Why Monterrey will finally break its seven-year title drought
MEXICO CITY -- Antonio Mohamed sat in front of the press. The Liga MX trophy was hoisted on the table next to him. The Argentine manager was drenched in a mix of sports drinks and champagne, and pawed at the medal around his neck. He was a league champion and he was also out of a job.
"I leave them the trophy, I take my dignity with me," Mohamed said. Though he had coached Club America to its 12th (and as of 2017, most recent) league title, he was being unceremoniously bounced from the club by then-president Ricardo Pelaez, due to disagreements between the pair. Shortly after, Mohamed took over Monterrey.
It's been three years since Mohamed and Club America parted ways. Neither has hoisted the Liga MX league trophy in that span, but the Apertura 2017 has already seen both parties clash directly for one title.
Monterrey defeated America from the penalty spot in their Copa MX semifinal match earlier this month, in a match marred by controversy due to the field conditions. "We deserved to win," said Mohamed after the game. "After we attempted the first penalty kick we talked to the commissary and told them to switch the spot, but they refused."
Starting Wednesday, both teams will again be on a collision course, this time for the league title. With 37 points in the regular season, Mohamed's Monterrey are the clear favorite to take the championship and end a seven-year drought since their last trophy win.
Sporting an impressive starting lineup, crowned by attackers Dorlan Pabon, Rogelio Funes Mori and Aviles Hurtado, the Monterrey front line conjures up comparisons of their last title win, when they were led by Neri Cardozo, Aldo de Nigris and the legendary Humberto Suazo up front.
That Monterrey squad piled up 32 points in the Apertura 2010 and stormed through the playoffs by beating Pachuca, Pumas and Santos Laguna en route to their fourth league title. The run was part of a golden era under Victor Manuel Vucetich, in which the team won the Liga MX twice and the CONCACAF Champions League three times in a row.
Since then, Monterrey has taken a back seat to Leon and America, who have won two titles each since 2011. Worse still, city rivals Tigres UANL has won three times. The last of the trifecta pushed them over Monterrey in the historic league table with five championships to Los Rayados' four. Thus, the current playoff series acquires a greater sense of meaning, with Monterrey looking to equal their regional counterparts and end their trophy famine.
They sport the tournament's top scorer in Hurtado, along with Pabon, who is among the league leaders in assists. The result is Mexico's top attack. Monterrey has scored 29 goals this season, as well as having Liga MX's best defense, allowing just 12 scores in 17 games.
Anchored by Stefan Medina and Jose Basanta in the back, the unsung hero and poster boy for the team's stupendous balance is 18-year-old Jonathan Gonzalez. The USMNT hopeful has been accurate on 80 percent of his passes this season, with an average of two tackles per game and 1.5 interceptions per match.
"The entire team has been great," said Mario Carrillo, a former Liga MX manager and current ESPN analyst. "The balance on both sides has been fantastic, but those attackers are first-rate. The only other group I'd compare it to is across the city."
Indeed, it seems Tigres is the biggest threat to Monterrey's newest conquest. With 32 points, the Ricardo Ferretti-coached squad is the only other team undefeated at home during the Apertura 2017.
Led by Andre-Pierre Gignac, Enner Valencia and Eduardo Vargas, the potential collision course between both of Monterrey's teams would delight neutral fans with the promise of an explosive final. Though their last meeting ended in a 2-0 Rayados win, there were plenty of chances for all to sift through during the 90 minutes of play.
There is, of course, a long road to get through before a potential Monterrey final. The Mexican Liguilla is notorious for its fickle nature, and Los Rayados will first have to get through Atlas, a team hungry for its first league title since 1951.
At the end of the day, Monterrey and Tigres are both heavy favorites to make it to the final, with FiveThirtyEight giving both squads a 25 percent chance to win the league, with America a distant third at 11 percent after the final regular season weekend of play.
It's not too hard to envision a scenario in which Mohamed once again sits at the podium at the end of a tournament, drenched in champagne, talking to the press with a trophy next to him.
This time, however, it's unlikely his dignity and said trophy will be parting ways at the end of the news conference.
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.