It was the 39th minute Sunday when Chivas manager Chepo de la Torre loosened his tie. He might as well have changed into slippers and tossed on his robe. The pressure was off, the day's work done and it was all thanks to Marco Fabian.
The midfielder was stunning Sunday, scoring a hat trick in the first half to put the series out of reach and put Chivas in the quarterfinals.
While De la Torre certainly deserves credit for trusting his team to score (and score and score and score again) in Sunday's 4-1 rout of Atlas after settling for a 0-0 draw in the home leg of their Liguilla quarterfinal, another manager may have lit the fire under Fabian.
Fabian was the best player on the pitch in the first leg, though his shots were unable to find the target and he got an early hook. After the match he had some strong words when he was told Atlas manager Tomas Boy said the Foxes were the better side. The manager later complained quasi-privately that Fabian had tried to spit on him after taking a fall near the technical area.
So it was hardly any surprise that after Fabian's first goal, a fifth-minute volley from the top of the box after a cross was headed away by an Atlas defender, Fabian's celebratory dance seemed to be directed in the direction of the Atlas boss, famous for his own dance moves. It's an idea Fabian didn't go out of his way to dispute after the match.
Fabian was hardly done. After Juan Carlos Medina equalized the match two minutes after the opener, the 25-year-old got a pass near midfield on the left-hand side of the Chivas attack. He carried until he was finally surrounded by three defenders but without warning looped a quick shot into the far corner of Federico Villar's net for the second goal.
After the match, Fabian classified his third goal as his favorite, and it's easy to see why. While the Chvias star didn't emulate Lionel Messi's metaphorical undressing of Jerome Boateng in the Champions League semifinal, the way Fabian cut to his left and sent Enrique Perez to the ground before shooting past Villar was evocative of the Atomic Flea.
The potential to have a night like Sunday is no secret, and while he's not in the same breath as a player like Messi, Fabian could move to European success if he could regularly harness his talent. Fabian was part of the gold-medal winning Mexico side in 2012. He was a bright spot when on loan at Cruz Azul, and Chivas benefited from bringing him back to the club for the Apertura. Yet, there also has rarely been any consistency in when Fabian is able to appear a cut above any of the other 21 players and nights when he does little with the ball and becomes frustrated.
He's been criticized for partying, for lacking focus, but the truth is Fabian has largely kept his head down recently and worked on becoming the attacking star Chivas has needed. Omar Bravo has improved as the campaign has progressed and was on the scoresheet with Chivas' fourth Sunday, but too often this season Chivas has lacked a spark. Fabian has provided that, though not as drastically as he did Sunday.
Miguel Herrera saw that improvement and unsurprisingly sees the potential the player has to score, to pull the strings and make opposing defenders blooper-reel fodder. Fabian is on Mexico's Copa America squad, getting called up even though his last run out with El Tri was an October friendly against Panama. Fabian played in the World Cup as a substitute in the three group matches but failed to have much of an impact on the proceedings.
With Fabian getting another two tournaments of club experience under his belt and Mexico fielding lineup that may need someone who can create goals from nothing like Fabian's opening pair of strikes Sunday, the Copa America could be the perfect showcase of Fabian's abilities. Herrera especially will hope he too can loosen his tie, carefree to the pressures of the day as Fabian carries a team to victory.
Before the South American championship in June, though, Chivas has a real chance to return to domestic glory. Santos sneaked into the Liguilla as the No. 8 seed but dispatched top-seeded Tigres in a low-scoring tie. A player like Fabian may be able to open up a back line that might still be without injured center back Oswaldo Alanis.
Should he find the consistency, Fabian will have both his club and national manager feeling a little better and perhaps find himself playing under a new manager at a bigger club if the timing is right.