Pachuca’s Liga MX title showcases Mexico’s next-gen stars

After watching Pachuca lift the 2022 Liga MX Apertura title on Sunday, it can’t help but draw comparisons to last time Los Tuzos won a premier class title in Mexico in 2016. A little more than six years ago, the scenario seemed strange.

Both stories feature a Uruguayan manager from Montevideo (Diego Alonso then, Guillermo Almada now) using an efficient style of play, a strong base during the regular season (8W-6D-3L and 30 points in 2016, 9W-5D-3L and 32 points in 2022) and most importantly, a well-balanced roster that featured promising academy players.

Known in Mexico for producing some of the country’s most exciting up-and-comers — leading to an announced collaboration in August with fellow talented Ajax architects — Los Tuzos blossomed a few years ago with young picks like Hirving Lozano, Erick Gutierrez and Rodolfo Pizarro taking charge as key figures. Before they were household names, the trio were budding stars given starting roles by Alonso as the team built up to the 2016 Clausura final against big-spending Monterrey.

Gutierrez, then just 20 years old, wore the captain’s armband in the first leg. Along with him, Lozano (20) and Pizarro (22) were decisive with their attacking efforts that finally pushed them away. Los Rayados and in a total result of 2-1 which secured the Clausura championship.

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Moves to Europe followed for Lozano and Gutierrez, with the former now at Napoli and the latter at PSV Eindhoven. Pizarro remained in North America, but increased his stock with additional league titles and individual accolades, including an appearance in the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League Best XI and an appearance in the Liga MX Best XI at the 2019 Clausura.

With over 30 caps for Mexico, the three players are success stories from Pachuca’s academy. During last week’s finale, it was easy to spot Touzos miracles that can become the next lights to emerge from Liga MX.

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At the heart of midfield, there has been huge intrigue in 23-year-old Eric Sanchez. Shining as one of the key players in Toluca’s 8-2 aggregate run to the final, Sanchez covered a surprising amount of ground with his defensive interventions and playmaking. After making his debut with Mexico in the summer of 2021, the midfielder is now in contention for a place at the World Cup in November.

Behind him at left-back, 21-year-old Mexican-American Mauricio Isais has been a revelation for Pachuca with his ability to make dangerous runs while also providing crucial tackles at the back. Discovered in 2017 by Alianza, the largest amateur grassroots soccer program in the United States for Latin players, the Texan now has a Liga MX title under his belt, a goal in a league final and an upcoming invitation to train with Mexico before World Cup.

Fellow Pachuca defender Kevin Alvarez has also turned into an indispensable member of the XI. Often making runs down the flanks as a poised right-back, the 23-year-old native of Colima was a constant threat to Toluca and looked forward to El Trithe defender is a likely starter for the Qatari national team.

The list goes on when you look further into Pachuca’s academy setup and full roster, and depending on how things go in the transfer market this winter — TUDN reported on Sunday that clubs from abroad are already eyeing midfielder Luis Chavez — – their latest title could prove to be the catalyst for the next big things in Mexican football. Even so, producing talent with exciting potential is only part of the equation Los Tuzos.

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While providing the right platform for players has remained a constant for the club in the 21st century, the other part of the puzzle requires a manager who gives opportunities to youngsters and also finds a good harmony in the roster with more experienced names and foreign additions. As of late 2021, Almada is the perfect manager.

“It speaks to the effort we’ve made this year since the arrival of Almada, who proposed a strong and dynamic idea of ​​football,” defender Gustavo Cabral said after cementing his position in the league on Sunday.

At the end of last year, the expressive and passionate coach has used an aggressive and direct style of play that has given important roles to the academy selections. Around them in a 4-2-3-1 formation, veteran players such as Romario Ibarra, Oscar Murillo, Oscar Ustari and Golden Boot winner Nicolas Ibañez are the glue that have maintained consistent performances.

In last year’s Clausura season, Almada and his roster advanced to the Liga MX final, but fell just short in a narrow loss to Atlas. Months later, they returned and made a statement with their destruction in Toluca.

“We will take Pachuca to the place it deserves,” Ibañez said after helping lift the Apertura trophy. “Today is a step forward and we are going for much more.”

But will Almada stay, and maybe some of his players who are getting a lot more attention?

A vacancy could soon appear in Mexico’s dugout. There have long been reports that manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino will be leaving El Tri after the World Cup, and if that’s the case, then someone like Almada — who is not only a proven winner but also has a track record of supporting young Mexican players — would be a perfect fit. Through a long process to prepare for the 2026 World Cup, the Uruguayan coach is an ideal name that could usher in a new era and generation.

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The same could be said for his recent opponent, Toluca coach Ignacio “Nacho” Ambriz. Despite a disastrous 8-2 scoreline in the Apertura final, Ambriz and his team have exceeded expectations in recent months. Just 15th in the league table last season, Ambriz helped put together a serious roster overhaul this summer that is a work in progress but cohesive enough to qualify for the final.

Coaching and beating every coach in the playoffs this season, apart from Almada, Abriz has helped restore his image as one of Mexico’s top managers after a less-than-exciting stint in Spain’s second division that lasted just a few months with Huesca in 2021.

“He’s a genius,” Toluca midfielder Sebastian Saucedo told ESPN in October of Ambridge. “The way he works practices, possession, all those little things … this guy is the real deal.”

In the end though, it was Almada and Pachuca who secured the Apertura championship on Sunday. Decisive with their chances and carried by their skilled academy players, Los Tuzos they won their seventh piece of Liga MX silverware since 1999 and now sit sixth (with Pumas and Tigres) on the all-time table for Mexico’s top division.

In 2023, Pachuca will have an invaluable opportunity to further increase its recognition and reputation through the CONCACAF Champions League and the expanded League Cup involving every MLS and Liga MX club. On their roster, the extra competitions will create even more opportunities for minutes to develop players from the club’s renowned academy.

Six years ago, it was Lozano, Gutierrez and Pizarro who rose up. This October, Sanchez, Isais and Alvarez won similar recognition. And in 2023? Expect to see even more new faces emerging from the country’s hottest faces football factory.

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