilas 4-3 on aggregate in the quarterfinals. After a 2-2 draw at home, “La Franja” stunned América 2-1 at the Azteca.