Since coming up short in the Apertura 2020 final, the Pumas have been a mediocre football team.
“Los felinos” have made the playoffs only twice in the succeeding five seasons since losing to León – they’re best finish was 11th place and a lowly wildcard spot – and they’ve missed the post-season each of the past two seasons.
The Clausura 2023 saw the “universitarios” floundering near the bottom of the Liga MX table by mid-season and coach Rafael Puente was axed with a 3-2-7 record.
Hope returned to Pumas Nation down the stretch after Antonio Mohamed took the reins on Matchday 14 and guided “los Azul y Oro” to two wins and a draw before a 4-1 spanking at the hands of first-place Monterrey ended the improbable dream of a Liga MX playoff appearance.
Pumas rebuilding patiently
Mohamed restored some confidence and swagger to the Pumas locker room heading into the Apertura 2023, but there was still dead weight to remove, especially as there had been whispers of discontent and infighting.
Team management listened to Mohamed’s suggestions and began to move cautiously, knowing that its fixed budget would not allow for any misses.
First to arrive was veteran goalie Gil Alcalá (Querétaro) then came Uruguayan left back Robert Ergas who Mohamed specifically requested even though the 25-year-old saw no action with Paraguay’s Olimpia last season.
Next to join the Pumas family was Nathan Silva, a 25-year-old defender from Brazil’s Atletico Mineiro. When the team added Argentine central defender Lisandro Magallón, 29, a few weeks later that made Nicolás Freire expendable.
Although Freire had been the Pumas captain for the past three season, there were rumors that he was stirring up trouble in the changing room. Out the door he went.
Then just as the season started, UNAM’s front office acquired Gabriel “El Toro” Fernández from FC Juárez, selecting the 29-year-old forward for his strength and presence in the box.
Pumas off to a decent start
Though a playoff berth is the goal this season, it won’t be easy as Liga MX has reduced the postseason to just eight teams (from 12).
UNAM has gotten off on the right foot, however, and the Pumas are one of five unbeaten teams after three weeks.
“Los felinos” have a modest 1-2-0 record but that is good enough for fourth place. And the club acquitted itself reasonably well in the Leagues Cup tournament, winning its group with a tie and a win (3-0 over DC United). However, the Pumas stumbled in a winnable Round of 32 match against fellow Liga MX side, Querétaro.
“Los auriazules” relaunch their Apertura 2023 season on Friday at home against Toluca which should be a real test as the Diablos Rojos are considered a title contender.
The only “negative” since the season began is actually a positive in the larger scheme of things. And that was the decision by UNAM to sell 22-year-old midfielder Jorge Ruvalcaba to Belgium’s Standard Liege.