Santos Laguna has done it again.
The club from the northern city of Torreon is standing alone as the champion of Liga MX for the sixth time, beating out giant clubs in Mexico City and Guadalajara, frustrating their northern rivals in Monterrey and Sunday topping Toluca 3-2 on aggregate thanks to a 1-1 draw in the second leg of the final.
Santos is the type of team that shouldn't be winning titles. It is not the strongest club economically. It is not the most popular club. Yet, for the second time in the last four years, Santos is the champion.
How have Los Guerreros done it? First of all, they understand who they are. Santos knows it's not at the top of the pecking order. Maybe that comes from its place in Torreon, a city far from the capital that dominates media coverage.
It has countered that by being one of the most open clubs, allowing domestic and foreign media outlets access that other clubs don't. What they find when they're there is a club that puts an immense amount of pride in its academy system.
Players like Mexico forward Oribe Peralta and Chivas prospect Ronaldo Cisneros grew up in Torreon and ended up in the Santos system. Uriel Antuna, now with Dutch side Groningen after signing with City Football Group and Gael Sandoval, who went to Chivas, also recently moved on after Santos scouted the players at a young age and developed them.
Santos Laguna manager Robert Siboldi himself came from the academy system, coaching the youth sides before taking over on an interim and then long-term basis. Maybe that's why he was quick to highlight the youth system's recent success when speaking after Sunday's title triumph.
"Happy, happy. I also want to congratulate the U-17s who won a championship, the second in a row," he said after the match. "I want to say that we’re working really well in the academy. It’s an enormous honor to defend these colors, to defend the organization.
"I’m happy for everyone who has supported us, helped us and put their confidence in us for this job and I hope everyone and all of us enjoy [the success]."
On Sunday the team's two fullbacks, Jose Abella and Jesus Angulo, were the academy products on the field. As a club that's comfortable with being a selling club, Santos has moved on plenty of academy products. Often, it ends up with other teams' cast-offs in return. Santos picked up goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco from Monterrey, Osvaldo Martinez and Brian Lozano from America, and, one of the biggest keys to this season's success, Jose Juan Vazquez from Chivas.
All four players came from teams that didn't feel they had a use for them anymore.
"In soccer, there’s always revenge," Martinez said Sunday. "Maybe we didn’t leave our previous clubs in the best ways but this desire, the hunger we have is deserved. It’s deserved because the team has put a lot of effort in, it’s a team with a lot of experience and with a lot of young players really doing things well around us that’s the group."
Santos isn't alone in Mexico or North America in looking to develop players it can sell and keeping an eye out for talented players who have underperformed with their clubs. Its scouting, however, has proven to be excellent. Players like Darwin Quintero, Peralta, Agustin Marchesin, Christian Benitez and Matias Vuoso have signed with Santos then moved on to other clubs. Djaniny Tavares could be one of the next to go.
While plenty of players are coming and going, Santos looks to maintain the family atmosphere. The club's installations on the northern edge of town help everyone from the youngest member of the academy up to the first team to get to know each other and form bonds that help on the field as well.
"It’s a group of great human beings. They’re great players, but they’re better people," Orozco said. "It’s the most beautiful thing we have. There’s a mystique we were able to recapture, and we deserved it, honestly. We had a great season and a great playoff run."
With Santos' model in effect, a strong academy and a policy of welcoming cast-off players with open arms, and often open wallets after selling the latest academy product, it may not take long for Santos to make something magical happen again.