Pachuca’s Liga MX title showcases Mexico’s next-gen stars

After watching Pachuca lift the Liga MX 2022 Apertura title on Sunday, we can’t help but draw comparisons to last time Los Tuzos won a Mexican top-flight title in 2016. Just over six years ago, the scenario felt eerily similar.

Both stories feature a Uruguayan manager from Montevideo (Diego Alonso then, Guillermo Almada now) using an efficient style of play, a solid foundation during the regular season (8W-6D-3L and 30 points in 2016, 9W-5D-3L and 32 points in 2022) and most importantly, a well-balanced roster that featured promising academy players.

Known in Mexico for producing some of the country’s most exciting creatives — which led to a partnership announced in August with fellow talented Ajax architects — Los Tuzos flourished a few years ago with youth options such as Hirving Lozano, Erick Gutierrez and Rodolfo Pizarro taking over as key figures. Before they became household names, the trio were burgeoning stars handed starting roles by Alonso as the team cruised into the 2016 Clausura final against big spenders Monterrey.

Gutierrez, then just 20 years old, held the captain’s armband in the first game. Alongside him, Lozano (20) and Pizarro (22) were crucial with their attacking efforts that eventually pushed them through. Los Rayados and in a 2-1 aggregate score that secured the Clausura championship.

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For Lozano and Gutierrez, moves to Europe followed, with the former now at Napoli and the latter at PSV Eindhoven. Pizarro remained in North America, but increased his stock with additional league championships and individual awards such as a CONCACAF Champions League Best XI appearance in 2018 and a Liga MX Best XI appearance in the 2019 Clausura.

With more than 30 caps for Mexico, all three players are success stories from Pachuca’s academy. During last week’s finale, it was easy to tell Tuzos prodigies who could become the next luminaries to emerge from Liga MX.

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At the heart of midfield, there has been a great deal of intrigue in 23-year-old Erick Sanchez. Shining as one of the best players in the 8-2 aggregate thrashing of Toluca in the final, Sanchez covered stunning ground with his defensive tackles and plays. After making his senior debut with Mexico in the summer of 2021, the midfielder is now in contention for a place at the World Cup this November.

Behind him on the left wing, 21-year-old Mexican-American Mauricio Isais has been a revelation for Pachuca with his ability to make dangerous runs, while also providing important strikes at the back. Discovered in 2017 by Alianza, the largest amateur grassroots soccer program in the United States for Latino players, the Texan now has a Liga MX title under his belt, a goal in a league final and an upcoming invitation to trained with Mexico before the World Cup.

Pachuca defender Kevin Alvarez has also become an indispensable member of the XI. Often making runs down the wing as a speedy right-back, the 23-year-old from Colima was a constant threat against Toluca and looked forward El Trithe defender is a possible starter for the national team in Qatar.

The list goes on when you look further into Pachuca’s academy structure and full roster, and depending on how things go in the transfer market this winter — TUDN reported on Sunday that clubs from abroad are already paying attention to midfielder Luis Chavez — their latest title could prove to be the catalyst for big things to come in Mexican soccer. However, producing talent with exciting potential is only part of the equation for Los Tuzos.

While providing the right platform for players has remained a constant for the club in the 21st century, the other piece of the puzzle has required a manager who gives opportunities to youngsters and also finds a good harmony of the list with more experienced names and foreign additions. Since the end of 2021, Almada has been the perfect manager.

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“This speaks of the effort we have made this year since the arrival of Almada, who proposed an intense and powerful idea of ​​football,” said defender Gustavo Cabral after cementing Sunday’s championship.

Since the end of last year, the expressive and passionate coach has employed an attack-minded and direct style of play that has given important roles to academy options. Surrounding them in a 4-2-3-1 formation, veteran players such as Romario Ibarra, Oscar Murillo, Oscar Ustari and Golden Boot winner Nicolas Ibañez have been the glue that has sustained consistent performances.

In last year’s Clausura season, Almada and his roster qualified for the Liga MX finals, but fell just short after narrowly losing to Atlas. Months later, they returned and issued a statement about their loss to Toluca.

“We will take Pachuca to the place it deserves,” Ibañez said after helping lift the Apertura trophy. “Today is a step forward and we are going for much more.”

But will Almada and perhaps some of his players who are gaining more attention stick around?

A vacancy may soon appear in the Mexico pit. It has long been reported that manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino will be leaving El Tri after the World Cup, and if that’s the case, then someone like Almada — who is not only a proven winner but also has a history of supporting young Mexican players — would be a good fit. Through a long process in the preparation of the 2026 World Cup, the Uruguayan coach is an ideal name that can usher in a new era and generation.

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The same can be said for his latest opponent, Toluca manager Ignacio “Nacho” Ambriz. Despite the disastrous 8-2 result in the final of the Apertura, Ambriz and his team increased expectations in recent months. After finishing 15th in the league table last season, Ambriz helped orchestrate a serious roster overhaul this summer that is a work in progress but also cohesive enough to qualify for the finals.

Coaching and maneuvering every coach in the playoffs this season, outside of Almada, Ambriz helped restore his image as one of Mexico’s best coaches after a less-than-exciting spell in Spain’s second division that lasted just a few months with Huesca in 2021.

“He’s a genius,” Toluca midfielder Sebastian Saucedo told ESPN in October about Ambriz. “The way he works training sessions, possession, all those little things … this guy is the real deal.”

Ultimately though, it was Almada and Pachuca who secured the Apertura championship on Sunday. Decisive with their chances and carried by their skilled academy players, Los Tuzos won their seventh piece of Liga MX silverware since 1999 and are now tied for sixth (with Pumas and Tigres) on Mexico’s all-time scoring chart.

In 2023, Pachuca will have an invaluable opportunity to increase their recognition and reputation even further through the CONCACAF Champions League and the expanded Leagues Cup that will feature every MLS and Liga MX club. Within their roster, the additional competitions will create even more chances for minutes for developing players from the club’s famous academy.

Six years ago, Lozano, Gutierrez and Pizarro were the ones who jumped. This October, Sanchez, Isais and Alvarez earned a similar accolade. And in 2023? Expect to see even more new faces emerging from the nation’s most admired football factory.

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