How Cristante has experienced Toluca celebrating its centennial atop Liga MX
Since the introduction of the short-tournament format in Liga MX in 1996, Toluca has won seven of its 10 league titles. In comparison, Chivas have won twice and Club America four times during that same span.
For all of its success, though, Toluca has failed to win a league title since the 2010 Bicentenario. It last reached the final in 2012, when it lost to Antonio "Turco" Mohamed's Tijuana. But with Hernan Cristante on board as head coach, Los Diablos Rojos are eyeing a chance to return to the finals and win their 11th title in one of the best-executed centennial celebrations in Liga MX history.
With its newly renovated Estadio Nemesio Diez, a venue that transports you abroad given its similarities with stadiums across England and France, Toluca is sitting pretty atop the Liga MX table with 25 points. The team has managed to pull itself through uncomfortable scenarios -- like Enrique Triverio's one-year suspension for aggressively confronting a referee and Ruben Sambueza's eight-game ban for a foul on Chivas' Isaac Brizuela -- and it just keeps winning. And after 12 games (Toluca plays on Thursday against Cruz Azul), Cristante's side is the most dangerous visitor in the league with four wins, one draw and one defeat away from home.
"The union, our mental strength [have been critical]," left-back Efrain Velarde told ESPN FC when asked about the keys to the team's success so far. "That mental equilibrium is important because we have lived complicated times due to certain referee decisions and injuries. Sometimes these events can bring you down but with this team, they have made us stronger. We'll keep working as best as we can."
Toluca is Velarde's third team since departing Pumas in the 2014 Clausura, along with Monterrey and Leon. The 30-year-old is one of the veterans of his current side, which is actually the most experienced in the league; Los Diablos Rojos' average age is 30 years and eight months.
Goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera believes that this experience is what has allowed Toluca to maintain its table-topping position, despite numerous setbacks.
"We have to value what we do. We need to be aware of where we are and what we represent," said Talavera following Toluca's 1-0 win over Pumas, where he gave one of his best performances in recent memory.
"As you can see, this is a mature team, very few of the players are in their 20s -- most of us are 30 and above," he added. "This says a lot about our team, about our maturity, and that at any moment we can give an unexpected surprise."
After Week 13 of matches, Toluca was the club with the most ground covered in Liga MX. How is that possible, you might ask, considering it's the oldest side in the league? Coach Cristante believes it's all about the work that's been done since he took over as manager ahead of the 2016 Apertura.
"The day-to-day work is what gets you closer to your objectives," he said at Pumas' Ciudad Universitaria. "[Our great visitor record] talks about a reality in the squad because we know who we're facing. Playing as the visiting side is not easy, but if we're organized and patient, we are able to execute the football that I want to see. We've been working on this since last season."
Cristante, who played for Toluca in three stints -- 1993-94, 1995-96 and 1998-2010 -- was one of the most noble, quiet and patient goalkeepers Liga MX has ever seen. There was nothing showy about his job, it was always about simplifying the game and backing his teammates up with reliable performances in net. He was always in control. As a coach, he's transforming his side into his vision as a player; rarely has Toluca fallen into panic mode or broken apart, barring losses to Chivas and Puebla.
Toluca is not a team that relies on a single player, even if striker Fernando Uribe has four goals to his name. Pablo Barrientos has contributed three of his own, while Mexican midfielder Erbin Trejo has tallied three in 257 minutes of play. Additionally, the contributions of 40-year-old Sinha, who has two stunning assists to his name, are worth highlighting.
Last season, Toluca came into its final regular-season match against Santos Laguna with one main goal. All it had to do was get a home win in order to reach the Liguilla, but it fell short and lost 2-1 to Los Guerreros. The defeat is still present in captain Paulo da Silva's mind; the defender was prudent and not overexcited when asked about this campaign's prospects.
"The important thing right now is to know that we're still not qualified," he said. "We have 25 points, we're close and we have two home games coming up. Hopefully we can get our spot in the Liguilla soon and stay on this same road."
It's a winning road, one that Toluca and its fans have been running on since 1996, as the team climbed the ranks to come shoulder-to-shoulder with Mexico's most revered clubs, Chivas and America. And it will certainly be a moment of a pride that will live on for generations if Los Diablos Rojos are able to celebrate their centennial with a league title, something that Las Aguilas will look toward with jealousy.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.