In the sudden absence of the Monterrey teams from the Liga MX playoffs and with a continued apathy toward superlider Toluca, the focus has shifted to Club America as the favorite to emerge as champion.
It makes sense. America is a 'grande', a big club with more titles than anyone else. History aside, Las Aguilas plastered Pumas in their quarter-final, rolling to a 6-2 aggregate win after a 4-1 victory in the away leg gave them plenty of breathing room upon returning to the Estadio Azteca.
Another away victory Thursday, when America visits Santos Laguna, would set up the Mexico City club for a spot in the finals and perhaps a record-breaking 13th title. The improvement upon last season, when America managed to score no goals in four playoff matches, has come in no small part thanks to the offseason additions of attacking talent like Jeremy Menez, Henry Martin and Andres Ibarguen.
It was Martin who helped America get to this point, scoring five goals early in the season while Menez and Ibarguen were still trying to adjust to the Mexican game and get on the field. Eventually, the quality of Menez in particular has come through.
Indeed, Menez's adaptation took some time, with the Frenchman admitting to AFP in March that, "I'm a little disappointed," in his first few performances in Liga MX. American manager Miguel Herrera won his respect early, though
"Simply, I like to be on the field, but I get along really well with my coach, who makes me think of Carlo Ancelotti. He's someone very human," Menez said in the same interview.
Oribe Peralta hasn't scored a goal in his last 810 minutes of play, his last strike coming in the Clasico Nacional against Chivas on March 3. The signs have been apparent that a club like America can't rely on a 34-year-old forward like Peralta for much longer. So give Herrera and sporting director Santiago Banos credit for making moves in the offseason.
Those moves aren't stopping now, with Pumas center forward Nicolas Castillo the object of America's affection, even if the Chilean is likely headed for Europe. For now, though, America may be able to win a title thanks to the strength of their winter signings and that of Mateus Uribe in the summer.
The Colombian midfielder has been lethal when he comes forward, so much so that Herrera has tried to use the box-to-box player as a playmaker, to limited effect. He scored twice against Pumas in the first leg and added another in the second.
Menez was on the mark twice from the penalty spot in the first match while Ibarguen helped cap things off in the second. Against Santos, with forward Jonathan Rodriguez suspended and top scorer Djaniny Tavares an injury doubt, Herrera will hope his new attackers are once again able to carve out a first-leg advantage against a team he feels many are underestimating.
"We're not going to forget that Santos was the leader of the tournament for a long while, they've got the scoring champion, so after what happened two tournaments ago today they've changed their style and have done things really well," Herrera said.
Torreon hasn't been kind to America over the years, either, something that could contribute to the often bombastic Herrera exhibiting a level of caution before the series. Of the five meetings the teams have had in the Liguilla, Santos has won two and drawn three at home, advancing in all but one of the series.
While Los Guerreros have turned things around since two tournaments ago, so too has America. Uribe, Menez, Martin, Guido Rodriguez, Joe Corona and Cecilio Dominguez all have arrived under Herrera's watch and all could be big contributors in the semi-finals.
America needs them to be. Peralta, the transferred Darwin Quintero and teenager Diego Lainez showed last tournament they can't do it alone. With the new blood, America is the favorite to lift a trophy that would give it more than any other team in history.
If it comes to pass, it will be thanks to the imports like Menez, Uribe and Ibarguen, with the directors who brought them in deserving credit for making the necessary moves to put Las Aguilas past their rivals.