After Omar Gonzalez's 88th-minute headed goal secured a draw for Pachuca to keep the Tuzos undefeated, there was joy. The American center back celebrated with a goofy, guns-blazing dance as his teammates surrounded him and put a (somewhat merciful) stop to his celebration with hugs and pats on the back.
You can forgive a little dancing, though. It had been a difficult day for Pachuca, with Pumas controlling much of the match. But after a strong showing defensively, Gonzalez scored his first Liga MX goal just in time to help the club he joined this winter leave Mexico City with a point.
Though that result, coupled with Monterrey getting a win Saturday, sees Pumas fall off the top of the table, the club's fight-back hints this Pachuca team might be in it for the long haul. Monterrey is certainly a contender, with experienced manager Antonio Mohamed overseeing a squad that was bolstered in the offseason. Tigres, too, after winning last tournament looks like a team that could win the title. But while Pachuca isn't one of the first names that comes to mind when talking about title contenders, the Tuzos look like they will be shoo-ins for the postseason and in the hunt to win the Clausura crown.
Pachuca doesn't usually need to rely on a defender to score its goals. Hirving Lozano is one of Mexico's brightest young prospects, and while Pumas right back Marcelo Alatorre largely coped with the pressure the 20-year-old applied Sunday, most of the league's defenders can't. While Lozano provides the pace, skill moves and often goals, his Mexico U-20 teammate Erick Gutierrez pulls the strings in the midfield. Yet another Olympic-eligible midfielder, Rodolfo Pizarro, mans the opposite wing, though he's also capable of playing centrally or lining up in defense.
Last tournament, Pachuca had its season disrupted by "Chucky" Lozano and "Guti" heading to the U-20 World Cup along with three other Tuzos teammates. While Franco Jara found his scoring touch late, the team wasn't able to jell quickly enough to mount a run at the postseason. This year, things are looking different.
With as much as they rely on youth, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Tuzos' manager is a relatively young man himself. Diego Alonso, 40, coached in his native Uruguay and in Paraguay before returning to Mexico, where he played for several years (he won a title with Pumas in the 2004 Apertura). His task was to get the most out of what he has available. Pachuca has been playing some of the most entertaining soccer in the league for the past few campaigns. This tournament, though, Alonso's men are also getting results.
With its status outside of Liga MX's stratosphere, Pachuca often has been a selling club. Winger Jurgen Damm was sold in the summer to Tigres, where he became a regular starter for the team that won the Apertura. It was Pachuca that brought Ecuadorian forward Enner Valencia to Mexico, where he played just one tournament before being snapped up by West Ham.
While Pachuca isn't among the grandes these days, it is one of the Americas' most storied clubs. British miners founded the club just after the turn of the 20th century, and Pachuca was a founding member of the (amateur) Mexican Primera Division in 1907. This rich soccer history led local officials to build an international soccer Hall of Fame that has garnered FIFA's support.
It would be an easy joke to say that their goalkeeper remembers the days of amateur soccer. While that's a stretch, Oscar "Conejo" Perez truly has been playing in Liga MX longer than half-a-dozen of his teammates have been alive. Though he turned 43 last week, "The Rabbit" has plenty of spring still in his step.
He's been rejuvenated by Gonzalez and center back Oscar Murillo in front of him. Murillo, another offseason acquisition, is very comfortable with the ball at his feet, though sometimes lacks the vision for what to do next. Though he and Gonzalez only met in January, their partnership looks like one that has been forged over years, not weeks. The only goal that got past the defensive unit Sunday was scored after a free kick hit the post and fell to Matias Britos.
The combination of the dynamic, young midfield, defenders who are understanding each other well and a young coach who can lean on the wisdom of a goalkeeper three years his senior make for a mix that might not just be easy on the eyes but also could make a real run at lifting a trophy.
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