Big team, big performance! America moves one step closer to meeting lofty expectations by reaching Liga MX final

Despite entering the playoffs as a 6 seed, Miguel Herrera’s squad knew they were expected to make the final and have fulfilled those expectations

The pressure was on for Miguel Herrera and Club America.

The manager knew his team needed to score to qualify for the Liga MX final, and they never seemed to doubt they wouldn’t accomplish their task.

A 2-0 victory at the Estadio Azteca means America moves into the final – a game that will take place in two-and-a-half weeks with fellow finalist Monterrey required in the Club World Cup. 

Las Aguilas should’ve sensed danger, having lost the first leg of the series 2-0. Even when up at the end of this game, an away goal for Morelia would’ve put the visitors into the final. Yet, the expectation for America was to get through, and they managed the game with calm, saying they planned to fulfill the expectations.

So even with manager Miguel Herrera deputizing Sebastian Cordova as his left back in place of the suspended Jorge Sanchez and with Guido Rodriguez largely on his own in central midfield, there was nothing but confidence exuding off the America team that took the field.

“We’re not here to shut people up. We’re here to do our job. This is the most demanding club there is in Mexico,” Herrera said in his news conference after the match. “I’ve told the guys that, and everyone knows it. Since the start of the tournament, they’ve demanded the title from us here. They don’t say ‘You have to qualify,’ If we didn’t qualify (for the playoffs) we’d all be out. They demand titles.”

There also was the 12th man Sunday, with the crowd at the Estadio Azteca putting those demands on their players and pushing them on to the win.

Not to say Morelia was intimidated by the atmosphere. Monarcas manager Pablo Guede stuck with his tactics, with his players looking to keep the ball and find an away goal that would’ve required America to score four Sunday. Yet the risks of his style were on display during America’s first goal, with Andres Ibuargen flying up the right side to take advantage of Jose Joaquin “Shaggy” Martinez having bombed forward to attack. His pass went to Renato Ibarra, whose shot deflected and went into the back of the net in the 37th minute.

The job was done just seven minutes later with great hold-up play by Henry Martin on a long clearance eventually leading to Paul Aguilar’s cross into the box for Federico Vinas. The 21-year-old nodded it in, and America won – just like it felt they always would.

Morelia pushed and pushed, with Jose Enrique Ortiz even getting the ball into the back of the net only for the VAR to note he was offside. 

Yet, did it ever really feel in risk at the Azteca? There’s something different about the historic venue. While it wasn’t totally full for the semifinal, it was definitely loud. Fans whistling for the referee to end the game sounded more like a series of fire alarms being set off than any noise produced by a group of humans.

Stepping onto that grass and feeling so small in a stadium capable of packing in around 90,000 spectators has to affect even experienced players like Monarcas’ Aldo Rocha, Rodrigo Millar and Martinez. There’s also the expectation. America went into the tournament expecting to win a title. It went into the playoffs expecting to be at this stage. Morelia, a seven seed in good form, will be happy enough with how its season ended. 

America entered the Liguilla as the six seed. Monterrey, the other finalist is the eight seed. Both are big clubs, with Monterrey the current champion of Concacaf and America the most successful Mexican team of all-time. Both have big budgets, familiar coaches and the undeniable confidence that comes with going into a game knowing they should win it. This could’ve been a tournament for the have-nots. Santos Laguna and Leon were the top two seeds, and Necaxa and Morelia were each semifinalists.

But despite being a final between the No. 6 and No. 8 regular-season finishers, the final after Christmas will feel familiar – even expected.

As Morelia’s fans continued to chant after the final whistle, the players they were singing for were already off the field in the locker room.

America players took a lap around the field, then huddled on top of the fading NFL logo at midfield, then joined in with the fans singing “Otra copa! Queremos otra copa!” They looked every bit the big team they are.