Miguel Herrera is fond of saying the title is always the expectation at Club America. The manager fell short of that standard again this tournament.
America needed a three-goal win against Santos Laguna on Sunday after a 4-1 defeat in Thursday's semifinal first leg, but only could manage a 2-2 draw for a 6-3 aggregate defeat that sent Santos through to the final and again sees Herrera begin his summer vacation early.
Winning matches when it matters has not been the 50-year-old's strength. Last tournament, Las Aguilas were eliminated in the semifinals after scoring no goals over the course of four matches. With Tijuana, Herrera twice entered the playoffs with the best regular season record only to be knocked out in the first round once and in the semifinals the other time.
At least he made changes this time. Leading Mexico at the 2015 Copa America, it was painfully obvious the team needed to do something other than use the 5-3-2- formation Herrera favored. It didn't, and El Tri's alternative side crashed out of the group despite holding a talent advantage on teams like Bolivia and Ecuador.
Having superior talent and still losing is an issue that persists for Herrera. Even a Santos fan would have to admit that America has more raw talent in its squad. It's the type of team that can bring in players like Jeremy Menez from abroad and snap up players on supposedly inferior teams like Tijuana, from which America signed Guido Rodriguez, Henry Martin, Joe Corona and Carlos Vargas, and, well, Santos Laguna, where America picked up Oribe Peralta, Agustin Marchesin and current Minnesota United winger Darwin Quintero.
Despite the difference in economic power, Los Guerreros thumped America in the home leg and really were the better team in the second leg as well. America came out with the needed desperation at the start of Sunday's second leg but couldn't maintain the pace.
To his credit, Herrera did make changes. America came out with a three-man back line with Rodriguez dropping back into the defense when Santos came forward with pressure. As Santos forwards Jonathan Rodriguez and Julio Furch read what was happening, though, they were able to find more space and keep America back.
"Perhaps he came out like that because of the need for goals, but maybe after going up 2-0 he should've gone to a back four because of the risk Santos had on the wings," Ricardo La Volpe, Herrera's mentor, tweeted after the match.
Indeed, the width that killed America in the first leg paid off eventually for Santos in the second as well. Rodriguez scored the goal the visitors were looking for in the 41st minute with Jesus Isijara's shot from distance then killing off any America aspirations of producing a miracle.
Herrera has shown more tactical flexibility this time around with America than he did in his time with Mexico. America has tried out different alignments and played with different ideas during the two previous campaigns. It hasn't always worked, but no manager gets it right 100 percent of the time.
In-game, though, Herrera hurt his team over both legs. Sunday, he stuck with Oribe Peralta, taking off a furious Jermy Menez at the hour mark and inserting Diego Lainez in the 75th minute for Henry Martin. Peralta hasn't scored in nearly 1,000 minutes and sent a presentable header well wide right after the substitution.
¡GOOOOL! (85') | Acaba de entrar y en el primer balón que toca, @JesusIsijara está enviando a @ClubSantos a la Gran Final de la #LiguillaUD
Mira el cierre del partido EN VIVO: https://t.co/g9ytEftBjj #AMEvsSAN pic.twitter.com/xxsmfvUBZn — Univision Deportes (@UnivisionSports) May 14, 2018
The manager needed to take risks and did. They just didn't pay off.
"Who said this would be easy?" Herrera said before the match when analyzing his team's chances of coming back after a disastrous first leg. "If it was easy, I'd sit down at a desk to read the newspaper and scratch my belly. The pressure is on every day, and so we have to produce results."
Once again, a Herrera-led team has failed to do just that. Herrera's only league title came in the 2013 Clausura with a team boasting the late Christian Benítez and Europe-bound stars like Raul Jimenez, Diego Reyes and Miguel Layun. Even then, the title nearly slipped away, with America needing two late goals in the second leg, including goalkeeper Moises Munoz's heroic diving header, plus a penalty shootout to top Cruz Azul.
He won the 2015 Gold Cup with Mexico, a tournament remembered for Mexico getting favorable penalty calls in both the quarterfinal and semifinal stage, the latter being so egregious that Panama players held up a banner after the match calling CONCACAF "thieves" and the governing body having officials concede that Mark Geiger made errors.
Herrera aspired to return to the national team job most expect to be open after this summer's World Cup. After another failure to win a trophy and meet the lofty expectations he's set for himself, it seems unlikely he'll be the Mexican federation's first choice even with former Televisa Deportes chief Yon de Luisa at the helm. Worse for Herrera, another season ending like this one for America may make the daily pressure too great for the club to deal with, and he could be sent off to sit and read the newspaper.
"I've got two more years on my contract," Herrera said after Sunday's elimination. "The team tried and did what it had to do. Beyond that, we had errors that put us out at this stage, the kind of mistakes that are so serious that you can't have those kind of plays against these opponents because they're going to take advantage of that. That's what happened. Santos took advantage of our errors."
It's a pattern becoming too common for Herrera's teams.