It is not that they came out of nowhere, or that they weren’t on anyone’s radar. Frankly, anyone who tries to make pre-season predictions on the outcome of Liga MX should probably have their head examined. The only sure thing in Luga MX is that there are no sure things.
But, there they are, the team no one saw coming, taking the top spot in Liga MX with a game in hand. Pumas will be the top seed in the Liga MX playoffs. A curse more than a blessing really, as Alberto “Chiquis” Campa noted earlier. The bigger prize, though, is a ticket to Copa Libertadores. A tournament where Pumas has not distinguished themselves at all. And now they get another shot.
How did Pumas, a club that had spent 4 years in the wilderness, manage to turn it around? It is simple really. Continuity. Pumas only dabbles in the transfer market, and the players they do cherry pick tend to stick around. This is not a team that reshuffles its roster every six months. The one time the did try it recently, under Alberto Garcia Aspe (another prodigal son), it failed miserably and is the main reason Pumas nearly slipped into the abyss. It also didn’t hurt that they brought back two lifetime Pumas to run the squad: Memo Vazquez, former Pumas player and last title-winning coach, was brought back after his inexplicable exit. Antonio Sancho is in the front office.
This year, they only collected 3 new players before the season. Two of them have had a major impact. Fidel Martinez, el Neymar Ecuatoriano has solidified an attack that has scored the most goals since C2011, which conincidentally, was the last time Pumas won a title. The other is Alekandro Castro. The former Cruz Azul holding midfielder has had an exceptional campaign which even warranted a call-up for the upcoming qualifiers.
The Mexico City side started slow, which was a problem: a few more losses and they would have slipped into the relegation fight. Instead, a 6-game winning streak catapulted them away from the drop zone and to the top of the table. They haven’t looked back. No team has scored more and only one team has given up fewer — Tigres (coached by another Pumas disciple, Tuca Ferretti).
But there is that whole top seed curse thing. It is very real. In the last 10 years, more top seeds have fallen in the first round than have won the title by a 2.5:1 ratio. Only 4 have won the title outright. If Pumas crash out early, so be it. But they have only partiacpted in the Copa Libertadores twice, and only got as far as the round of 16 in 2003. That should be the focus in 2016. Do they have a roster that can compete in the two tournaments? Tough to say. They play well together and have decent depth, but they need some youth players to step up. Which should never be a problem at Pumas.
So for the first time in 24 years, Pumas will enter the post-season as the top seed. What happened the last time they were the #1 seed? Funny you should ask…