David Patino became Pumas manager almost by default. After a pair of interim stints, during which the former forward ultimately was passed over, the third time was the charm. The club's board rewarded Patino for a successful interim stint and turned the club over to the unassuming coach.
It hasn't resulted in any trophies yet, but heading into the second leg of Pumas' semifinal against America it's obvious that the club stumbled on someone who has been able to get the most out of what he has to work with.
Pumas have made a few big signings, like Chile midfielder Marcelo Diaz who left before this tournament, but largely have reinforced internally. This summer's signings all came from within Mexico, with the club bringing players already proven in Liga MX to the capital. Victor Malcorra, formerly of Tijuana, and Felipe Mora, on loan from Cruz Azul, have been critical components of Patino's squads. Meanwhile, Miguel Herrera and America have made splashes with international signings like Jeremy Menez and Roger Martinez.
Herrera is everything Patino is not. The America manager is beloved by reporters for his openness with the press and his bombast. Patino is buttoned-down, often literally with his habit of wearing a vest on the sideline. While there were plenty of calls for Herrera to take over the vacant Mexico national team job once again, Patino got no buzz. That's OK. Neither were the ideal candidate for El Tri, but the wild difference in speculation shows the attention gap. Not that Patino is too upset.
"I really respect my opponents," he told Fox Deportes this week. "Miguel has had really great seasons, he's a winning manager and I like the challenge of facing America."
It will be a challenge for Patino to outwit Herrera on Sunday in the deciding leg. He does not have a Diego Lainez nor a Matias Uribe or even an Agustin Marchesin.
He does have a defense that greatly improved when Alejandro Arribas and Luis Quintana were able to form a partnership after nearly a year of inconsistency because of injuries or suspensions. Pablo Barrera may never reach the heights he was supposed to with West Ham United but has become a serviceable Liga MX winger under Patino. And Mora and Carlos Gonzalez, both acquired during the summer, have blossomed under the former forward.
Patino isn't a tactical wizard, generally sticking with a 4-4-2. But it has a modern twist, with Arribas starting the attacks from the back, looking either to a central midfielder in the middle or Gonzalez dropping back. In the first leg, a 1-1 draw, Pumas were able to get into many of the spaces they wanted to in the midfield but the forwards struggled to get opportunities against America's three center backs.
"I'm expecting a match that's similar to the first leg. America's strength is on the set piece, where they've scored a lot of goals," Patino said. "I'm not expecting them to change too much. We have to stand up for our work as a team, our intensity, to run so we can neutralize them. That's the plan that I'm seeing for the weekend."
It's a plan not unlike what you'd hear from Herrera, whose strength is the way he can get his team hyped and ready for matches. Yet, Patino is playing his cards close to - sorry - his vest. In the second leg against Tigres, needing goals, he flexed playmaker Malcorra out to the left side and asked him to take on more defensive responsibilities while also getting into the attack. The Argentine ended the day with two assists as Pumas turned the tie around and moved into the semifinal. He did the same in the first leg against America.
Patino may attempt a similar maneuver that takes everyone off guard, much like his entire career has. It could pay off with an upset of Las Aguilas and a trip to the Liga MX final.