Pumas vs. Fate: The Dazzling Path of La Lillineta in Concacaf
Before reading the text, you have to listen to this song:
Qué más quisiera que fueras el sueño que se vuelve realidad
Me gustas tanto y eso es toda la verdad
Me siento emocionado
No sé si te ha pasado
Que si pudiera te viera de lunes a domingo sin parar
Esto que siento no se puede comparar
Y si ves que me sonrojo
Si te burlas, no me enojo
Yo solo sé que de ti me enamoré
(The only thing I want is
that you were the dream that comes true
I am so into you and that is the whole true
I feel excited, I don’t know if that ever happened to you
If I could I would meet you from Monday to Sunday with no stop
This thing I feel is incomparable
And if you see me to blush, if you make fun of it I will not be mad
I only know that I fell in love with you)
This signature chant by Banda MS is called El color de tus ojos and is making the iconic Pike Place fish market in Seattle vibrate with many fans with Mexican background from all around the West Coast wearing navy blue and golden banners. This song has attracted the success to this team and today is not the exception.
Watching the magnificent trophy of the Concacaf Champions League (aka Concachampions) sitting there can make a football fan look back as to how the perennial LigaMX representative has made its way so far. This time the chosen one was Pumas MX; 17 years after the last decisive series they are back again and ready to end a drought of 33 years in this realm.
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In literature, there are six types of conflict where the main character has to defeat an enemy (be it real or intangible) just to prove him, her or itself that is worth of the glory promised at any moment. Pumas’ epic fits one of them smoothly: Man vs. Fate. Just as Frodo stands inside the Mordor volcano to throw the Ring, Pumas was at the verge of defeating all their demons for good:
- “The only team where a non-Mexican team won Concachampions in this century was Pumas, losing the final against Costa Rican side Saprissa. Pumas failed to comeback and trump the disadvantage at University City. This was in 2004”.
- “Pumas do not mean having top-notch signing players – they rank 14th according to the market value. They are the most unlikely team to win this league, as Mexican representatives are doing badly and it is just a matter of time to end their reign in the confederation”.
- “Pumas is happy to be a hardworking team in Mexican league but maybe their spirit will not be sufficient to win after all”.
- “Bruce Arena is the manager who made USMNT a chimera for El Tri in early 2000, with the scarring Dos a Cero in Columbus and a well-deserved win in the 2002 World Cup with the same score, ‘the day that it counts’”.
Those mottos could have meant an impossible uphill battle for any respectable team ever, but Pumas took it as a great opportunity to prove their worth. Being the runner-up in Guard1anes 2020 in the middle of Covid-19 pandemic gave this opportunity to hop into this quest to rule Concacaf.
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For all our friends who do not follow this confederation, let me explain how Concachampions is about: 16 teams go onto a knockout tournament on home-and-away basis. Naturally there is a previous ranking to bring the seeded teams; the higher you are ranked, the higher the chances to close the deal at home.
The good news came before the draw: Pumas was seeded third, so they had the so perceived home advantage up to semifinals. The bad news came afterwards: their rival would be Saprissa, the team who gave them the nightmare and the mocks for being the only non-Mexican side to lose the final and at home.
Things were different this time: Saprissa was one of the strongest unseeded teams and underestimating them would be a huge mistake. Pumas indeed could not win in San José (2-2), but the sensation they gave was that they deserved the win.
One week later they brought the goals and finally thrashed the Purple Monster 4-1 to advance to the quarter-finals. One inner demon down.
Who would be waiting for them? New England Revolution trained by the controversial Bruce Arena; this Bostonian team walked over the Caribbean winners Cavalry FC as the Haitian side failed to issue visas for all players.
Even if Pumas had another series to host the second game, the change in the calendar due to the upcoming World Cup in Qatar forced into a shortened schedule. As this stage would be held on the first half of March, chances for a delayed end of winter in Boston were still high.
And the worst-case scenario for the weather forecast came true. The Gillette Stadium was plundered with a snowfall and the thermal sensation surpassed the freezing point of water.
As Pumas constantly relies on the noon heat and the altitude of Mexico City as secret weapons, now they had to play in opposite conditions, as if the quest brought them to the ninth circle of hell according to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Pumas was never able to thaw themselves and a 3-0 loss was rather merciful about the way they played.
This happened in a context when Mexican national team was suffering a hurricane inside a glass of water – a functioning with a lot of questions and sitting in third place in the qualifiers for Concacaf. Besides, the other representatives were playing low: Santos Laguna had failed miserably in the round of 16 against Montreal Impact, ending the second tenure of Pedro Caixinh.
Cruz Azul themselves defeated the Québecois team but barely 1-0 and they had to pay the visit in Montreal. And what about León? They also suffered an embarrassing 3-0 in Seattle. Would it be a bad year for Mexican football in Concacaf?
Not necessarily, said Pumas. They listened quietly to the declaration of Bruce Arena: “Common sense would tell you our approach is certainly different. We don’t need to score goals. They do”. Over confidence in this case? Maybe. In any case, Pumas would have a say.
Pumas was already in an adventure with a team of misfits and Brazilian strikers directly from the fourth-tier, but they have historically the gut to challenge all the preconceptions; this transcends bad decisions from nefarious agents and negligence from the board.
I will give the word to my friend Martín del Palacio, a die-hard Pumas fan journalist with some experience for Fifa.com:
- Alfredo Talavera: the legendary goalkeeper and the only one capped for El Tri, came as a free agent due to problems in his previous team, Toluca. Although he is already 39, he is picking a renewal in stamina and his reflexes are still the thing in Mexican football.
- Alan Mozo: once ostracised due to poor discipline and unacceptable performances, he is now the ruler as a full-back and many Mexican fans are asking Tata Martino to let him into the Mexican national team.
- Arturo Ortiz: forged in Monterrey grassroots, he had a rather mediocre career throughout the second-tier Mexican league. He arrived as an underdog, now he is acclaimed.
- Nico Freire: one of the eternal promises from Argentine football, he came from the quiet Uruguayan Torque.
- Efraín “Chispa” Velarde.- the last man standing from that golden 2004 year. When everyone thought he was done after a bad stance in Mazatlán, he proved them wrong.
- Leo López: after coming strong with León, he struggled to keep up with expectations at Toluca and América. He was a second-guessed incorporation but he has made all the way through the starting XI.
- Higor Meritao and Diogo: undoubtedly the signature men for this era. Nobody could explain how come Pumas could sign people from the Ferroviária of Brazilian Série D. The latter was not even considered to start match regularly. Now they are for real.
- Washington Corozo: the only foreigner with some name. Member of that Ecuadorean project called Independiente del Valle with a great maiden season in Libertadores.
- Sebastián Saucedo: one of those Mexican-Americans with serious both choices for national youth teams. Pricked by injuries but he has trumped it all with hardwork, although he is the weak point.
- Favio Álvarez: he once was a disaster, Pumas seemed to play with one player down when he was on. Somehow he was trusted and now he is reaping the fruits.
- Jorge Ruvalcaba: he was still at high-school level when scouted by Pumas. Fast forward two years later, he is a solid prospect for the future.
- Juan Dinneno: the killer and high man of the team. He did not make it in Racing, but had a revival in Ecuador and Colombian Deportivo Cali.
Yet, nothing would be possible without the manager, Andrés Lillini. He was coaching grassroots in the legendary La Cantera way far from the spotlights.
Then, just hours before the beginning of the tournament, the supposed Spanish herder Michel resigned alleging problems with the board, so Lillini suddenly was handed out an unexpected opportunity.
An unlikely tenure became an unlikely success. His look is similar to Klopp… and his style can emulate his heavy metal. His way of playing focusing in attitude is like a van called Lillineta. Everybody is welcome to jump in! Not few people have responded to that invitation.
The table was also set for the appearance of the most important asset of Pumas: fans. Even if conditions look unsurmountable and near to impossible, La Rebel will push them and go along them regardless of the distance.
Pumas is unavoidably bonded to the best university in Mexico, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM in Spanish). This gut, this endeavour, this pride, this heart, this passion… add it all to the mix and there you have it. “Jueguen como tomamos” (Play like we booze), La Rebel dixit.
Their fans are really loud when it comes to confess their love to Pumas and everytime a win comes they say: “You have been screwed by Lillineta”.
That night at Olympic Stadium in the core of University City was one of those unforgettable moments. There an authentic herd of pumas that went rabidly to devour each and every heir of that Tea Revolution. There was only a team and the three-goal advantage was bottled after 60 minutes.
Even Mexican fans besides obviously Pumas were stunned. Is this for real? The penalty shootout came and although Saucedo missed their shot, Talavera came to the rescue and clinched a spot in semifinals.
Arena had to eat his own words, to the delight of Mexican football community, still remembering how USMNT poorly let the ticket to Russia escape in Trinidad and Tobago. La Lillineta was still on its way, and the second demon was now in the past. What would the next stop be? Cruz Azul. This was a derby, considering that both teams are located in Mexico City.
Even if Pumas had also overcome a 4-0 lead in the same Guard1anes tournament, the Sky Blue Machine was still thrilled to keep their winning wave after ending themselves a painful drought full of oh-so-nears. Yet, Reinoso’s side was starting to wear out after losing many key players. As Pumas was now playing the first match at home, the series was open for any team to be the Mexican finalist.
The first match at CU was a great exhibition of the power of Pumas, yet the late goal by Tabó left the coin still in the air. The away match was another test for endurance and perseverance. 60 minutes were played with the same intensity by Pumas. Things changed when Arturo Ortiz saw a red card and Pumas had to be with 10 men on the field.
Pumas went to park the bus and to give it all just to throw all balls away. Fortunately for them, there were not many options on the bench for Cruz Azul, The aim was to avoid any score, as the away-goal rule was the tie-breaker.
And they hit it: with an aggregated score of 2-1, Pumas was in the final after 17 years. The third phantom was also defeated. One still was to go: the final match. The rival? Seattle Sounders.
Being on a cliff between the glory and the shame of losing an Only-Mexican streak gave some vertigo, yet Pumas were ready to take on the challenge. Seattle side would be still strong with one of the best managers in MLS, Mr. Brian Schmetzer, and an old foe with Mexican past, the Peruvian Raúl Ruidíaz.
He still gave a buzzer goal that saved a franchise from vanishing from Liga MX, even if Morelia would be eventually scrapped into another city.
The first match would be again at CU, but this time with a rain mercilessly pouring Mexico City, just like many years around April. La Rebel was still there, regardless of the high amount of water falling from the sky. Now the referee made several mistakes benefiting both teams for good or bad.
When the chronometre stated minute ’80, it was 2-0 with an acceptable gaming from the university team, things started to fall apart. The deal breaker was allowing two slips on the area, giving the Cascadian team to get away with two penalty kicks which tied the match.
And now we are back to Pike Place, the market where Mary Jane Ramirez could turn things around in her work place according to the book Fish! La Rebel was still there, even if the Lumen Field would be packed with Seattle fans.
Yes, they were outnumbered, but those Pumas fans were scattered around the stadium. The decisive match was underway. Pumas looked so strong and reliant on their game plan.
In spite of that, reality hit hard. And who would be other than Ruidíaz? Just when Pumas was so domineering, Ruidíaz frapped the ball which was deviated. 1-0. Pumas could not be scored in a worse moment than this, some seconds before the first half was over.
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Pumas really tried again and again, but they were denied by a superb goalkeeper called Frei. The DNA of Pumas is to fight until the end and harder when the deck is stacked against them. Those efforts, however, were not enough to make another heroic performance.
The counterattacks were on point and Ruidíaz and Lodeiro placed the nail in the coffin. Pumas again lost the streak of 17 years with only Mexican teams winning Concachampions. La Lillineta broke down and the petrol just ran out. This time, Frodo could not toss that ring away. This time, the final demon was not defeated.
Now, I am fully aware that this praise may be understood as a way to belittle this fate by Seattle Sounders. Not at all! Seattle Sounders have worked so hard in the last five years.
Lumen Field is one of the loudest stadia in the American Union and is one of the candidates to host the North American World Cup in 2026. Schmetzer has been topping constantly the MLS with a quirky 4-2-3-1 giving Lodeiro the faculty to destroy the opposite defensives. They are a well-deserving champion.
To finish this story with a heartbreaking end, it would also be a mistake to just tell that Pumas failed miserably. Lillini has got water from stones, giving a real hope against all odds. He has made a decent team out of some misfits. Maybe the real win is the process, the quest.
I will not try to change the mind of people who focus on the results. Let them be! I am just here to pay homage to La Lillineta. This van is still with room enough to hop in while La Rebel chants:
¡Cómo no te voy a querer! | Si mi corazón azul es | Y mi piel dorada | Siempre te querré (How come I will stop loving you | If my skin is blue and my skin is Golden | I will always love you)
By: Sebastian Alarcon / @AlarSebas
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Leopoldo Smith / Getty Images