Copa MX title win just the first step toward changing the culture at Cruz Azul
The scenes on the final whistle as Cruz Azul defeated Monterrey 2-0 to win the Copa MX on Wednesday said just as much about where La Maquina is at right now as the preceding 90-plus minutes of football.
La Maquina had won its first title since the 2014 CONCACAF Champions League and the celebrations added to the sense that Cruz Azul -- an institution that has spawned a verb to describe ways of letting winning positions slip: cruzazulear -- is ready to challenge for the Liga MX Apertura in the remaining weeks of 2018.
As the camera panned down the line as Cruz Azul's players received their medals from Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla, left-back Adrian Aldrete shouted "the first of two, the first of two." Others followed suit.
"We made sure we were committed [this season] and we are excited to fight for the double," said young Mexico international Roberto Alvarado after the game.
Instead of fear about how to break a league title drought stretching back to 1997, there appears to be a willingness to take on the challenge and an acknowledgment that Cruz Azul -- one of Mexico's traditional "big four" -- should be comfortable chasing titles.
"I put myself in the fans' shoes and I can't tell them to give us time," sporting director Ricardo Pelaez told ESPN. "This team is demanding and we had to work to achieve a positive atmosphere and that's been done."
"The fans want titles," he added. "You always have to think about titles and now the league [playoffs] are coming up and we work for that."
Pelaez's role in "changing the chip" -- as the phrase literally translates from Spanish -- has been important. There was a passion in his celebrations, a release. He made a point of including the players who had traveled but didn't participate in Wednesday's game inside Monterrey's Estadio BBVA Bancomer in the group prayer on the pitch afterwards.
Pelaez has become the crucial focal point in the club between the ownership and coach Pedro Caxinha, combining the ideas and visions of each and delivering.
The former forward took on a struggling Club America in 2011 and went on to win two league titles and two CONCACAF Champions Leagues by the time he left in 2017. The ball has now started to roll at Cruz Azul, which Pelaez only joined this past May.
Cruz Azul's president Guillermo Alvarez has been fiercely criticized over the years and a lot of money has been wasted on an inefficient transfer policy, but the one thing the owners haven't stopped doing is pumping pesos into the squad. This time, however, under Pelaez, the business over the summer was both swift and shrewd.
Pablo Aguilar, Alvarado, Elias Hernandez, Igor Lichnovsky and Milton Caraglio were all well-established in Liga MX and were brought in early in the window. Add to that the experienced Argentine midfielder Ivan Marcone and Caixinha was handed strength in depth, options and, crucially, the type of competition for places that only Tigres and Club America can match in Liga MX.
That depth and competition for place were on full display in the Copa MX final, when Caixinha brought off striker Caraglio, who is known for his hold-up play, for Martin Cauteruccio, who is more mobile and adept at getting in behind defenses.
Caixinha's role has also been important. The Portuguese manager may have struggled at Rangers in Scotland, but his preparation and coaching methodology is far more advanced than that of the majority of Liga MX managers. From a mental point of view, Caixinha has confronted the club's culture of failure head on and certainly doesn't lack boldness.
On the day of the cup final against Monterrey, Caixinha relocated the players usual loosening up session from one of the conference rooms in the team hotel to a green space outside separating two lanes of traffic, where the team proceeded to go through their stretching exercises. It's all part of "changing the chip."
And then at half-time, with Cruz Azul winning 1-0, Caixinha was livid with his players in the locker room, according to captain Aguilar, and switched his strikers.
It's the kind of decision that can backfire, but everything is looking rosy for Cruz Azul right now, even if winning the cup obviously does not mean the league will naturally follow. What the Copa MX does give La Maquina is a boost of confidence and vindication that things are going according to plan.
Only time will tell if it is all too good to be true.