Chivas are back and will fight for Liga MX Clausura crown
"We're going to be f---ing champions!" Chivas sporting director Ricardo Pelaez's rousing finale in a speech to the squad wasn't to pump them up for Liga MX final; it wasn't even a playoff match: the assertion was delivered as the final crescendo of a impassioned address just ahead of the team's first preseason game ahead of the 2020 Clausura inside Estadio Carlos Iturralde Rivero in Merida on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsular.
If you hadn't heard, the narrative at all-Mexican team Chivas has shifted ahead of the upcoming season, which starts this Friday, with Chivas' debut coming at home to FC Juarez on Saturday.
Out has gone the talk of a potential relegation battle -- relegation in Liga MX has been suspended anyway due to Veracruz being kicked out the league. It's been replaced by debate about just how high the ceiling is for this squad after a spending spree amounting to over US$40 million, a new sporting director in Pelaez and an infusion of enthusiasm among fans about the club's prospects in 2020.
The offseason ongoings at the Guadalajara-based Liga MX giant has become the biggest story of a so-far slightly stale (and certainly short) turnaround between the 2019 Apertura final and 2020 Clausura in Liga MX. Even in the build-up to the 2019 Apertura final over the holiday season, it was Chivas and their signings that dominated the column inches in the Mexican press.
A turning of the page on the past decade for the first season since the passing of club owner Jorge Vergara was more than required.
Since those heady, but brief, glory days under Matias Almeyda that led to the 2017 Clausura title, Chivas played 86 Liga MX games, winning only 24, drawing 24 and losing 38. The goal difference: -18. Over those five seasons, Chivas haven't featured in a single playoff game. And, of all the teams who have competed in each of the seasons since the 2017 Clausura, only Veracruz picked up fewer points.
For a club that is arguably North America's biggest -- Chivas boast 40 million fans -- and which the legendary Johan Cruyff labelled "an enormously huge club," those numbers are disastrous, especially given Chivas' bitter rivals Club America now sit at the top of the tree as the most popular in Mexico with 13 titles, one more than Chivas.
In fact, going back to 1970 and take away Chivas' dynastic campeonisimo period, America has 12 titles compared to Chivas' run of one each decade since (five).
"If you take the history from 1960 until today, [Chivas' record] is poor, maybe not in those first 10 years, but the last 40, so if you want to change that, you have to change it properly," said the club's former advisor Cruyff back in 2012.
This winter has seen an attempt by Chivas president Amaury Vergara -- Jorge's son -- to begin to rectify that and propel the club back into the group with realistic ambitions to win the title, even if the spending has come as somewhat of a surprise given that austerity and balancing budgets was the priority only last year.
Instead of cutting back, in have come Uriel Antuna, Victor Guzman, Jesus Angulo, Cristian Calderon, Alexis Pena, Jose Juan "Gallito" Vazquez and Jose Maduena, as well as returning Jose Juan Macias to lead the forward line in place of outgoing Alan Pulido. The estimate outlay was a staggering $45.3m for a club still without a U.S. TV deal.
Of those players, five are under the age of 25 -- and therefore have sell-on value -- and seven are full Mexico internationals.
Sporting director Pelaez had success at Club America and has constructed a squad at Chivas with two quality players per position. It's a rational squad-building in line with a sporting director who has works rationally and tends to splash money on players that are proven, rather than flashy names.
Pelaez also handed a new 18-month contract to veteran coach Luis Fernando Tena, a safe pair of hands who guided El Tri to Olympic gold in London in 2012 and has won two Liga MX titles.
"We have a good squad, but it's not yet a great team," said Pelaez on Tuesday. "We've not won anything. They call us 'Super Chivas' or 'Super Chivas 2.0', but that doesn't come from us, that comes from elsewhere."
Pelaez is spot on in that there are Liga MX teams with better players -- most notably Tigres, Monterrey and America -- but the ambition has seen fans show up to open training in large numbers and Guadalajara's opening Clausura game is likely to sell out. There's even a rap hyping the club's chances in 2020.
This is a Chivas team that should compete for a playoff spot. The team is expected to play a 4-2-3-1 formation and picking a starting XI will be a headache for Tena. For example, there are two quality goalkeepers fighting for the start, four well-established centre-backs and an array of midfield and attacking options.
"The players are the first to realise that there is competition," said Tena on Tuesday in a news conference. "They see the squad and they know who is in form and how much quality there is amongst their teammates."
The presence of 20-year-old Macias particularly stands out. Chivas have a striker with the potential and mentality to be Mexico's future No. 9 and who is determined to succeed to get a European move. Add in Calderon, who looks to be El Tri's future at left-back, and Mexico regular Antuna and there are some starters that will instantly raise the level of the team.
There will be some concern about how many will be leaving for the Under-23 Olympic qualifying in March, as well as how players settle in to a club at which the demands are great, but that should be countered by the strength in depth.
Make no mistake, Los Rojiblancos are back and just how the new faces click will be a central storyline this Clausura.