Jonathan Orozco is leading Santos toward a title from between the posts
TORREON, Mexico -- Jonathan Orozco is used to being overlooked. That doesn't mean he's happy about it. Eighteen months ago, the Monterrey native was displaced from his boyhood team, Rayados, when then-manager Antonio Mohamed signed goalkeeper Hugo Gonzalez from Club America.
After 20 years with the club, two league titles, three CONCACAF Champions' League wins and two Best Goalkeeper of the Year awards in Liga MX, the 32-year-old Orozco was shipped off to Santos Laguna before the 2017 season where he was embraced by the club and named the starter.
On Thursday night, Orozco will be in goal for his first league final with Santos in the Liga MX final against Toluca, while his old teammates in Monterrey watch from home.
"I've had a lot of great mentors at the club," said Santos' backup goalkeeper Carlos Acevedo. "Jonathan is a guy I learn from every day, he's great."
Orozco is the latest in a line of superb goalkeepers at Santos, the five-time Liga MX winners from northern Mexico. Acevedo recalls early workouts with Mexico legend Oswaldo Sanchez, who played for Santos from 2007 to 2014. Upon retiring, Sanchez's spot was taken over by Argentina international Agustin Marchesin, who was quickly elevated to idol status for his displays, before being controversially sold to Club America. Both Sanchez and Marchesin won titles at the club before departing.
Now in his third full season with Santos, Orozco has filled those massive shoes with aplomb.
"He just works so hard every day, and he's a great teammate to those around him," said Santos assistant Nicolas Navarro, a former goalkeeper with the Mexico national team.
He has also served as a brand ambassador for businesses across the border in Texas, a place friends and colleagues say he enjoys so much they could see him playing there one day in the future for a Major League Soccer club.
Up close, Orozco cuts an imposing figure. His stout, muscular six-foot-one frame suggests a gym rat. The fashion choice of wearing tight t-shirts makes him look like he can bust out of them at a moment's notice, Incredible Hulk-style. The tattoos on his arms coupled with a usually furrowed brow completes the picture of intimidation.
At times, he can certainly be surly and biting. After Santos eliminated Tigres in the quarterfinals, Orozco failed to resist the urge of prodding his old rivals. "I win the important games," he tweeted shortly after the victory.
Yo si gano los importantes 🤫— Jonathan Orozco (@jona_orozco) May 7, 2018
However, those around him paint a different picture about his general demeanor.
"Fans love him, he's one who people most want autographs and pictures from," noted Navarro.
"He's generous with his time, you can learn a lot from him even during a quick chat," said Joel Garcia, Santos' third-choice goalkeeper.
Indeed, Orozco provides a steadying veteran presence on a young team not fancied by many at the start of the season. Only one player on the entire roster, 33-year-old defender Gerardo Alcoba, is older than the keeper -- and arguably, no other player, outside of midfielder Osvaldo Martinez, is as experienced in title runs as Orozco.
Buoyed by Liga MX's top goal scorer, Djaniny Tavares, and arguably the best defender in the league, Nestor Araujo, Orozco completes Santos' triumvirate of stars responsible for this season's run.
Without Araujo in the back, who was lost to a frightening, but not long-term injury a month ago (he's been medically cleared to play but has yet to reappear), the goalkeeper's importance has been highlighted. In the playoffs, Orozco fended off attacks from two of the league's most powerful front lines in Tigres and Club America. During the regular season, Orozco was third in the league with six clean sheets.
"It's really impressive to watch him work," said Garcia. "There's [a sense of] security when he's out there, just a great player."
The superlatives from peers and the impressive stats would seemingly paint the picture of a national team-caliber goalkeeper. Though Orozco has indeed played for Mexico at the senior level since 2010, he will not be on El Tri's squad in Russia for this summer's World Cup.
"I honestly don't know why he's not considered for the World Cup," lamented Navarro. "He's the best in Mexico at a number of things, including playing out of the back with his feet."
For the Clausura 2018 crown, Orozco will square off face-to-face with one of the men deemed better-suited than him for a World Cup roster spot, Toluca goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera.
Both men are part of a strong generation of Mexican goalkeepers that includes presumptive World Cup starter Guillermo Ochoa, Jose Corona and Rodolfo Cota, not to mention younger stars such as Gibran Lajud, Raul Gudino and Hugo Gonzalez.
Like Orozco, Talavera is highly accomplished. The two-time Liga MX champion has been a consistent part of proceedings for the Mexican national team since 2011. Talavera was also selected as one of Mexico's three over-age players for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where he started every game.
In a series mostly devoid of big names, the showdown between the goalkeepers will be a top storyline as the Liga MX title is decided. It will be a deserved return to the limelight for Orozco, a superficially undervalued player who is paradoxically equal parts beloved figure and overlooked hero.
After Orozco tweeted out a video of a spectacular save in April, a Monterrey fan clapped back -- claiming it would be the closest the former Rayado would get to winning a title with Santos.
The goalkeeper took offense to being overlooked for his contributions, past and present.
"Shut up," Orozco replied. "I won everything for you."
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.