Deconstructing Cruz Azul, Part V: Reclamation project begins

Cruz Azul rose above the chaos and mayhem in corporate HQ to claim the Clausura 2021 championship and end a nearly 24-year league title drought. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
Cruz Azul rose above the chaos and mayhem in corporate HQ to claim the Clausura 2021 championship and end a nearly 24-year league title drought. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /
Cruz Azul Part V
Cruz Azul coach Robert Siboldi walks off the pitch after a stunning loss to UNAM in the Apertura 2020 semifinals. He would resign a few weeks later (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images) /

As the Clausura 2023 gets under way, we’re taking a deep dive into Cruz Azul’s recent history, chronicling how front office turmoil has spilled out of the sports pages and into the financial and political sections.

In Part I of Deconstructing Cruz Azul, we outlined the beginnings of this proud Liga MX franchise, while in Part II we examined its unique organizational structure as well as early indications of internal turbulence.

In Parts III and IV, we looked at the emergence of the legal troubles and allegations that ensnared the Cooperativa La Cruz Azul and its soccer team.

In Part V here, we’ll explore how the Cementeros rose above the chaos to end their 24-year league title drought.

Cruz Azul rises above the mess

We left off in Part IV with the executive offices of the Cooperativa La Cruz Azul in complete disarray and the front office of the soccer club vacated in summer 2020.

General manager Ricardo Peláez had resigned in a huff a year earlier after company executives blocked his coaching search, installing Robert Siboldi as manager.

That September 2019 power-play had been executed by Co-op general director Víctor Garcés but a year later he was on the lam. “La Máquina Azul” entered the Apertura 2020 with a solid roster, the core of which had been assembled by Peláez.

Paraguayan defenders Pablo Aguilar and Juan Escobar were brought in to anchor the back line, Yoshimar Yotún and “Pol” Fernández would patrol midfield, Orbelín Pineda and Elías Hernández made plays up front and Jonathan Rodríguez put the ball in the net. All were acquired by Peláez.

New general manager Jaime Ordiales – only nominally in charge as the mess in the Cruz Azul board room was still unresolved – helped bring Luis Romo into the fold in January 2020.

Romo, a former Cruz Azul academy player who was cut by the Cementeros as a 16-year-old in 2014, had emerged as a budding star with Querétaro where Ordiales had been working in the front office. Siboldi put him in charge of midfield and he quickly became the boss.

Quick start, disastrous finish

Cruz Azul burst out of the gate, going 5-1-1, and raced to the top of the Liga MX table.

A dominant León side was on record-setting pace, but the Cementeros were battling for the No. 2 seed as the season wound down.

Then that tendency to “cruzazulear” – a habit fans thought had been overcome – reared its ugly head. Consecutive losses on Matchdays 13 and 14 ruined any chances of chasing the No. 1 seed.

A 2-0 victory over the Chivas on Matchday 15 – courtesy of a brace from Jonathan Rodríguez – appeared to right the ship but “La Máquina” followed that up with a lackluster 1-0 loss at Monterrey. Still, the Cementeros controlled their own destiny as far as the No. 2 seed was concerned.

All Cruz Azul had to do was defeat visiting UNAM who came into Estadio Azteca with just one win in its previous six matches (1-4-1). No problem, right?

Pineda put Cruz Azul ahead in minute 53 and the Cementeros were playing lock-down defense. The Pumas had managed just one shot on goal through 85 minutes.

Then disaster struck. Juan Ignacio Dinenno scored in minute 86 and again in minute 90, the Pumas escaping with a 2-1 win that earned them the No. 2 seed, knocking the Cementeros into fourth.

That was not the worst of it.

The stumbling finish led pundits to predict Cruz Azul would be manhandled by sixth-seeded Tigres who’d roughed up the Cementeros at Estadio Azteca on Matchday 14. Especially as the first leg would be played at “El Volcán.”

“La Máquina” drew first blood with Juan Escobar finding the net at the half-hour mark, but when Guido Pizarro tied it right after halftime, skeptics could be heard murmuring “we told you so.”

Rodríguez (54′) scored to quiet the rowdy crowd and when Romo fired home from close range in minute 71, the naysayers were silenced, too.

Cruz Azul held on in the second leg, providing a chance to exact revenge on the Pumas in the semifinals. When the Cementeros took a 3-0 lead over only 13 minutes into the first leg, it seemed a certainty. Especially after Romo added a fourth in stoppage time.

But, it was not to be. The Boys in Blue invented another way to “cruzazulear,” conceding three goals before the half at the CU, then coughing up the equalizer in minute 89. And since UNAM was the higher-seeded team, the Pumas advanced to the final and Cruz Azul staggered home in disbelief.

The perfect bounce-back

It had all gone to pot, and would get worse. The end-of-season collapse, the stunning pratfall against UNAM and, two weeks later, a listless performance against LAFC in the Concacaf Champions League were calamitous.

Cruz Azul Co-op executive Víctor Velázquez – the same man who’d fought the Álvarez brothers for years – criticized the team and the  coaching staff, prompting the Siboldi’s resignation.

Velázquez was not a true fútbol man but he was involved in team decisions, especially as the company was struggling to untangle its finances. In January 2021, he hired the well-respected Álvaro Dávila to take over front office duties, effectively demoting Jaime Ordiales to assistant GM.

Dávila put his 22 years of experience to good use, hiring Juan Reynoso – a former Cruz Azul star and the captain of the Cementeros squad that won the franchise’s last title back in 1997. Reynoso had impressed while at Puebla the previous three seasons, even guiding that modest club to the playoffs.

“Los Celestes” struggled to shake off the embarrassment of the Apertura 2020, opening the new season with two straight losses. Then something clicked and “La Máquina” went on a tear, winning their next 12 matches to tie the all-time Liga MX record.

Cruz Azul locked up the No. 1 seed, finishing the Clausura 2021 with a record-tying 41 points. The Cementeros shook off a poorly officiated first leg against Toluca in the quarterfinals – losing 2-1 – but put away the Diablos Rojos late in the return match. The 4-3 aggregate win seemed to eliminate the demons and fill the locker room with confidence.

The club’s league-leading defense (11 goals conceded in 17 regular-season matches) took over in the semifinals as the Cementeros advanced to the Finals on the back of a 1-0 aggregate score (the lone goal coming early in the second half of the second leg courtesy of youngster Santiago Giménez).

Destiny seemed to favor Cruz Azul in the final against Santos Laguna. The defense was stingy as ever and Luis Romo converted a wonder goal in minute 71 for a 1-0 win in Torreón.

In the return match at Estadio Azteca, Santos took a first-half lead behind Diego Valdés, but the Cementeros never panicked, never inclined to lapse into the “cruzazulear” zone.

“Cabecita” Rodríguez found the net in minute 51 to restore the Cementeros’ aggregate lead and the defense saw the match out the rest of the way.

When captain Jesús Corona hoisted the trophy, Cementeros fans exploded in joy, the exhilaration wiping away nearly 24 years of agony.

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With the ninth championship star now stitched onto their jersey, the Cementeros and their fans were sure a mini-dynasty would follow. But dysfunction and internal squabbling would scuttle that possibility and that is the subject of Part VI of Deconstructing Cruz Azul.