Liga MX champion Atlas shows perseverance and evolution on the way to back-to-back titles

If Atlas winning the Liga MX championship last season was a sporting miracle, then how can you even begin to describe consecutive titles? When the club lifted the trophy at the end of 2021, 70 years had passed since the last time they won a championship in Mexico’s top flight. But with confetti likely still scattered around the city of Guadalajara from the previous season, supporters of Los Rojinegros only had to wait another 168 days to celebrate a league title again when Atlas beat Pachuca 3-2 on aggregate to end Clausura’s 2022 season.

With a clear ambition of “Transformation 21-22” written on the chest of their kits (instead of a sponsor), Atlas paraded around the Estadio Hidalgo stadium in Pachuca after stunning the Mexican soccer world for the second time in months. “We are writing history,” said Atlas captain Aldo Rocha after the final whistle. “We continue to transform this team that had been dormant for years.”

Since Grupo Orlegi became owners in 2019, Atlas and its players have undoubtedly evolved. Not so long ago, this was a team that represented the past more than the future. A far cry from their heyday in the mid-20th century, they were lethargic minnows who lost themselves in the shadow of Crosstown rivals Chivas. The only moments of positivity, which were spotty, were usually found through developing young prospects in their academy and occasional wins over Chivas in the Clasico Tapatio.

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Playoff appearances were infrequent, and if they were lucky enough to be there, they almost always stumbled early. Although eyebrows were raised with the arrival of Grupo Orlegi a few years ago, due to the company also managing Santos Laguna in Liga MX, the change has already paid off for Atlas.

Key additions such as invaluable starters like goalkeeper Camilo Vargas, striker Julian Quinones, striker Julio Furch and midfielder Aldo Rocha, were finally introduced. team that hasn’t missed the Liga MX Femenil qualifiers since Grupo Orlegi got involved.

However, the biggest impact so far has been seen with the signing of manager Diego Cocca in the summer of 2020 for the senior men’s team. Organized defensively but also able to play directly when needed, the Argentinian was a perfect choice for a formation which undoubtedly remains at the level of a mid-table team, despite the investment. In a 5-3-2 system, Cocca likes to frustrate opponents in Atlas’ half, while quickly building up pressure that can turn his formation into a 3-5-2. In the last two regular seasons, no team in Liga MX has conceded fewer goals than Los Rojinegros.

That said, there were doubts about Atlas earlier in 2022. As impressive as their backline and Vargas’ performance in goal was, it seemed like something was missing from the No. 3 seed at the start. forward – they would finish with the fewest goals in the top six in the standings. Draws and wins were often close in the Clausura tournament, leading some to wonder if their 2021 Apertura title would turn out to be a flash in the pan.

For the national team, even Mexico coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino seemed to have questions that linger to this day. Martino’s final 38-man squad for upcoming friendlies and the CONCACAF Nations League did not include a single Atlas player. In fact, no Atlas player has earned minutes for Mexico in eight games so far this year.

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National team opportunities and scoring issues aside, there was also the serious problem of Atlas who experienced first hand the ugly scenes of fan violence during a match on March 5 at the ‘Estadio Corregidora de Querétaro. Months after their players and fans were forced to flee through stadium tunnels, it’s a wonder the roster members have been able to mentally carry on playing this season, let alone win a second championship in a row. .

Having a balanced manager like Cocca probably helped. A former Atlas defender in the late 1990s/early 2000s who lived through playoffs that yielded nothing, the Argentine coach is often heard talking about “playing from the heart” and hailing the perseverance of his team which tends to find a way out. intense fighting. Despite his calm demeanor and tactical emphasis which puts the utmost attention on staying organized, the X-factor for Cocca is the tenacity he expects from his players. In the playoffs, this was on full display in every round.

After beating rivals Chivas 3-2 on aggregate in the quarter-finals, Atlas slipped past Tigres with a nervous 5-4 advantage in the semis. They would go on to win 2-0 in the first leg of the final against Pachuca last Thursday, but then had their backs against the wall when Sunday’s second leg was 2-1 in Pachuca’s favor at half-time, giving Cocca and his men just the slightest of an overall lead at 3-2. Needing one more goal to equalize and send the game into extra time, Pachuca pushed forward and, in the 83rd minute, they also got a one-man advantage when Atlas’ Anibal Chala received a red.

And even, Los Rojinegros outfit. Compact and decisive in defense, they racked up more tackles, clearances and interceptions as the clock ticked down. Once the final whistle has sounded, several Atlas players hit the ground in relief knowing that somehow they had defied the odds again.

“Winning a championship in a row was something unthinkable. Even the most optimistic didn’t think we would make it, but we finally did it,” said Furch, who scored Atlas’ only goal in the result. sunday.

It also has to be said that Pachuca, however things turn out, deserves credit for almost securing a comeback. If a few shots from range or refereeing decisions had been made, the scenario could easily have been one on Los Tuzos winning their seventh Liga MX title since 1999. With a good balance of homegrown talent and smart international recruits, it’s no wonder they were able to finish the regular season top of the table. On paper, Atlas could look at what Pachuca is doing and take notes on a program that produces some of the most exciting young prospects in Mexican football.

Nonetheless, Atlas will be the one to celebrate this week. In Guadalajara, the festivities have already resumed on the streets of Jalisco as Atlas join Pumas and Leon as the only consecutive champions in the Liga MX short season format.

In a new era for Atlas, the sky is the limit for what they could accomplish in the future. The foundations are there for them to keep moving forward, and maybe another miracle is just months away, rather than 70 years from now.

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