Gustavo Diaz has turned Leon from disappointments into genuine title contenders
MEXICO CITY -- In each of the past two seasons, uninspiring performances led Leon to switch managers in the early weeks of the Apertura. It happened in 2016 when Javier Torrente came in for Luis Fernando Tena, and again this year, when Gustavo "Chavo" Diaz replaced Torrente. As was the case with Torrente, who led Los Esmeraldas to the playoffs after winning 22 of the last 30 points in play, Diaz has lifted spirits in Leon, picking up 19 of the last 24 points in play entering the final two weeks of the season.
The positive energy that can be seen in Leon is undeniable and should be taken seriously, as the squad is full of players who are desperate to reclaim the glory they once owned. After all, Leon is the last club to have won the league in back-to-back seasons. Not even the unstoppable force that is Tigres has achieved such a feat.
That Leon team, led by Uruguayan manager Gustavo Matosas, had players like Rafael Marquez, Edwin "Aris" Hernandez, Jose Juan "Gallito" Vazquez and Carlos "Gullit" Pena, all of whom are no longer part of the club. But there are still members of that glorious team in the current squad, including Mauro Boselli, Luis "Chapito" Montes, William Yarbrough, Juan Ignacio Gonzalez and Elias Hernandez.
It's true that Leon's current manager, Diaz, is from Uruguay and his first name is also Gustavo, just like Matosas. When the news broke that Diaz was going to take over as La Fiera coach, those coincidences were brought up, but one of the things that the Leon fan base really wanted was to regain its home field advantage. Diaz, who coached the club down the road, Celaya, in Mexico's Second Division between the 2015 Apertura and 2016 Apertura, was known in Guanajuato as a coach who was able to make his team difficult to beat at home, something Leon fans coveted and didn't have to start the current Apertura.
What led to Torrente's dismissal was his poor home record: three losses and one draw to open the 2017 campaign. When Diaz led Leon to a 3-1 win over Pachuca on Sept. 16, it was Los Esmeraldas' first league home win since April 16.
The changes since Diaz's arrival have not only been felt by the Leon faithful, but by the league too. Teams like America and Tigres have come to the Nou Camp and left with defeats. Diaz has found ways to push players like Boselli, Hernandez and Montes back into the conversation of the league's most dominant attackers.
Boselli in particular has always been known as one of the league's most consistent strikers. When he's healthy, he's unstoppable; it's no wonder that he's currently the league's top scorer with 11 goals. Boselli already is Leon's second all-time leading scorer and is closing in on first place, which is still held by Adalberto "Dumbo" Lopez (126 goals).
"I have great footballers. Because this is a great team, it's my responsibility for this team to keep working. I have great players in order to make a great team," Diaz reminded the press on Tuesday morning.
One of the players who has captured a lot of attention is Hernandez, who's having the best season of his career So far, Hernandez has scored six goals and picked up seven assists. The case can be made that Hernandez is currently the best right-winger in Liga MX, and Diaz believes that's the case.
"Elias is an exceptional player. I have the great pleasure to coach him. The players are the ones that make us better coaches. He's the best right-winger in the league right now," Diaz said.
Alongside Boselli and Hernandez, the contributions of a Andres Andrade and Montes also stand out. Montes has four assists while Andrade has scored three times so far. Andrade arrived in Mexico from his native Colombia for the 2013 Apertura and played for America and Chiapas before landing in Leon. The most he had scored in a season previously was five goals with America in the 2015 Clausura. With the way Leon are currently playing, Andrade could break his personal record.
According to InStat, of Leon's 26 goals (one behind Tigres for the league's best offense), 10 of them have been scored between the 75th and 90th minute. No other Liga MX team can say that 38 percent of their goals are scored in the latter stages of matches, but that's not all. Leon has scored 21 of its 26 goals in open play, also leading Liga MX. Ten of those 21 goals started on the right flank, which has been Hernandez's habitat for most of the Apertura.
But behind this potent attack, there has to be a metronome who makessure everything is working. Leon's metronome is Colombian defensive midfielder Alexander Mejia. Per InStat, Mejia leads the league in tackles with 63 and is second in defensive challenges with 107. Mejia has been a key Leon player since the 2016 Apertura, when the team reached the Liguilla semis but lost to Tigres -- Mejia couldn't participate in the semis due to an injury he suffered in the quarterfinal second leg against Tijuana. Leon may have fancied their chances had Mejia been able to take on Tigres.
With two games left until the Liguilla begins, Leon must visit Tijuana and host Chivas. The visit to Xolos will be interesting because Mejia won't be available due to suspension, so it will be a great test for La Fiera to see how they can cover up Mejia's absence. Will the team suffer or will it succeed? Make no doubt, though, that if Leon finishes in the top four, it will be a legitimate title contender due to possessing players like Boselli, Hernandez, Montes and Mejia.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.