Rodriguez, Santos Laguna pushing on despite key departures

Natalia Perales
Several players left in the offseason and the manager resigned this month, but the club showed Sunday that it can still compete in Liga MX

The reigning champion of Liga MX no longer has its best defenders from its championship season. It no longer has its top scorer. Santos Laguna, suddenly, no longer has the manager who led the club to the Clausura championship either. And none of it mattered as Los Guerreros deftly topped Tigres 3-1 on Sunday.

It's the third straight win for Santos, and the second since Robert Siboldi and his coaching staff abruptly resigned because of what they viewed as an irreparable rift with center back Gerardo Alcoba that divided the locker room. With so much turnover, there were lots of questions for the Torreon team to answer heading into the new tournament and that was before the coaching staff left.

Santos is a selling club that has had to reload before, but this offseason saw key players leave with few big signings coming in.

The center backs are both new signings with Hugo Nervo and Doria pairing together against Tigres. The pairing wasn't exactly unbeatable. Santos conceded three penalty kicks to Tigres, with Andre-Pierre Gignac sending the first wide and Eduardo Vargas converting the second. On the third, the team's holdovers – the key to Santos' recent success – began to show themselves. Goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco saved a shot from Enner Valencia and got down quickly enough to deny Gignac's effort off the rebound as well.

While keeping Orozco was critical for Santos, far more important was figuring out how to replace Djaniny. The Cape Verde international led the league with 14 goals in the last tournament and was without a doubt the focal point of the club's attack. After five weeks of the new season, a Santos Laguna forward is atop the scoring charts again. Jonathan Rodriguez has scored four, including two in Sunday's win, while Julio Furch has a three goals and three assists this season.

"It's my dream debut," said interim coach Salvador Reyes, who was promoted from working with the club's youth teams to the senior squad. "But I have the fortune to come into this group, to be able to coach them and to realize why the team is the champion. These are wins that aren't my wins, but rather the whole institution's."

Reyes may be on to something. Santos has a model that sets it out to take advantage of players other teams don't want and players they've developed in their own youth system. Maybe we should stop being surprised by this. Santos consistently outperforms expectations. Siboldi himself was an interim, promoted from the academy like Reyes after another coaching departure. Nestor Araujo and Carlos Izquierdoz weren't the first strong center-back pairing and Djaniny was the latest in a long line of scorers who have helped Santos get results.

"Everything is owed to the group of the players, who have been really professional. When there's a really well-built structure, like there is here in Santos and where everyone is a participant in the project it's easier to build on what you already have," Reyes said. "I take these victories with a lot of humility and without believing that this is the work of one person. I happen to be in front of the team, but the structure is very firm."

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Yet the work put in by the team this time around still deserves to be highlighted. Rodriguez's first goal was more typical of the kind of goal Santos have scored lately. Julio Furch headed on a ball that was sent long by the goalkeeper. Rodriguez used one touch to get around his defender and then put his finish past the onrushing goalkeeper.

The second was a rocket from a free kick. The team also can get out and run, though it's doing so less than it did when Rodriguez and Furch were on the wings with Djaniny between them. Now they're playing as a partnership. Brian Lozano and Jesus Isijara give the team width, but Santos are playing more vertically than during Siboldi's tenure.

So far, it's working to keep Los Guerreros battling for the top spot in the league. Tigres is a northern rival that Santos has been able to frustrate in recent seasons. This time around, as the teams prepare for the busy jornada doble, Santos has showed that even without so many key parts from last year's triumph it still can mount a dignified title defense.