Club America gains upper hand with first-leg draw vs. fiery Necaxa
AGUASCALIENTES, Mexico -- The Club America dream of lifting the Apertura 2016 title in its centennial year is still intact after Las Aguilas drew 1-1 on Thursday in a full Estadio Victoria. Here are three takes from an even and fiercely contested match:
1. La Volpe, America becoming more comfortable
Argentine coach Ricardo La Volpe and Club America need each other. Both are desperate to win the Apertura title. America because of the glory it would bring to the club's centennial and La Volpe because he has gone a long time without silverware and needs something to cap a career that has been fading since the 2006 World Cup.
On Thursday's evidence, things are on course on both fronts. A 1-1 draw away to a stubborn and inspired Necaxa was a fair result and one that puts the advantage firmly with Las Aguilas. When America went down to a Felipe Gallegos goal in the 63rd minute, nerves could've set in. However, the response was immediate, with William Da Silva slamming in the equalizer five minutes later.
La Volpe has made some strange decisions regarding team selection, especially playing Oribe Peralta in midfield and leaving Osvaldo Martinez on the bench. But the team is undefeated in Liga MX under La Volpe and starting to find itself. There is a confidence flowing through the team, as well as a work ethic and a pragmatism and steel that La Volpe's teams aren't traditionally known for. "You don't win with the shirt," said La Volpe after the game. "You don't win with the names. We have to run as much as them, we have to kill ourselves to get the ball."
The combinations upfront between Darwin Quintero, Peralta, Silvio Romero and Renato Ibarra aren't quite clicking but are close to coming off. Then there is Michael Arroyo waiting in the wings on the bench. "I loved how the team played," said La Volpe. "You [the press] say that America is a lot superior than the rival, but Necaxa put out the champion Pachuca. It is not easy."
After the first legs of the two semifinals, Tigres is the favorite for the Liga MX title, but there is no doubt Club America is in second place and the dream of the centennial title is edging slowly closer.
2. Necaxa can still hope
The hosts on the night have only been defeated once in their past 15 games now and Necaxa fans are starting to believe. Even if there is still a sentiment that the club is attempting to establish a real fan base in Aguascaliente, "Poncho" Sosa's side -- which moved from Mexico City over a decade ago -- is giving fans reason to hope.
There was a feeling that the match against Club America would be one step too far, that Necaxa has had a great first season back in Mexico's top flight but shouldn't really be considered for the title, especially up against a "grande" like America.
But Necaxa is the fairytale story of the Apertura and there is no reason to think Club America will have a cake walk in the second leg in Estadio Azteca on Sunday. Los Rayos' work rate is exemplary. The midfield industry of Manuel Iturra, Michel Garcia and Gallegos makes life difficult for any side playing them and wingers Edson Puch and Jesus Isijara are a handful and provide the magic.
In the Estadio Azteca on Sunday, Necaxa has absolutely nothing to lose. The pressure is on Club America in its 100th anniversary and the visitors can go out with the knowledge that a win would be both historic and shocking.
It won't be easy against an America side appearing in its eighth semifinal in 10 seasons. The away goal was a blow for Necaxa, as a 1-1 draw sees America go through on regular-season standings, while a 0-0 also puts Las Aguilas into the final.
But Necaxa fans can continue to believe that this club can become the first team in the history of the Mexican game to get promoted and then lift the title.
3. Alvarez becoming key for America
At the start of the 2016 Apertura, nobody would've thought 19-year-old Edson Alvarez would be an important piece in Club America's charge toward the Liga MX title. The Pachuca reject was a complete unknown at first-team level and has said this week he is living his dream. But the defender-midfielder has been a sensation under La Volpe and has plenty of responsibility in the Argentine coach's strategy.
The rookie is asked to step up into midfield or stay back to make a back five as the lay of the game dictates, almost like Rafa Marquez did when La Volpe was El Tri coach. It is clear La Volpe has been working closely with Alvarez in training sessions, and it is fascinating to watch live how the youngster reads the game, tracking back when wing-back Ventura charged forward and moving alongside holding midfielder Da Silva when his team needed passing options further forward.
Alvarez wants the ball and shows little sign of naivety or nerves, even on the big occasion of a Liga MX semifinal, or during the quarterfinal against America's main rival Chivas. Having the likes of Paolo Goltz and Pablo Aguilar definitely helps, but Alvarez is far from out of his depth, reading the game well and being vocal, even directing his more experienced teammates at times.
Sure, these are early days in Alvarez's career and maintaining the consistency will be a real challenge. But as far as the next batch of young Mexicans capable of elevating themselves into the national team picture in 2017 is concerned, the America youth product is near the top of the list.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.