If you are searching for hope for the Tijuana Xolos and their Cinderella run to the Liga MX finals, if you’re trying to comprehend how a team that couldn’t win two months ago suddenly can’t lose, look no further than Argentine forward Juan Lucero.
In his first 1,500 minutes of the 2017-18 Apertura and Clausura seasons, he scored four goals. In the next 117 minutes: three goals.
Sports are often less about playing well than playing well at the right time, and no team has epitomized that weathered cliché more than the Xolos, no player more than Lucero. On Sunday, Lucero and his Xolos take a 2-1 lead into the second leg of their semifinal series at Toluca’s Estadio Nemesio Diez (10 a.m. PDT, Univision Deportes).
A win or a tie, or even a 3-2 loss, and they’re in the finals for the second time in franchise history.
“I’m very happy with the team,” coach Diego Cocca said. “We are heading into Toluca with the lead, and it all depends on us.”
That Toluca managed a last-second goal at Estadio Caliente in Thursday’s first leg, radically changing the complexity of Sunday’s mission, seemed to be only a momentary buzz kill for a team that, let’s be honest, had no business being here as recently as a few weeks ago.
The ramifications: The top-seeded Red Devils can advance with a 1-0 or 2-1 win, based on Liga MX’s first tiebreaker of away goals and second tiebreaker of seeding.
If Fernando Uribe doesn’t head in Rubens Sambueza’s free kick at 93:30 (after referee Jorge Rojas initially signaled for three minutes of extra time), Toluca would have needed to win at least 2-0 Sunday – and 4-1 if the Xolos found the net.
“That goal,” goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera told Mexican media, “gave us more life than ever. Even without that goal, we have all the capacity and conditions to reverse the score.”
The conditions: Estadio Nemesio Diez – a k a La Bombonera, a k a El Infierno – sits at 8,793 feet of elevation. Kickoff is at the awkward time of 10 a.m. on the body clocks of Tijuana’s players. And the Red Devils are unbeaten in their last 10 Liga MX games in their bandbox stadium.
The asterisk: After winning nine straight Liga MX games, home or away, from mid-February through mid-April, the Red Devils are winless in their last four – a regular-season and playoff loss at Tijuana, and a pair of 2-2 ties against eighth-seeded Morelia in the quarterfinals.
The Xolos, meanwhile, extended their unbeaten streak of seven games Thursday, thanks to Lucero’s unforeseen vein of form. The guy fast becoming known for missing easy chances in front of goal scored the winner in the 2-1 victory at Monterrey in the quarterfinals, then added one in each half against Toluca.
Tijuana defender Omar Mendoza was asked if they’re scared of El Infierno.
“No, not scared,” Mendoza said. “We know that it will be complicated to obtain the result in a place where they’re unbeaten (this season), but we’re committed. We aspire to great things … Nobody believed that we’d go to the semifinals. Toluca finished in first place. I think they have more high blood pressure because of that.”
Santos Laguna leads the other semifinal 4-1 entering the return leg at Club America’s Estadio Azteca later on Sunday.
firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @sdutzeigler