The team that couldn’t beat anybody a couple months ago and got into the playoffs thanks to a defensive gaff on the last weekend of the regular season might be on the verge of, wait, what … the Liga MX finals?
On Mother’s Day in Mexico, the Tijuana Xolos delivered a bouquet of belief to their fans – a stunning 2-1 victory against top-seeded Toluca in the first leg of their semifinal series at rockin’ Estadio Caliente. The return leg is Sunday at 10 a.m. PDT at 8,793 feet in Toluca.
But what’s a little lung-scorching altitude when you’ve already climbed this far?
The Xolos snuck into the playoffs, then scored twice at Monterrey last weekend to prevail in their quarterfinals series – never mind the small detail that they’d managed just a single road goal during the entire regular season. On Thursday night at Estadio Caliente, they led 2-0 deep into second-half injury time against the top seed and heavy favorite.
So when you give up a crucial, crushing away goal in the dying moments, maybe it doesn’t sting quite as much when you step back and gaze at the big picture.
It is that kind of perspective the Xolos will be trying to maintain after surrendering a free kick near the left sideline as three minutes of extra time ticked perilously close to three minutes. Instead, Toluca star Rubens Sambueza whipped in a cross that Pablo Barrientos headed toward the far post that Fernando Uribe headed past Xolos goalkeeper Gibran Lajud.
The ball bulged the net at 93:30.
The Liga MX quarterfinals and semis use an away-goals format, where they count double in case of a tie in the two-leg aggregate score. If it’s still tied, the higher seed advances.
That’s how Toluca reached the semis, after a pair of 2-2 draws against Morelia in the quarters.
The Red Devils can advance now with a 1-0 or 2-1 win at imposing La Bombonera stadium. Had the Xolos kept a clean sheet and scored once in the thin air, Toluca would have needed to score four Sunday to reach the final.
It sullied an otherwise magical night for a team that no one expected to be here, and by a maligned forward who kept missing easy chances all season.
Argentine Juan Lucero had a goal in each half, the first coming in the 28th minute after some deft interplay between Luis Mendoza and Miller Bolanos. Lucero one-timed a shot that rose over Toluca goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera before dipping into the net (and setting off absolutely bonkers celebrations).
Five minutes into the second half, Gustavo Bou settled a long ball and threaded a pass to Lucero, who calmly turned and fired a low strike into the left corner – pandemonium.
Both teams made one change from their weekend lineups, Toluca starting Angel Reyna in place of Juan Delgadillo and Tijuana going with Luis Chavez in place of Ignacio Rivero, who was serving a red-card suspension.
It didn’t take long for either to get involved. Reyna’s hard shot in the fourth minute caromed off the far post, the first sign that this might be Tijuana’s night. Ten minutes later, Chavez’s corner was nearly headed in by Juan Carlos Valenzuela, only for the crossbar to get in the way.
But the Xolos seemed inspired by the near miss, not discouraged, and slowly began gaining control of the game. It wasn’t long before soldout Estadio Caliente gained belief as well, only to see the celebration muted by Uribe’s header.
In the first leg of the other semifinal, played earlier Thursday, Santos Laguna beat visiting Club America 4-1.
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