CCL win further strengthens Matias Almeyda's case to be the next Mexico manager
GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- It was Miguel Basulto who lifted the CONCACAF Champions League trophy for Chivas on Wednesday.
The 26-year-old didn't enter the field against Toronto and only featured once in the tournament this season. But after Basulto's father passed away suddenly on Sunday evening, the Chivas squad came together in support of a player that came through the all-Mexican team's youth system.
On hearing the news of his death on Sunday, the squad boarded the team bus after training and made the 90-minute trip from Guadalajara to be with Basulto for his father's wake in his hometown of Ocotlan, just three days before the final. And Basulto remained with the group to take his place on the bench for the final in Estadio Akron. If Chivas had been comfortably winning, the plan was to bring him on towards the end of the game.
These are the kind of human gestures that have defined Matias Almeyda's time in charge of the club. The union between the players has been the central drive behind five trophies in two-and-a-half years and Chivas making the Club World Cup for the first time in their history.
After the game, Almeyda made a point of thanking everyone at the club, from Joel the bus driver, to the ground staff and the security personnel. Almeyda has taken onboard and understood the all-Mexican essence of Chivas and accomplished his stated goal back in September 2015 of reawakening the giant of Mexican football.
"Union and humility make us stronger," tweeted Almeyda on Thursday morning.
It's easy to forget that the club was in relegation trouble when Almeyda took over in September 2015. And even though these past two seasons in Liga MX have been difficult, this period now goes down as the second most successful ever, after the Campeonisimo period of the 1950s and 1960s. There were even questions on Mexican TV shows asking if Almeyda is the best Chivas coach in history, even if Javier De La Torre is still a way ahead in that department.
Chivas stepped up against Toronto where Tigres and Club America had failed. The performance in the 2-1 win in the first leg was key. It was one of the best under Almeyda, given the suspensions, the poor state of the playing surface, the travel and the quality of the opposition. For a team struggling in the league to start six homegrown players and defeat TFC at BMO Field under those circumstances was memorable.
The second leg highlighted just what Toronto is all about and Almeyda's selection of Carlos Salcido instead of a second striker showed just how much he respected the MLS side. Chivas had looked comfortable winners at 1-0 up midway through the first half, but Toronto took the lead before half-time and had the game's best chance in the 90th minute, when Marky Delgado shot over from close range.
The questions for Chivas now are what happens to Almeyda and, after that, what the next steps are for a squad in flux. The fact that the club will be going to the Club World Cup will be an incentive for Almeyda to stay, but the former River Plate midfielder indicated after the game that he still needs to talk to the club's directors to define his future. If he does stay on, the former Argentina international will be taking a 30-day break, he confirmed.
There is also the prospect of the Mexico national team job becoming vacant after the World Cup, should Juan Carlos Osorio not continue, which seems likely given he has turned down the chance to extend his contract ahead of the tournament.
Almeyda has previously admitted his interest in the El Tri job, yet his credentials aren't flawless. Chivas have won just seven of 33 Liga MX games since lifting the 2017 Clausura trophy and if Mexico had a European style season the Guadalajara team would be in danger of getting relegated in the final round of games this weekend.
And in the second leg of the semi-final against New York Red Bulls, Chivas were very much holding on, even if the grit shown to get over the line should be respected.
Framed like that, Almeyda's last nine months don't appear to be all rosy.
But Almeyda has proved he is a winner and someone who has dealt with and got the best out of a group of mainly young Mexicans. Crucially, the squad has believed in his methods and discourse on the way to one league title, two Copa MXs, a Supercopa MX and now the CCL. His Chivas team is outwardly attacking, but has also found a pragmatic streak, which has been on display in the CCL this year. And while not everyone is enthralled by Chivas' all-Mexican policy, it is certainly more difficult to find success with such restrictions in place.
Almeyda has demonstrated all his experience at big clubs like River Plate and Lazio in how he has dealt with complicated behind-the-scenes situations at Chivas. He's been direct and confrontational when required, but maintains a dialogue with even those he doesn't appear to get on with. All those traits are essential with El Tri.
If the Mexico national team job is open, Almeyda will be a frontrunner and Wednesday's CCL victory handed the 44-year-old's potential candidature more momentum.
Back at Chivas, it won't be lost on Almeyda that there is much work to do this summer. Center-back Oswaldo Alanis is on the brink of a move to Spain, Rodolfo Pizarro has offers from Europe, Carlos Salcido is set to retire and goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota is only on loan from Pachuca, who need a goalkeeper.
Then there is the ongoing situation regarding players protesting a lack of bonus payments, which has caused a rift between the squad and the directors, with the coaching staff stuck in-between.
The party at the Minerva roundabout in Guadalajara went on long into the night. But when the hangovers wear off and Saturday's home game against Leon is over, there is a heap of issues that need resolving. And at the top of the pile is Almeyda's future.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.