Put into a situation nearly identical to the one six months ago, Club America will face a championship second leg at the Estadio Azteca down two goals and staring elimination in the face. The end of the Herrera/Pelaez era is nigh, and Thursday night's result at the Leon Stadium -- a 2-0 Leon victory -- dampened the hopes of a record-setting 12th Liga MX title for America.
An early mistake by America midfielder Juan Carlos Medina, paired with an inexplicable walkabout by goalkeeper Moises Munoz, set up the game’s first goal, a screamer by Carlos Pena -- who just a month ago was suiting up alongside Medina and Munoz as a member of the Mexican national team that defeated New Zealand in the playoff for a World Cup spot.
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Late in the second half, after America missed two clear chances, Mauro Boselli scored on a fantastic shot that beat Munoz and found its way to the net in a difficult angle to put the game beyond doubt and set up Leon's chances for the second leg in Mexico City.
It was America's second loss in three games, and created a wealth of learning opportunities for America that strangely paralleled the game in Toluca.
1. Let them come to you
Despite having more than enough time to recover from Pena’s early goal, America went into overdrive trying to get the score back. Leon played off this strategy perfectly and set themselves up to play off the counterattack for the rest of the game.
It was this strategy late in the second half that allowed Boselli to put the game away with a massive strike. America was too insistent, too desperate and too inconsistent. Wingers Rubens Sambueza and Oswaldo Martinez were off their usual game, and wingbacks Miguel Layun and Paul Aguilar couldn’t attack freely, knowing Leon was dangerous enough to catch them off-guard.
A steady, possession-based attack would have definitely allowed America to get back in it. Sunday at the Azteca, they will likely face a more conservative foe.
2. Stack more offenders in the middle
America’s bread and butter in the Miguel Herrera era has been to widen the pitch with its wingers and serve up crosses to their effective strikers. The strategy has hit a rock wall in the playoffs, with Raul Jimenez and Luis Gabriel Rey seemingly unable to connect with the wide midfielders.
In five games during the playoff run, Rey and Jimenez have accounted for two goals, while defender Aquivaldo Mosquera has the same total. The strikers need help, and achieving a higher percentage of effectiveness in front of goal could be as simple as having more people in the box to receive a cross.
3. Don't anger the refs
Young referee Cesar Ramos served up a bit of home cooking to Leon on Thursday, but his effort came in part thanks to Herrera’s usual theatrics. The match was 90 minutes of rough and tumble, though Herrera got the brunt of attention on the sidelines for seemingly asking for a red card on every foul.
The result was that later on in the game, especially the second half, tough calls always went Leon’s way, which in turn angered Herrera more. At one point, it seemed as if the Mexico national team manager would be red-carded, though assistant Santiago Banos kept “Piojo” at bay in critical moments.
4. Don't rush set pieces
The air of desperation around America wasn’t limited to the sideline, as one of the team's best weapons, the set piece, was rendered useless by a strategy urging players to try and catch Leon off guard as often as possible.
Leon caught on quickly, and several free kicks and corner kicks were not as effective as possible thanks to hasty execution.
For Sunday, hasty execution is to be avoide, as now Club America has just 90 minutes to prove itself as the best team in the Liga Bancomer MX, and as the first squad capable of back-to-back title runs since 2004.