Eric Gomez: Japan may host Monterrey’s last hurrah

Despite the fact they're only six months removed from a league final, it seems that one of Mexico's last great runs will end when Monterrey plays the Club World Cup.

It wasn’t too long ago that Monterrey was Mexico’s unkillable beast. The Rayados had everything: a national-team caliber goalkeeper, one of the best back lines in the country, classy midfielders and a deadly strike force that intimidated defenses throughout the Liga MX.

Their manager was hailed as an underrated wizard, a man whose record was untouchable and whose humility in the face of success was hailed as a fresh change of pace -- a sort of Chicharito, aged 30 years into the future. Considered a small club within a big market, Monterrey had attained just two league titles by 2003 despite being founded in 1945. By 2012, they’d have four, as well as two continental championships.

The bravado was left to their fans. Every 15 days, rain or shine, championship-caliber team or bottom-dweller, the Estadio Tecnologico has been filled to capacity for the better part of the last decade. Now, their loyalty was being rewarded with silverware galore. Along with dominant northern compatriots Santos Laguna and Tigres, Mexico’s national soccer league was very much a regional affair.

If it seems like those times are long gone and the images evoked in the last paragraphs should be soaked in either a black-and-white or sepia tone, you’re not alone. The immediacy of the Liga MX, two full league tournaments jammed into a 10-month schedule with a domestic cup and international engagements for both club and country to boot create a rapid turnover in what’s hot and what’s not.

Real Madrid’s title hopes may all but be dashed in the face of a double-digit deficit to Barcelona, but the Merengues have the better part of six months to get their act together. A subtle switch in form in traditional European leagues is bearable – in Mexico, it’s the difference between a contender and a chump.

Six months ago, Monterrey and Santos were battling out the domestic title. Tigres was the odd man out, bounced to the curb in the semifinals after unsuccessfully being able to defend the Clausura 2011 championship. Another squad from the north, upstart Tijuana, had been but a stepping stone for Monterrey in the playoffs towards the league final.

Santos eventually won out, proudly hoisting the very last league trophy emblazoned with the old “Primera Dvisión de México” legend before Mexico’s version of the Premier League sprung up in the form of the Liga MX. Monterrey was understandably upset, but the Santos win set a sort of Solomonic symmetry to the semester, as Monterrey had bested the same team for the CONCACAF Champions League title weeks before their league engagement.

Now, the last remnant of that strong run will pit the suddenly beatable Rayados into a competition where they’ll likely have to face Chelsea or Corinthians to lift the trophy. Not to say that, the Blues, for example, don’t have their own sudden existential crisis to deal with, but a win against that type of team will always seem a bit less likely when form isn’t on your side.

Thus, it’s likely that one of CONCACAF’s great chips on its shoulder will persist past the 2012 Club World Cup. A competition dominated by CONMEBOL and UEFA that still has some purists wondering why the old Intercontinental Cup isn’t just revived without any of the expendable confederations, this has definitely been one arena in which North America, Central America and the Caribbean still can’t hold a candle to its far more powerful geographical competitors.

That said, the very nature of the tournaments that set CONCACAF up for the Club World Cup make it inherently hard to win. MLS, the only league truly capable of contesting the Liga MX for dominance, is in preseason when the Champions League knockout stage begins, usually creating mismatches which the Mexican teams gladly take advantage of, as their calendar is in full swing.

Then, when the continental tournament ends and a champion is crowned, a full season of Mexican soccer – where everything can and often does happen - takes place before the nascent confederation holder can take the pitch in Japan and face the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar, Fernando Torres and Frank Lampard.

Monterrey can offer evidence to support the need for more beneficial circumstances. Unceremoniously dispatched in its first game against J-League champ Keyshiwa Reysol, the Rayados turned in another dismal CONCACAF performance for a region that still holds Necaxa’s 2000 third-place finish (win over Real Madrid included) in the highest regard.

Now, injuries, contract disputes, a shaky league campaign and a dwindling window of dominance into Japan has the potential to provide an ugly goodbye to one of Mexico’s top teams in recent memory. Chilean striker Humberto Suazo has hinted towards an exit sans a contract extension. The talented but problematic Angel Reyna may be shipped off to Chivas. Sought-after young defender Hiram Mier might be Europe-bound, and coach Victor Manuel Vucetich might exit and wait for a call from El Tri in 2014.

Before any of that happens, Los Rayados will have a chance to ride off into a Kurosawa-tinged sunset to cap off their impressive run.

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