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Club America on verge of Liga MX title despite transitional season

19:11 WAT 29/12/2019
Miguel Herrera Club America 2019
Las Aguilas lost a number of key players in the summer but manager Miguel Herrera has remade the team and put it a win away from another title

What do you do if you're supposed to win everything but also have to overhaul your squad in the process?

Transition is allowed in major U.S. sports. Fans of many NBA teams outright demand it, hoping their teams lose games rather than win to improve their draft position and get a star who could change the course of the franchise's trajectory. But basketball is a different game than soccer, one in which one individual can have far more sway over a club's destiny.

The culture around the sport also is different. Fans will not accept a rebuilding year. Not at a big club like Club America. Manager Miguel Herrera regularly reminds his players and the press that the expectation from his bosses and the fans who support the club is a title every year. Miss the playoffs? He'll be unemployed.

Yet the economic realities - and personal desires of players - dictate that even one of the richest teams in Liga MX will need to sell players to Europe and remake itself several times over a decade.

It's actually part of the reason it's so difficult to overhaul 'grandes' like Cruz Azul and Pumas. The teams need to hit the reset button and have the patience to stick with a plan over the course of several years. Their dream, however, is to do it how America has done it this season.

Las Aguilas faced Monterrey in the first game of this tournament and now they will do it in the last, Sunday's second leg title match.

That game saw America win 4-2 with a very different squad than the one Herrera will deploy in search of a win that will overcome a 2-1 defeat in the first leg. For one, both goalkeeper Agustin Marchesin and midfielder Mateus Uribe played that day before moving off to Porto.

Edson Alvarez was at the game too, but with his move to Ajax already announced he simply received recognition at halftime. Jeremy Menez, a non-factor throughout his America career, came in as a substitute before a move to Paris FC later in the summer.

"It's a different tournament for us, full of adverse circumstances. You start the first week with a squad and then several players leave you because of sales. Others come in and you put it together as you go along," Herrera said at Saturday's pre-match news conference. "We knew how to come together. It was a unique tournament for us."

Clearly, America used its resources to get right back in the game. Guillermo Ochoa, a club legend, was repatriated and with his stunning stop on Vincent Janssen in the first leg proved why America supporters were so thrilled to see him back in the club's colors that they flocked to the airport in the hundreds to greet him. Giovani dos Santos' gruesome injury against Chivas has kept him from being much of a factor in the latter half of the season, but his presence in the squad is another bit of evidence at how America can spend.

Yet the reason America finds itself a win away from a record 14th Liga MX title goes beyond money. A front line led by a Uruguayan forward on loan to America and unknown to most this season, Federico Vinas, and a journeyman Mexican forward, Henry Martin, has given the team enough of a punch to get them into the final. That alone is a feat.

Las Aguilas will need to reinvent themselves again Sunday, with winger Andres Ibarguen injured for the match. Roger Martinez may once again be pressed into action on the wing, though Herrera has had plenty of tricks up his sleeve.

Herrera has utilized Francisco Cordova, who is suspended for the second leg after his red card Thursday, as a fullback. He's put Martinez all over the attack. He's used Guido Rodriguez as a lone midfielder ahead of the back line but has given him company on other occasions.

America's place in the final is thanks, in no small part, to Herrera's evolution as a manager. While he found success with Mexico in 2014 and 2015, he was an inflexible coach who plugged his players into systems that didn't suit them well, giving them less of a chance to succeed. Now, the 51-year-old is able to weather the storm of losing three members of his best XI and can improvise, feeling out who is ready for what role in a system that allows for more individual freedom than the one he ran during his first go-round with America between 2011-2013.

Monterrey also has seen changes since that July 21 match, most notably in the technical area. Antonio Mohamed returned to the club to replace Diego Alonso and has reinvigorated Rayados, having the confidence to send veterans like Miguel Layun, Maxi Meza and Jonathan Urretaviscaya plus big-money summer signing Vincent Janssen in substitute roles. 

But it didn't need to go through the same sort of transition America did when it sold Alvarez, Uribe and Marchesin. Now America sits a home victory away from another trophy in its cabinet. It has weathered the storm brought on by losing top players and come out the other side as potential champions.

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