No. 1 seed America will take an 18-game unbeaten streak (13-5-0) into the semifinals while No. 2 Monterrey will have to watch the Liga MX Final Four on the telly after being stunned by 7th-seeded Atlético de San Luis.
The favored Aguilas found two second-half goals to hold off a feisty León side that can now devote its undivided attention to the Club World Cup.
Coach André Jardine will lead America against his former team, Atlético de San Luis, and his replacement, Gonzalo Leal.
The surprising Tuneros won a spot in the semifinals with a 2-1 aggregate victory over a Rayados team that was booed off the field at game’s end by angry fans.
America 2, León 0
The visiting Esmeraldas aimed to shorten the game by frustrating the host Aguilas with a defensive posture (3-4-2-1) in the opening half and they succeeded, blanking the highest-scoring team in Liga MX through 45 minutes.
Goalie Rodolfo Cota played a key role, making a huge save on Julián Quiñones in minute 8 while his teammates maintained tactical discipline.
León took advantage of counterattack opportunities – particularly via former America forward Federico Viñas who clanged a shot off the inside of the right post in minute 26, the ricochet nearly clipping the opposite post before bounding out of harm’s way
The Aguilas came out on the front foot after the break, sending several tantalizing balls into the box though none are converted into a shot on goal.
In minute 56, Diego Valdés led a 2-on-1 break but held the ball too long and León turned upfield. Esmeraldas midfielder Fidel Ambriz was dispossessed by Alex Zendejas, a tackle that might have been whistled for a foul.
Instead, Zendejas fed Valdés who looked for Henry Martín in the box. As the América captain chased down the pass, Adonis Frías knocked him down and a penalty was indicated. After a pause, VAR determined the Zendejas strip was not a foul and Quiñones converted the penalty kick to make it 3-2 Aguilas on aggregate.
León coach Nicolás Larcamón sent in offensive reserves over the course of the final 20 minutes, but “La Fiera” could not crack the America defense.
Martín slammed the door shut on the Esmeraldas in minute 88, poking home from the slot off a corner that skipped off Cabecita’s head at the near post.
America now has 41 goals in 19 games and will travel to San Luis Potosí for a midweek semifinal contest before hosting the return match at Estadio Azteca next weekend.
León will travel to Saudi Arabia mid-month to face Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds and if the Esmeraldas win, their reward will be a semifinal date with Manchester City. This is the first Club World Cup for León, winners of the 2023 Concacaf Champions League.
Monterrey 1, Atleti 1
Rayados coach Fernando Ortiz might now have to wonder about job security after heavily favored Monterrey came up short yet again.
As the No. 1 seed last season, the Northern Giants were sent packing in the semifinals, but a quarterfinal exit as the No. 2 seed might force management to reconsider its options.
Facing an upstart Tuneros side that lost eight of its 17 regular-season games, the Rayados were expected to cruise into the Final Four. And in fact, Monterrey burst out of the gate on Saturday night and put San Luis on its heels.
Just 8 minutes in, striker Rogelio Funes Mori finished off a lovely move to put Monterrey ahead 1-0 and knotting the aggregate score at 1-1. The Rayados worked the ball left-to right into the box (from Luis Romo to Maxi Meza to Jesús Gallardo) before Funes Mori bundled home Gallardo’s cross while closely marked.
The aggregate draw would have put Monterrey into the semifinals as the higher-seeded team, but there were still 82 minutes remaining to be played.
Just before the half, Germán Berterame led a Monterrey rush forward, dropped off to Arturo González in the left channel. “Poncho” then slid a cross through a forest of legs to the far post where Luis Romo calmly tapped home. It was 2-0 (2-1) … or was it?
After a lengthy examination, VAR determined that Funes Mori had taken down Tuneros defender UnaI Bilbao in front of the net as Poncho’s pass zipped through the goalie box to the unmarked Romo. Goal disallowed.
Any momentum the Rayados thought they had procured quickly dissipated after the break. Leal inserted Jhon Murillo and Vitinho into the line-up, adding speed and elusiveness in attack.
The two South Americans combined to hoist the Tuneros back in front on the aggregate, with a helping hand from Gallardo, the Monterrey fullback.
On a counterattack, Murillo charged down the left side only to see Gallardo poke away the ball, but Gallardo fumbled it, then booted it into the path of Vitinho on the right side and the speedy Brazilian slotted home with his trusty left boot.
The Estadio BBVA Bancomer crowd went silent. The score was now 1-1, 1-2 on aggregate in favor of San Luis.
The clock ticked past 60 minutes and coach Ortiz had yet to make any changes. He then replaced three forwards and Jesús Corona quickly made an impact, creating space on the right flank and dropping crosses into the area.
Defender John Medina squandered a scoring chance after making a nifty overlap run only to ignore a couple of open men and fire away from a sharp angle. His shot was snuffed.
Ortiz made his final change in minute 85 just seconds before Corona was chopped down by Rodrigo Dourado who recklessly clattered into Corona’s knee. No foul was called and Corona was forced off the pitch with what appeared to be a serious injury.
Monterrey was in desperation mode, down a man and in need of a goal to avoid a shocking upset. It was not to be despite a mad scramble in front of the San Luis goalmouth early in stoppage time.
After the final whistle blew, the home fans serenaded the Rayados, showering them with boos as they trudged to the locker room, wondering how things could have gone so wrong again.
Game notes: The Monterrey goal was Funes Mori’s team-record 18th playoff goal, but only his 7th of the Apertura 2023, not one of his best seasons. Even so, coach Ortiz’s decision to replace the Monterrey goleador midway through the second-half would be questioned.
Atlético de Madrid has now defeated Monterrey twice in two playoff meetings, both times as a decided underdog. The Tuneros shocked the Rayados in a Clausura 2022 wildcard match, bumping them off in a penalty shootout.