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May 11, 2014

Pachuca, Leon survive scintillating semis

What a weekend in Liga MX to decide the finalists for the Clausura 2014. First, Saturday's scrappy, scintillating and at times, sloppy final leg put Pachuca into the championship match, but only just barely.

After the opening game, where Santos Laguna goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez was partly responsible for both Pachuca goals, the netminder and his squad were looking for redemption at home.

• Gamecast: Santos 4-2 Pachuca

• Gamecast: Toluca 0-1 Leon

Things started off well for the Laguneros, as Rafael Figueroa scored in the 11th minute, but less than ten minutes later, things completely unraveled for the hosts. Sanchez received a red card for fighting, sending inexperienced backup Julio Gonzalez into the game. Of course, the red card also meant that the Laguneros were playing a man down.

Pachuca soon took advantage. Enner Valencia scored from close range in the 27th minute, then Dieter Villalpando headed in another goal just before the half ended.

At this point, down 4-1 in the aggregate, plus with the away goals counting against them, things looked hopeless for Santos Laguna. Their fans were hushed in the stands, quietly mourning the end of the club's run. Things can change quickly in playoff games, however.

Pachuca's Walter Ayovi was shown a red card in the 64th minute, leaving both sides equal on players. The Laguneros charged the Pachuca goal, earning a penalty kick four minutes later that Juan Pablo Rodriguez converted well. Javier Orozco added another in the 77th minute.

Pachuca suddenly seemed unable to make defensive plays or control the ball, giving up more chances to Santos Laguna. Figueroa popped up in the box to put in a Renteria cross in the final minute of the match and suddenly the teams were even on aggregate. Santos Laguna fans were excitedly shrieking their team on. Only the away goal advantage kept Pachuca ahead.

It almost wasn't enough, since the final second of the game had Orozco in the box with the ball at his feet. But he seemed almost surprised and sent a weak shot to Pachuca goalkeeper Oscar Perez to collect. Pachuca escaped to move on to the final.

In the other semifinal match between Leon and Toluca, things were far less volatile.

Ultimately, what settled it was that the Diablos Rojos could not move out of their scoring slump. Despite being only a goal down to Leon, and in the friendly confines of the Estadio Nemesio Diez, Toluca couldn't generate a comeback.

In the second half, Leon put the nail in Toluca's coffin by scoring the coveted away goal in the 51st minute. The dynamic duo of Luis Montes and Carlos "Gullit" Pena teamed up for the strike. Montes popped a redirected pass to Pena, who struck a one-time shot on goal that arced high into the air before spinning into the side netting past a helpless Alfredo Talavera.

The golazo seemed to spur Toluca into action, but the efforts of the players were in vain. Carlos Esquival came close with a shot that rang off the crossbar in the 69th minute, but nothing worked out in the end.

It's remarkable in some ways that two of the lower seeds of the Liga MX playoffs, Pachuca and Leon, are the ones who move on to the final. In other ways, it reveals the new parity of the league that is now in effect.

Despite being ranked even lower than Pachuca when the liguilla began, Leon is in many ways the establishment, the defending champions. Pachuca didn't make the playoffs last year, so they are the young upstarts.

Ultimately, the youth and energy of Pachuca versus the savvy and skill of Leon in the final should make for an interesting contrast and a good match-up.