As the Clausura 2023 gets under way, we’re taking a deep dive into Cruz Azul’s recent history.
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 and in Part V, we saw how the Cementeros rose above the chaos to end their 24-year league title drought.
In this chapter, we trace the downward path followed by “La Máquina Azul” as it fell from the top of the Liga MX mountain into the middle of the pack as the front office completely muddled things up.
The championship hangover is a doozy
The exhilaration of ending a nearly 24-year league title drought didn’t last long once the new season kicked off.
Of course, it didn’t help that several key players were unavailable at the start of the Apertura 2021. Luis Romo and Roberto Alvarado were on duty with El Tri at the Tokyo Olympics (coming home with a bronze medal), while playmaker Orbelín Pineda was playing with a separate Team Mexico squad at the Gold Cup.
Cruz Azul opened their title defense 2-4-2 as Romo was absent for the first six games. His lack of playing time would become a point of contention.
Coach Juan Reynoso continually tinkered with his line-up, leading to murmuring in the locker room, especially as results were not forthcoming. Critics would argue that the praise Reynoso received in guiding the Cementeros to the Clausura 2021 title went to his head, suggesting he was determined to show he was more important than the players.
At the same time, the front office failed to handle contract negotiations for Pineda and Yoshimar Yotún and both would depart at the end of the year on free transfers, costing Cruz Azul considerable money.
The compressed World Cup qualifying schedule was also used as an excuse by Reynoso to justify his line-up decisions, but Romo was getting frustrated at his lack of continuity.
In September, Cruz Azul was routed by Monterrey in the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League, losing 4-1 at Estadio Azteca in the second leg.
In Liga MX, it was no better. “La Máquina” saw its win total plummet from 12 to 5 and the Cementeros scraped into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed where they hoped to exact revenge against No. 9 seed Monterrey in the wildcard round.
Instead, the Rayados repeated the dosis, routing Cruz Azul 4-1 again as the Cementeros ended the year with a whimper.
Making matters worse, Romo was furious that he was not in the starting line-up in the wildcard match (coming on as a sub in minute 64 with the team down 3-1) and he demanded a trade.
Trouble in the Cruz Azul front office
Barely one year after taking charge of fútbol operations in January 2021, Álvaro Dávila departed under mysterious circumstances.
Cruz Azul executives claimed the veteran front office man left “for personal reasons” but Dávila never explained his decision. Some speculated that the corporate bosses were determined to claim credit for the Clausura 2021 trophy while others proposed that the ongoing financial troubles at the Co-op made things unbearable.
Whatever the reasons, the Clausura 2022 would not go well.
Eleven players departed, including four who were able to leave on free transfers (a fact that speaks to the front office dysfunction and cash-flow struggles).
Romo forced a trade (sent to Monterrey for midfielder Charlie Rodríguez) while Roberto Alvarado was transferred to Guadalajara for Uriel Antuna and Alejandro Mayorga. In addition, star striker Jonathan Rodríguez was sold to a Saudi Arabian team in an apparent cash grab.
The result was another subpar season and another eighth-place finish. This time, Cruz Azul advanced out of the wildcard round (in a penalty shootout versus a modest Necaxa side) before succumbing to Tigres in the quarterfinals.
By that time, it was apparent that the Reynoso Era was over and, indeed, on May 19, 2022, the manager reportedly submitted his resignation.
This came as no surprise since Reynoso had offered to resign earlier in the season revealing a significant conflict with new GM Jaime Ordiales who had been put back in charge of the front office after Dávila’s sudden exit.
A week after his departure the Peruvian manager claimed he did not resign, declaring that he had been fired.
A few days earlier, fugitive former Cruz Azul boss Guillermo Álvarez reappeared via a video. “Billy” – facing charges of corruption and money laundering – declared his innocence while claiming that his attorney was behind the criminal activity.
Two weeks later, former Cooperativa La Cruz Azul executive Víctor Garcés was arrested on the same corruption and money laundering charges. He had been on the lam for nearly two years. The whereabouts of “Billy” remain unknown.
Ordiales mucks things up further
The new Cementeros GM had to find a new coach and restock his roster and, although the summer break was shortened due to the unusual World Cup schedule, he had plenty of time to act.
In fact, Uruguayan Diego Aguirre was introduced as the new Cruz Azul coach in late May, more than a month before the Apertura 2022 kicked off.
The new manager submitted a wish list of players to bolster the Cementeros roster and Ordiales promptly … came up empty.
Not only did Ordiales fail to deliver a single player Aguirre requested, the reinforcements he did acquire arrived late. By the time the bumbling general manager had “completed” the Cruz Azul roster the season had reached the halfway point and the Cementeros were on the fast track to the cellar.
Aguirre was basically left out to dry and on Matchday 10, his obituary was written. On Aug. 20, Cruz Azul was hammered by bitter rivals América to the tune of 7-0. It was the worst loss in Cementeros history and the club was in 17th place.
Out went Aguirre and in came Raúl Gutiérrez who was told he would not be considered for the permanent job unless he turned things around immediately.
Fortunately, “Los Celestes” were able to stop the bleeding and after a 1-1-1 start under “El Potro,” “La Máquina” closed out the Apertura 2022 with four consecutive wins. That earned the team the No. 7 seed and a home game in the wildcard round.
The Cementeros edged past León to advance to the quarterfinals but the season ended there with Monterrey – again – providing the coup de grace.
The impressive stretch run was enough to earn Gutiérrez a promotion and he went into the World Cup break making plans for the Clausura 2023 season. We’ll conclude the Deconstructing Cruz Azul series with a look at the team’s travails – and successes – as the calendar turned to the New Year.